Thursday, November 20, 2014

Intervening while traveling

I think a lot about intervention these days: why don't more people intervene when they see injustice, when they see violence? Why does the bystander effect occur?

Perhaps a more direct question to start with is: why should ordinary people concern themselves with intervention? After all, isn't it more dangerous to call attention to ourselves when there is violence (or risk of violence) occurring? Why should we get involved?
One afternoon in Chicago I was on the "L" (train) riding home. The train car was far from empty, but not particularly busy. A man had entered the train asking for money. I noticed that although one middle-aged woman had handed him some money, this man was continuing to pressure her in aggressive and hostile tones, demanding more. The woman (seated), with clear, assertive body language told him firmly, "You have money in your pocket now. I need my money." The man, now barely a foot away from the woman, leaned in closer to her and continued to demand she give him more money. In this moment it became clear to me that this was an act of intimidationnot unlike other forms of gender-based harassmentdesigned to manipulate and take advantage of her. The woman had initially responded assertively, through the tone and intensity of her verbal response, and also through body language (facing the harasser and making strong eye contact). However, when the harasser stepped in to claim her space, her assertiveness collapsed. Without attempting to reclaim her space, she turned her face away in an attempt to ignore the harasser. Seeing this harasser use his physicality to intimidate this woman in this way stirred something in me. I instantly snapped to attention. My stop was next, so I knew my time was limited. I made the decision to intervene. 
I took a few deep breaths to prepare. I then stood up, took a few steps towards the harasser and said loudly and clearly, "Sir, she doesn't want to speak with you. Please leave her alone." I repeated myself twice before my words registered. The harasser was so surprised that he stepped back from the woman and turned half his body towards me, and replied, "You need to mind your own business."
But my intervention had already succeeded. The harasser was distracted from his previous course of action and seemed unable to decide what to do next. He tried to resume conversation with the woman again, but, distracted out of his previous flow, he was no longer able to intimidate her. Realizing that I had disrupted his flow, the harasser turned his face to me again, this time threatening to "knock [me] down" if I didn't mind my own business. Despite these threatening words, my instincts told me I was safe, that all I needed to do was wait out the situation until my stop. Watching the harasser, I realized his body language did not match his words. A couple minutes earlier he had showed himself perfectly willing to use his physicality to intimidate another person. Yet, when responding to me, the harasser neither moved towards me, nor did he completely turned to face me. He was now positioned further away from the woman than before and was no longer leaning in, encroaching her space.
The harasser once more tried to initiative conversation with the woman by announcing that he was exiting at the next stop. She gleefully waved him on his way, apparently grateful for the reprieve. Positioning myself near the door, I quickly exited the train ahead of him, moved up the escalator and informed the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) attendants of the situation. I waited with the CTA attendants until the harasser had completely exited. I then safely exited and headed home. 
For several days after this incident, I second-guessed my decision to intervene. Was it wise for me to intervene in this incident? After all, intervention had (temporarily) redirected his hostile attention to me. Adrenaline was pumping through my body; I felt vulnerable. I was far from "comfortable" in the moment. Recalling my discomfort, I wondered how many others would have made the same choice. Yet despite these doubts, I felt secure in my decision. I had trusted my instincts and succeeded in distracting the harasser from continuing to bother this (or other) female passengers while remaining safe in the process.

Why should we choose to intervene?

Generally speaking, the principles for intervention are the same as for self-defense. When done carefully and mindfully, intervention has the potential to completely diffuse a would-be violent situation. Sometimes just a word is all that is necessary to interrupt, distract, de-escalate, or discourage a would-be-attacker/harasser/abuser. Sometimes the presence of another person is all that is necessary to give a would-be victim time to breathe, think and react, escape if possible, and to encourage them to defend themselves if necessary.  Someday we might be the ones in the situation where we hope that someone will come to our aid, to support us. Even if we are not in physical danger in that moment, we may wish someone else would speak out on our behalf.  

And sometimesjust sometimeswe may be in a situation where we are uniquely privileged enough to help another. What do I mean by that? If someone less privileged than ourselves is being targetedwhether due to gender or perceived gender, race, sexual orientation, economic status, class, etc.then it may be the case that we alone have the power, the social capital, to intervene in that moment. 

I would love to see more men intervene on behalf of women who are being targeted for harassment or assault. Likewise, I know many in the LGBTQ community who would love it if more cis-gendered straight people would intervene on their behalf. And so I make an effort to intervene and speak out whenever and wherever I encounter racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, or other hate-based speech or actions.

How can you safely intervene? 

Sadly, there is no hard-and-fast rule for how or if one should intervene, just as there is no hard-and-fast rule for optimal boundary setting or de-escalation applied for oneself. What I can share with you are the principles we use at Thousand Waves, which have enabled me to safely and successfully intervene on behalf of others on numerous occasionswithout ever raising a fist.

When assessing when and how to intervene, the first thing I attempt to determine is whether or not I feel "safe" intervening. Not whether or not I feel "comfortable"which is another thing entirelybut whether or not I can intervene safely. Much of this has to do with body positioning. How far away am I from the attacker/harasser/abuser? How far away are exits? 
One Chicago summer evening I was in my 4th floor apartment. From an open window I heard  a woman yelling "Don't touch me!" Heart racing, I ran to the window, and stuck my head out to see what was going on. For a brief moment, I caught a glimpse of a woman moving away from a man, looking angry and upset, but soon they were out of my sight. The woman continued yelling. From her body language and choice of words, I realized the woman did not know the person who was following her. 
I stuck my head out the window and started yelling back, "Does anyone need help? Would you like me to call 911?" In reply, I heard nothing but the woman continuing to yell at the man following her. I started to hear other voices out the window, from others in their apartments crying out things like "Leave her alone!" Still, nothing in response but shouts from the woman. I called out the window again, this time to say, "I'm calling 911." And did so. 
After I reached the police and described what I could see/hear, I made a decision to check on them in person. I went downstairs formulating a plan along the way.  I was going to carefully approach the apartment building door and if it looked like I could safely allow the woman inside, I would stay with her in the main foyer until police arrived. 
That ended up being unnecessary. As I reached the door I realized they must be far out of my sight. I carefully went outside and saw, nearly a block down, a police car with flashing lights. And a policeman talking with the male aggressor (who was verbally defending himself to the cop, "I didn't do anything!"). Seeing that the woman appeared to be safe and the situation seemed under control, I headed back to the front door. As I walked back to the front door, I ran into a neighbor from my apartment building, who had apparently come out to do the same thing as me! We talked for a few and I discovered she had also called 911. She told me she had heard me shouting that I was going to call 911 and so she did so as well. 
I remained safe. The other interveners remained safe, and both parties from outside appeared to be safe in the end.

So why did I choose to respond as I did? 

At hearing the woman's words, my first instinct was say something like "Leave her alone! Back off!" In fact, I opened my mouth to start shouting these phrases before stopping myself. 

The problem with those kinds of responses is that they are polarizing: they already presuppose who is at fault in a given situation. While sometimes it may be clear who the 'perpetrator' is, other times (such as in domestic violence), it is not always so easy to determine who is 'at fault'. Refraining from polarizing by choosing more neutral questions such as  "Can I help you?" or "Do you need some help?" can help control and, in fact, de-escalate the situation. If the argument or conflict appears to already be escalated in some way, you can also call out either "Do you want me to call the police?" or "I'm calling the police!" And then do so. These can be safe actions, at least in the areas I've traveled around in Chicago. 

Intervention doesn't have to be complicated or risky; it can be as simple as stopping to call the police, yelling to distract a would-be assailant, or even interrupting a racist or sexist comment.

What does intervention have to do with traveling to South Asia?

At this point you may be wondering why I'm writing about intervention situations in Chicago when this is a blog about traveling in South Asia.

I write about intervention because all of us, women and men alike, have the capacity to reduce conflict and protect others from violence, emotional or physical, whether we are in our home town or city, or whether we are traveling far from home. Violence exists everywhere around the world; intervention should too. So I want to end this piece by sharing an experience I had in India.

I should start this story by explaining a curious phenomenon that occurs in India: standing in a "line." I have found that in India lines, or queues as they are called in the Indian-English vernacular, seem to be a curious sort of myth, not unlike Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster: some may have claimed to have witnessed such things, but their existence is highly contested.

In a session on "Travel Safety and Cultural Orientation" I led for a group of fellows heading to India this past June, I brought up the subject of queues. The Indian-American fellows in the group collectively laughed:

 "What queues? There are no such thing!""You mean that fact that there aren't queues in India!?"

I couldn't help but laugh along with them. The inside joke is that what are called 'queues' in India, more often than not, tend to consist of disorderly clumps of people pushingsometimes gently, sometimes not so muchto establish their place closest to the desired location, be it the counter at the local corner grocery or the front entrance to a bus or train. Whenever I am in the US waiting to board a flight to India I always experience a feeling of mirth and nostalgia for India when I see these "lines" beginning to form in the airport terminal. Smiling gleefully, I find myself joining in, creating more clumps. But I digress.
One busy, crowded morning in Sarnath (outside Varanasi, U.P.), I was waiting in line to enter the site where his Holiness the Dalai Lama would be giving teachings later on that day. There were two separate lines for entry: one for men and one for women. As I looked around I saw men and women of all nationalitiesIndian, Tibetan, Ladakhi, Chinese, European, American, and so forthstanding in wait. The lines seemed to stretch on forever. Having experience with queues in India (and queues for Buddhist events in particular), I expected that we would be going nowhere quickly and that many locals would probably push their way through towards the front of the queue. I was surprised to notice that this queue was actually, more-or-less, a proper "line" in the geometrical sense of the word. There was little pushing and little cutting. Looking ahead I soon noticed why. A few meters ahead I saw a grumpy-looking English-speaking Westerner from the men's line, who appeared to take any infringement on the sanctity of the men's line as a personal offense. He was apparently single-handedly acting as martial for the queues, making sure no one would cut ahead of him. I smiled and shook my head. Overhearing some Tibetan women in my queue commenting on this (in Tibetan) with their male compatriots in the other line, I laughed along with them kindheartedly and contributed, "Kyen tsarpo du gah?!" ("Weird, huh?!") Realizing I was in on the joke as well, they smiled, chatting with me. Tension was low in the crowd. 
Ahead of me in the women's queue, I noticed a small group of older Ladakhi women, gently pushing the queue ahead of them as they smiled playfully. I couldn't help but smile. "Of course," I thought to myself, recalling the experience of the previous evening when the gentle pushing of the crowd had somewhat forcibly assisted with my exit from the grounds.  
Then I saw it. An English-speaking western woman turned around to face the group of Ladakhi women behind her and angrily snapped, "Don't push me!" before turning back. Alert, my mind and body snapped into focus. The Ladakhi women, understanding not a word of English, giggled and continued with their play-pushing, unaware that the woman ahead did not share in their fun. Turning around again, she raised her voice and said, "I said, DON'T PUSH ME!" and gave the Ladakhi woman behind her a light shove. 
My instincts kicked in at this moment. Without thinking, I quickly approached them and took up the physical space between the two, separating them. The Ladakhi woman, who I could now see was clearly in her late 70s or 80s, was still laughing, apparently not realizing that this was no longer a game and that her lighthearted response was likely escalating the situation. The English-speaking woman was clearly livid. I turned first towards the Ladakhi woman. I told her first in Hindi, then in Tibetan (hoping it would be close enough to Ladakhi that she or one of her companions might understand): "She's angry because you were pushing her, like this [demonstrating a push]. She doesn't like it when you do that, ok?" The Ladakhi woman repeated my words back to me while demonstrating a push alongside me. She and her companions smiled, nodded in understanding and then laughed, finally understanding the 'joke'that is, why the silly western woman was so upset. I had gotten the message across. 
I then turned towards the Western woman, and in as calm and kind of a voice as I could manage, said, "She didn't understand you. She didn't know that pushing was bothering you. Pushing is what they do." I shrugged in an attempt to communicate that it was bizarre to me too (it wasn't), hoping that solidarity might win me points. Unconvinced, the western woman angrily replied, "Oh, she understood me!  She knew what she was doing!!" Mentally crossing my fingers that it would be true, I replied to her calmly and simply, "Well, she's not going to do it again." Despite remaining angry, the western woman turned back towards the front again. The Ladakhi women continued chatting cheerfully as though nothing had gone on, but remained further away from this woman than before. I breathed a sigh of relief and returned to my spot in the "line."
It's likely that not much would have happened had I not intervened. Even at the time I had a hard time believing that the Western woman would have physically escalated the situation beyond thisor at least not with an old woman. But then again, I was surprised to see her push the old woman in the first place. Intervening when I did interrupted the conflict in the moment; it distracted both parties from the conflict at hand and gave the western woman an "out". Sometimes in conflict people are looking for an "out", a way to back out without "losing face." Sometimes a distraction is all that is needed to stop escalation in the moment.

Intervention can do much more than even this.

Sometimes all it takes is one person to remind a woman who has just been harassed that she is not alone. 

"Wow, that was creepy. Are you ok?" 
"Was that guy bothering you?" 
"I'm sorry you experienced that." 
"Do you want to talk about it?"

Sometimes all it takes is one person to interrupt harassment in the moment.

"Hey, leave her alone!" 
"She doesn't want to talk to you. Back off!" 
"Dude, that's not cool. Don't be like that." 
"Seriously, dude. Women don't like that. Don't do it!"

At my karate school, Thousand Waves Martial Arts and Self Defense Center, NFP, our new Spring 2014 T-shirts promote this approach to intervention. The first half of the message is on the front of the shirt, and the second half on the back. It reads:

Call me anything....But don't call me a bystander!

I choose to be an intervener. What do you choose? 


  1. excellent read! I always enjoy your posts :-)

  2. Typical racism as exhibited by the western woman. If she wanted to get her message across to the Tibetian woman, she should have spoken in the LOCAL language!

  3. Thanks for this post. Female being abused and raped are now the common issue and threat for women in India. The Nirbhaya case was the extent of immorality and cruelty that a man can do on any women. Whatever be the reason but doing something like this is inhuman behavior. Even animals are not like this. God save women and girls.
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