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What To Do If You Witness a Bias Attack

By Nicole Levy | December 10, 2016 12:20pm | Updated on December 12, 2016 2:46pm
 Aml Elsokary speaks at a press conference at Brooklyn Borough Hall after a man was arrested for allegedly threatening to cut her throat and shouting ISIS at her while she was off-duty in Bay Ridge.
Aml Elsokary speaks at a press conference at Brooklyn Borough Hall after a man was arrested for allegedly threatening to cut her throat and shouting ISIS at her while she was off-duty in Bay Ridge.
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DNAinfo/Alexandra Leon

On Saturday, a Bay Ridge man shouted Islamaphobic statements and threatened to cut the throat of an off-duty Muslim NYPD officer after shoving her son, according to the NYPD.

On Monday, police said a straphanger called an MTA worker wearing a hijab a "terrorist," followed her off the 7 train and knocked her to the ground in Grand Central Terminal.

These are only two instances in a spate of bias attacks documented in New York City since Election Day, prompting conversations about what to do if you witness a hate crime first-hand.

The NYPD has seen an uptick in reports of hate crimes across the five boroughs, a 36 percent increase in the number of reports filed in 2016 through Nov. 20, compared to the same period last year. 

In the two weeks after the election, 30 hate crimes were reported in New York. (DNAinfo New York is tracking ongoing incidents on this map.)

Addressing the unsettling trend, Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched a toll-free hotline to report incidents of bias and discrimination and ordered the New York State Police to create a specific unit to investigate hate crimes. The city's five District Attorneys have released a joint statement vowing to prosecute hate crimes to the fullest extent of the law.

When witnessing a hate crime attack, the NYPD advises New Yorkers to "try and leave the location and call 911 as soon as you can."

The MTA recommends reporting any danger to a police officer or an MTA employee in person, by calling 888-NYC-SAFE, or by pressing the emergency button on a Help Point intercom.

Rachel Sarah Blum Levy, a social worker who leads bystander intervention and de-escalation classes based on her own curriculum, has a different approach. 

Her workshops focus on verbal tactics to neutralize potential perpetrators before they commit actual hate crimes. (Aggressors may still be subject to fines and other penalties because intimidation and verbal threats directed toward an individual because of their race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, citizenship status constitute "discriminatory harassment" under the city's Human Rights Law.)

”The reason why people often don’t act is because they don’t know what to do, because they’re afraid they don't know enough about a situation and they’re afraid they’ll make the situation worse," Levy said. But "more often than not, words can diffuse a situation."

Levy offered us some of her best tips for decisively using your voice to intervene in an ongoing bias attack:

► Before you step in, scan your environment.

In the first half of her workshops, Levy leads participants through interactive games that explore ways to calmly scan their environments for signs of danger.

Questions to ask yourself include: Do you know where the nearest exits are? Is there a weapon you can use in self-defense in the worst-case scenario? Does the aggressor look like he or she is intoxicated?

► Now isn't the time to challenge the instigator's biases.

Attacking someone's beliefs can agitate them even more, so Levy advises appealing to their sense of self-worth. For example, "I always thought of you as an open-minded person."

And don't assume the person is trying to be malicious.

“Be very careful to act calmly and not make assumptions about a person’s knowledge or intent," she said.

► Name the aggressor's behaviors, without sarcasm.

In Levy's experience, describing intimidating actions out loud — like inappropriate touching and rude speech — can bring them to a halt.

"Often times the perpetrator will correct themselves and not realize they were actually taking that action," Levy said.

► Stick to first-person, rather than second-person statements.

Say, for example, "I don’t feel comfortable with the way you’re speaking to this person," rather than, "You're making me uncomfortable by speaking that way."

"Saying 'you' can put a perpetrator on the defense and make it seem like you are attacking them — this can sometimes further escalate the situation," Levy said. "With 'I' statements, you are taking accountability for your own behavior," including your emotions.

Alternatively, you can also try "we" statements.

Levy calls this technique "force-teaming."

“Creating an artificial 'we' between yourself and another person so that a perpetrator is less likely to direct their aggression to you," Levy said.

You might align yourself with the aggressor ("We've both had a long day") or the victim and a larger crowd ("How can we help you?")

► Distraction is always a good tool.

Ask the aggressor or the victim a question about directions (because of course your smartphone doesn't always work in the subway). Or sit down next to the victim and act as if you know each other.

► Sometimes the best option is not to act at all.

Levy considers inaction a valid choice.

“There are moment where if a person is screaming, if you go in and try to act, that person’s behavior will actually escalate," she explained.

► Check in with the victim after the threat of an attack has passed.

This is crucial, Levy said, because bystander intervention in incidents with the potential for violence often require some show of solidarity with the aggressor. Follow up with the victim, and let them know you're on his or her side.

"You’re not going to be using that as an educational moment to call someone out," she said. "But it’s really important that after the altercation we check in with the survivor to make sure they’re okay, to tell them that they’re valued." 

Your work doesn't end when the attack does.

While harm reduction in the moment is important, in Levy's opinion, "Bystander intervention is inseparable from larger scale anti-racist work and community organizing." 

It's up to everyone to do "larger works to unlearn racism and xenophobia and Islamaphobia," Levy says.

"The verbal tactics and the things that you do in the moment aren't educating the perpetrator or society," said Levy, who advises New Yorkers to attend their local community board meetings to "learn about issues which pertain to your specific community and learn how to best support your neighborhoods who are targets of violence."

You can take bystander intervention/de-escalation workshops with Levy at the Bluestockings bookstore, cafe and activist center on the Lower East Side, on Wednesday, Dec. 14, at Silent Barn in Bushwick on Friday, Dec. 23, or at SOHO20 Gallery in East Williamsburg on Saturday, Jan. 7.