Can Bystanders Prevent anti-Muslim Attacks in America?

With hate crimes on the increase in the United States, more responsibility is being placed on inexperienced bystanders and the victims of harassment. Haaretz visits a workshop to see intervention in action

A protest sign reading "I Pledge To Protect Immigrant New York" hangs on a barricade during an Iftar outside of Trump Tower, New York, June 1, 2017.
Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg

NEW YORK – This week brought news of another attack against the Muslim community in the United States. Nabra Hassanen, a 17-year-old American Muslim, was killed after leaving her local mosque in Virginia on Sunday. She and three friends were walking home when a car pulled up and a man with a baseball bat jumped out and started swinging at them. Hassanen was abducted and her body was later found dumped in a pond. A 22-year-old man has been charged with her murder, although the police say they are not treating it as a hate crime.

While the murder is being investigated, the attack is adding to the anxiety of America’s Muslim community. And with hate crimes against Muslims on the rise, Americans who refuse to stand passively by are seeing how they can intervene if they witness an attack – turning to online guides issued by community organizations, watching online videos that teach self defense or intervention, or attending local workshops for bystander intervention.

One such workshop, hosted by the Arab American Association of New York, is taught by Rachel Blum Levy, a social worker who developed a guideline for bystander intervention. She has been teaching the workshops since the election of President Donald Trump, with many of the classes sold out.

At the session Haaretz attended recently in Manhattan, about 20 New Yorkers – most of them in their 30s – wanted to know how they could be better allies to Muslims in case of an attack.

A workshop for bystander intervention in New York.
Taly Krupkin

Blum Levy talked about the different methods one might choose, such as distracting the perpetrator by engaging in a conversation with the perpetrator or victim (by asking random questions like “How can I get to the L train?” or “Maria, don’t I know you from high school?”). The bystander, while running the risk of seeming silly or confused, can change the dynamic of the situation or give the victim an opportunity to walk away from a dangerous scene.

Another method was to use “we” statements – like “We don’t talk this way in New York” – or “I” statements such as “This is making me uncomfortable,” in order to shift the perpetrator’s attention from the victim without being confrontational.

At the end of the workshop, the students were asked to enact a situation in a subway: They are in a crowded train and a man murmurs “Terrorist” toward a Muslim woman with kids. “What would you do?” the instructor asked. Some participants decided to move, creating a human barrier between the Muslim woman and the perpetrator, thus shielding her. Others chose to confront him, saying, “You are making me uncomfortable” or “This is unacceptable” in a firm voice to the potential attacker.

The attack in Portland last month, in which two men were killed while trying to protect a Muslim teenager from a white supremacist who was harassing her onboard a commuter train, was casting a heavy shadow on the workshop.

“Excuse me, but we are reenacting an attack on the subway and there was a similar attack,” said one of the participants. “Three white men, bystanders, intervened and two were killed by the perpetrator, and another one was injured.”

“Yes, but there is a reason why this incident was in the news,” responded another participant. “There also are attacks everyday we don’t hear about because of successful intervention.”

The instructor emphasized that there is no right or wrong approach to bystander intervention. Choices are made under pressure and mistakes can happen. Bloom Levy told Haaretz that de-escalation is not always the best approach, and in a follow-up workshop her students would learn about other methods, including escalation.

“One reason you might choose escalation is if you are on the subway and you look around and see you have many allies, and by choosing escalation you might get the whole subway cart involved – a whole group of people who might support you and the person targeted.”

In another situation, continued Bloom Levy, it might be best not to intervene. “It depends on the situation. We often advise people not to intervene, because the idea that by letting someone think they are getting away with it, and by appeasing their ego, the situation will de-escalate on its own.”

Bloom Levy’s workshop is only one of several initiatives in New York, where hate crimes against minorities are on the rise. Some instructors, including Bloom Levy – as well as organizations working with immigrant communities – advise bystanders against contacting the police during an incident, for fear that the victims might be undocumented or become the target of brutality in case of police intervention.

But there are no clear rules for bystander intervention. With no policy emanating from the White House and with people cautioned against calling the police, even more responsibility is placed on inexperienced bystanders and the victims of harassment to resolve dangerous situations themselves.

Slow to respond

NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said last month there have been 140 hate crimes in New York since January, compared to 70 in the same time period last year. As reported in the New York Post, Boyce said anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish and anti-transgender incidents were driving the hate-crime figures up.

Similar trends are recorded across the country. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, released a report last month showing a 57 percent increase in anti-Muslim incidents in 2016 over the previous year. This spike was accompanied by a 44 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes during the same period. The most prevalent trigger last year was the victim’s ethnicity or national origin, accounting for 35 percent of the total. Some 16 percent of incidents occurred as a result of women wearing headscarves.

While people across the United States are dreading finding themselves in a similar situation – or worse, becoming the target of a hate crime or harassment – the White House has been slow to publicly respond to hate crimes against Muslims. After the attack in Portland, and now again in Virginia, many have criticized Trump, noting he has been slow to tweet or respond to the attacks, compared to other incidents that have generated an immediate response from the president.

“Everybody has been recording that this stuff is rising, and it is now on the Trump administration to act,” said Corey Saylor, the author of the CAIR report. “And at this point in time I would say it is not a priority for them, dealing with anti-minority violence. It’s not just anti-Muslim violence; it is also anti-Semitic, anti-Hispanic. Every community I’ve talked to tells me that.”

“There needs to be strong, overwhelming response from law enforcement, prosecutors,” added Saylor. “You need to have the leadership of the country speaking very strongly against white supremacist, antigovernment, anti-minority bias. And there needs to be a very strong culture of pushing back against it, because right now I see the culture inching toward making people feel that such attitudes and acting upon them is permissible.”