Bystander Intervention: Risk, Reward, and Reasons
Bystander intervention is a topic of my heart, which means that I am having deep feelings, and thinking long and hard, about the murder of Ricky John Best, a 53-year-old Portland City technician, and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, a 23-year-old recent graduate of Reed College, accompanied by an assault on Micah David-Cole Fletcher, a 21-year-old poet who won a poetry competition in 2013 with a poem decrying anti-Muslim prejudice.
According to many eyewitness accounts, Best, Namkai-Meche, and Fletcher were on a Portland rapid-transit train car with an out-of-control angry alt-right racist who was spewing a hate-filled rant, some of it in the direction of two Muslim women in the same car. The racist pulled out a knife and proceeded to slit all three of their throats; everything happened very quickly.
The men intervened to change the tenor of the situation. Did it occur to them that they might end up dead or seriously wounded? How dangerous did the murderer seem? Would they have sat still if they could have foreseen the consequences? Unanswerable questions.
Equally unanswerable, and more important going forward, more questions:
Would the murderer have attacked the two women if no one had stepped in? Would he have killed them?
What effect will the publicity surrounding this story have on the next person who watches a ranting alt-right racist threaten an identified target victim?
Do the witnesses who didn’t intervene to try to save Richard Collins’ life last week feel more justified in their choice?
Will knowing this story change what I will do the next time I find myself in that situation? What about what you will do?
Two of my strongest beliefs argue with each other inside my head when I think about this. One is that no one should tell anyone else how much risk they should run; no one can say to anyone else, “This thing is worth you putting yourself in danger for,” or even “My estimate of the danger to you is better informed than your estimate of the danger to you, so you should believe me.”
The other is that bystander intervention of various sorts, at various levels, is the only action that can counter a culture of hatred and personal violence. The police and the courts are structured and inclined to err on the side of the hater, especially when the hater’s views are reflected in the White House, in the halls of Congress, in so many state houses, and judicial benches, and school boards. And in the vast majority of cases, even if they do stand up in some way for the victims, it will be after the fact.
You and me, the people on the train car, on the college campus, in the audience, at the doorway, are the only people who can show the world that we won’t tolerate this; we won’t stand for it; we can’t condone it. And yes, sometimes that means some of us will risk our lives to stop it.
Contemporary white America has a dominant cultural theme of safety. We want safe streets, safe schools, safe cities at night. We’ll give up a lot of personal freedom — and a great deal more of the personal freedom of people of color — to preserve what feels like safety to us. Many of us live our whole lives without ever being personally confronted with the risk of violence, especially outside of intimate partner situations. Many of us believe in the possibility of safety: intellectually, I don’t, but my emotional landscape is more complex.
As hate crimes rise and rise, as the haters become more emboldened, less afraid to show their faces, each one of us is going to have to make a personal calculation: what will I do? how much do I value my own safety if someone else is being threatened? how do I balance what I believe with what I fear?
You and I may never be called on to act on our choices: but we may. And knowing what we hope we will do–knowing our limitations, our strengths, and our intentions–will help when the moment comes, if it does come.