Tag Archives: Portland

The Portland murders and the threat to bystander intervention 

When the Portland murders hit the news this week, they were rightly shared as an example of brave defence of the rights and dignity of our fellow humans.  Too often we walk by when we are offered the chance to act on the principles we claim because those targeted are strangers, not like us, because we are busy, or scared, or unsure. 

Over the last few months I’ve been examining bystander intervention in the data we collect from http://www.ireport.ie, a civil society racist incident reporting system. We see again and again examples of people intervening when they witness racism. There are multiple ways in which people offer help, talking to perpetrators, mobilising other witnesses to help, reporting incidents to police or relevant persons of authority, and reassuring those targeted.  In these cases, there are examples of positive outcomes. These include perpetrator apologies, compensation for the discrimination, firmed resolve against racism in organisations and neighbourhoods, and police and other authorities held to account for the outcomes. 

The data also includes cases where the outcome was not so positive. These fall into two categories: (1) where offers of help have resulted in negative outcomes for an intervening witness, and (2) where no help was offered at all. In the first category, there are some cases of violence against bystanders who offer help and confront the perpetrator. But it is worth saying that the data shows that these are the minority of cases, and in these cases, the person confronting the perpetrator did so knowing the risk of violence, because the incident was already violent. Those people are truly brave, knowing and taking risks to their own safety to help another experiencing violence. But across all cases of violence, injuries to bystanders are few, and most cases demonstrate that perpetrators do not feel so sure about assaulting someone from their own ethnic group or who appears not to be part of the out-group. 

Far more cases fall in to the category of ‘no help offered’. Bystanders who walk by, witnesses who say nothing, sometimes paralysed by uncertainty, shopkeepers who throw out people seeking shelter from street harassment, people in authority who turn away and deny witnessing racism – all of these appear in accounts submitted to iReport.ie. in these cases, the impact on targeted people is evident. They report feelings of isolation which result in depression and suicide attempts, fear of using public places, anxiety in everyday activities at school, work, shopping and in leisure spaces. The impact of the event, which can be minimised by individualising the perpetrator and his/her actions, is worsened significantly by the sense that the perpetrators beliefs and disposition is shared by others in the immediate environment. Cases where the targeted person reports that no one offered help are significantly more da,aging than others. In other words, it is not just racism that hurts. It’s the idea that the attitudes and behaviours might be shared and repeated by others at any time in the same context. It’s the sense that feelings of safety and inclusion are false, since friends, colleagues and neighbours cannot be trusted to stand up to racism. These are the things that truly hurt. 

There are multiple reasons why people do not intervene when they see racism. People often overestimate risk, afraid of violence. But more often we fear the disapproval of our peers, of other witnesses, even when they too are strangers. 

What we really need to emphasise is the immense positive impact of offered help, even if this is only reassurance after the event. 

Why is intervention so important? 

1. Reduction of severity and length of incidents 

2. Expression of disapproval to the perpetrator and other witnesses 

3. Reinforcement of social norms which disavow racist behaviour 

4. Express inclusion of the targeted person(s) in the group, organisation, place, society. 

5. Reduced psychological impact of the event on the targeted person(s) 

6. Reduced impact on members of the targeted group who hear about the incident later 

7. Demonstrating to other witnesses that immediate responses are possible 

8. Deterrence of future actions by perpetrator(s)

If Portland teaches us anything, it should not be that intervention can involve risks. We already know that, and it holds us back. What it must teach us is that intervention is crucial to express our disapproval, and that it matters in the current environment to resist the further emboldening of perpetrators of racism. It matters in reducing the real impact of racism on those targeted. And it matters in reminding us all that our principles mean nothing if we do not act, within our capabilities, to defend them.

#portland #endhate #stopracism #hopenothate