How I totally rocked a bystander intervention to stop a drunk white man from goading a young black man into a fight on the subway, and how you can too

Wednesday night I went to a play with my dad and my sister and then I took the train home and between Central and Davis I totally used my bystander intervention training to stop an older drunk white man from provoking a young black man into a fight. I’m going to tell you how.

If you wish you could be effective in a similar situation; or if you want to do something to thank me; please sign up now, NOW, for a bystander intervention class. Most are organized around sexual assault. That’s fine. If you want to help communities who’ve educated me, you could also donate to BLM Cambridge, or your local BLM, or the Marsha P. Johnson Institute. https://www.youcaring.com/themarshapjohnsoninstitute-767071

First of all, I’ve been preparing myself for this. I’ve been thinking a lot in the last couple of years about intervention; about intervening when the police are involved; about filming the police and knowing what my legal rights around. I’ve increasingly learned about the importance of trying to defuse situations before the police are called, and about the danger to people of color when white community members feel comfortable calling the police for any problem. I’ve also thought and learned quite a bit about intervening in street harassment and the general Creepy Dude problem. A month or two ago I took a bystander intervention program (shout-out to JVP and BARCC). Although I didn’t consciously think about it at the time, everything I did was supported by this work. I’ll reference the “Four Ds” framework they gave us: Delay, Distract, Delegate, Direct.

I also spend a surprising amount of my work life in touchy interactions with people who feel hard-done-by and don’t want to do what I want, even when all I want is to make their lives better. This was unexpectedly super-helpful in the moment.

What happened: I was playing Best Fiends on my phone and I noticed an altercation going on down at the end of the train car. I looked up and saw two men, an older white man (later it became clear that he was incredibly drunk) and a young black man, maybe high school or college-aged, right up in each other’s faces, shouting. What I thought was this: if that young man throws a punch, he could suffer terribly. I got up and walked a little closer and kept watching.

This is step one. Observe, assess, find out what’s happening, check if it’s going to be dangerous to intervene. A key principle of bystander intervention is to STAY SAFE. I saw: two men who weren’t actually hitting each other; many people around who looked tense and concerned but not scared for themselves; a lot of open space; a quiet murmur of “Guys, you don’t have to do this” from a number of people. A white woman near me was saying over and over, “Guys, please, you don’t have to do this, please stop.” There were also at least half a dozen black passengers, including an older black man I recognized as a Spare Change seller, and several younger black men, looking really tense and concerned, some of them also urging the two participants to stand down. The situation was clearly volatile but, in my assessment, not to ME.

Step two: “Delay” technique. This means observe, watch, wait, stay in the situation and decided what to do. This step can also involve making your presence known, visibly observing, but without contact. I moved closer and recognized the young man from a previous stop. He had cut his hand and a white woman had offered him a couple of Band-aids and he’d taken them and wearily thanked her. I also saw that the older white man was goading him in a super condescending and aggressive way, and the young black man at the end of a shitty day just couldn’t take it. He was wearing a backpack and several times threw it on the ground in preparation for fighting and I couldn’t help coding him as a high school student, though he might have been older.

I joined the chorus, gently saying “Hey man, you don’t need to do this—please don’t do this—please stop.“ The young black man was yelling at the drunk guy “You fuckin’ white people” so I decided to focus on the white guy. I made eye contact with him—he was facing me over the young man’s shoulder—and kept saying the same thing. After a while I started saying to him, “Hey man, you’re an adult, you don’t need to do this, you can let this go.” I would call this a combination of “Direct” which is just direct action, telling him to stop engaging, and “Distract” because if he was complaining to me, he wasn’t taunting the young man.

I also looked specifically at the other passengers to make sure they were still engaged. They sure were. The black passengers, mostly or all men, clearly felt like their intervention would escalate things. I was very aware that as an older, middle class white woman I was both non-threatening and protected. I also looked at the other white women and we made eye contact and it was clear we were both going to keep working on it. This is “Delegate” which just means get help, mobilize or recruit other people.

All of these people were essential to the success of this intervention. I can’t emphasize that enough. If you are wondering what you could have done to help, BE ANY OF THESE PEOPLE. The people watching and murmuring; the other woman making it clear she had my back, and then putting her foot in the door so the train couldn’t leave.

The young man stormed off to the other end of the train at one point but the drunk white guy starting yelling at him and taunting him. I was so pissed off. I started saying, “Come on, man, cut it out! Let it go!” He focused on me and I moved up closer to him and started talking directly to him, “Hey man, it’s cool, you can walk away, you’re the grown-up, you don’t need to do this.” I also switched to calling him “Sir.” “Sir, come on, let him walk away, leave him alone.” In retrospect, the main thing I’d change is that when the kid was out of the frame, I wish I’d just changed the subject. “Hey man, what’s the problem, can I help, how are you doing, what’s going on,” blah blah.

The kid kept coming back to re-engage and I was really hoping he’d get off at the next stop but he didn’t. At some point in here a line came to me clearly from an essay I’d read a while ago, by a black man who’d been pulled over by the cops, and seeing a black woman watching, and mentally saying to her, “Sister, don’t leave.” Right then, and this was honestly the most important part, I decided to stay on the train until it was resolved. (This involved, at most, riding one extra stop to the end of the line and then waiting for the train to turn around. We’re talking a 5-10 minute investment.)

Older white guy kept telling me about how he knew how to take care of this kind of thing, he’d been in the military etc, he’d “done psychology” and he knew all about it and I shouldn’t try it on him. I had gotten much closer to him to block his view of the young man, who’d gone to the other end of the car. I could smell the booze on him. I realized that if I just stood them and listened to him, we could last for a long time. I started responding to these statements by looking interested and sympathetic and saying “Oh yeah? Really?” He told me he’d been in the first Iraq war and I said that sounded rough. Then he told me that the young man was getting blood all over the train [there were maybe a couple smears on a pole] and that was clearly the trigger for him. He appealed to me to be on his side about this. I said I would call an MBTA worker to clean it up. In a very bizarre twist, he said to me, in a rambly disconnected drunken lurching way:

“But that shouldn’t be YOUR JOB! Just like it’s not your job to be here! And now you’re going to coach me? You’re here and you’re gonna coach me? Which—aha!!—you DID. All right. All right.” And then he offered me a goddamn fist-bump. Which I reciprocated in just the most tentative way you can imagine.

At this point we’d been at the station for a long time and I didn’t know why we weren’t leaving, but I was glad because it was my stop and I was really hoping to run out the clock.  The other white woman, bless her, got off the train and asked the conductor for help, and after getting the brush-off she just fucking stood in the doorway so the door couldn’t close. And eventually, EVENTUALLY, around the time the station personnel arrived, the white dude left and staggered his way up the escalator.

(The station people were like “YOU CAN’T PUT YOUR FOOT IN THE DOOR” and the other woman was like “WE NEEDED SOME HELP DOWN HERE,” just fabulously DGAF. They told her to push the emergency button. She said “Well I didn’t know that.” And I! using my student and faculty management skills! said “Thank you for telling us that, I appreciate it, what should we do in this situation?” and they literally got bored and one of them walked away and the other one started asking what had happened.)

A ton of people were on the platform watching, and they asked if the other white woman and I were okay, and we said of course. A pair of people—I think a white woman and an Indian or generally South Asian man—asked me what had happened and I explained that a drunk white man had been taunting a young black man and trying to pick a fight, and I was really worried that if anything happened the young man would be in danger from the police. I saw their faces change and they thanked me very earnestly.

Then the other white woman and I thanked each other and I IMMEDIATELY posted on Facebook and then I went home.

If you are thinking now that you wish you could be effective in a similar situation; or if you want to do something to thank me; please sign up now, NOW, for a bystander intervention class. Most are organized around sexual assault. That’s fine. You could also donate to BLM Cambridge, or your local BLM, or the Marsha P. Johnson Institute. https://www.youcaring.com/themarshapjohnsoninstitute-767071

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7 Responses to How I totally rocked a bystander intervention to stop a drunk white man from goading a young black man into a fight on the subway, and how you can too

  1. Dave Leung says:

    So, as I roll this scenario around in my head and apply my own sense of What Would I Do (because it’d almost certainly be different as I’m a half-White fairly big guy), this question popped into mind: in the If This Happens Again department, would you use the “turn to the crowd, ask ‘Are we okay with this happening?'” technique? It sounds like No, because you were one of two White people, so actually, you didn’t have any more allies around to recruit. But well, I wasn’t there, so I’m curious what your thoughts are.

    • vitaminheist says:

      This is a good question! In this case, no, because: even though the antagonist and problem-causer was the white guy, my main concern was that the black guy would hit someone. If it had been two white guys I might not have been moved to action. I think that kind of technique works well when there’s a clear attacker/harasser and target. It didn’t make sense to me when the drunk white guy was trying to goad the young black man into attacking him. The young man was angry because he’d been insulted; adding more people to the situation would have escalated and my goal was to defuse. The problem here wasn’t that that young man couldn’t defend himself. I was afraid of the repercussion if he DID defend himself.

  2. Mary Ellen says:

    That was a brave thing to do. Thank you.

  3. Rona says:

    Honored to have you on the Red Line! Thank you! Grateful to all the smart, brave, and thoughtful people in this community. Everybody on that train had a bad day. You kept it from being worse.

    • vitaminheist says:

      Thanks! I was grateful to have the tools to handle it. I plan to keep learning.

    • vitaminheist says:

      Thanks for your post breaking down the key features–that’s so helpful! I realized that my post was unclear about one thing. Although the older white man had said “he’s getting blood all over the train” there were really just a couple tiny smudges on a pole. I think if the young man had been seriously hurt the situation would have felt different. I’ve updated my post to reflect that.

  4. Pingback: Keys to successful bystander intervention - Rona Fischman

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