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Self-Defense and Bystander Intervention since the 2016 Election

11.23.16 by Amy Jones

The results of the recent presidential election have elicited strong emotions from many of us. The Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking reports of hate-based intimidation and harassment and as of this writing has counted 701 since the election. The good news is that the incidents do seem to be decreasing.
While there are a few incidents directed at Trump supporters (SPLC counts 27), the vast majority are targeting members of the immigrant and minority communities. I should note that the “Trump supporters” count from the SPLC is likely an under-representation given that many of the reports are self-reports, and Trump supporters are less likely to report incidents to the Southern Poverty Law Center. As a non-profit dedicated to violence prevention, Thousand Waves stands strongly alongside those who are targeted for violence for any reason.

Responding If You’re Targeted
Every situation is different, but it’s telling to me that most of the incidents reported to the SPLC occurred at a K-12 school. The report only lists locations, but presumably schoolchildren are both targets and assailants for many of these incidents. Some of the anecdotal incidents in the report are that of graffiti, which could come from adults or children, of course. Graffiti is an especially maddening form of low-level violence, because of its anonymity. There’s not much you can do except clean it up.

For those incidents that do happen in person, one of the truisms of self-defense is, “if you’re being targeted because you’re seen as weak, get bigger; if you’re being targeted because you’re seen as strong, get smaller.” In the verbal sections of our self-defense trainings, we talk about boundary-setting and de-escalation as basic self-defense skills that exist on a spectrum. Boundary-setting is on one side (“getting bigger,”) and de-escalation on the other (“getting smaller”). If children are being targeted, it’s a pretty sure bet that assailants are targeting those they identify as weak, which means that setting strong boundaries is called for.

On the other hand, if the person who is targeting you seems highly escalated to the point that they are no longer rational, de-escalation may be a more useful skill – though usually you’ll need to use some boundary setting as well, once they’re calm enough to hear you.
If you’re interested in resources for kids and how you can help kids, KidPower is a great resource. In addition to plenty of great advice on helping kids feel safe, they recently published a blog post on affirming respect, safety, and confidence for all that I heartily recommend.

Being an Ally
Many of the requests that are coming into Thousand Waves in the days since the election are coming from people who are concerned for their friends and loved ones who may be targeted. They want to know what they can do to help others. The safety pin has emerged as a symbol of unity; the idea (it began in the UK after the Brexit vote) being that wearing a safety pin is way of designating oneself as “safe.” I see this as a nice gesture for an ally to take, and one that implies a willingness to intervene. Intervention (using one’s self-defense skills on behalf of others) is one of the skills we teach in our self-defense trainings. It isn’t truly different from the boundary-setting or de-escalation skills we teach, it’s merely applying those skills on behalf of others, including those who aren’t present (as in when someone makes a racist statement, believing that it’s ok because nobody of color is around).
It takes courage to speak up against hateful speech, or speech that robs individuals of dignity, but it’s important work. When intervening, we always stress that one should think of their own safety first – you don’t help others by getting hurt yourself, no matter how good your intentions. But if it does feel safe, we strongly encourage people to say something when they witness racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, or statements that attack someone’s identity.

What can you say? Here are some examples of lines we practice with students:

  • “Is there anything I can do to help?”
  • “I don’t see why that’s supposed to be funny. Can you explain it?”

Obviously these lines apply to different situations. The first (“Is there anything I can do to help?”) is a great way of addressing a situation where you’re not sure what’s going on, and it also puts the control in the hands of the person who is being targeted, letting them decide if they want assistance. The second (“I don’t see why that’s supposed to be funny”) is a fairly gentle way of calling out a racist (or homophobic, etc) joke and letting people discover on their own why it’s offensive.

Allies and Building Bridges
The final point I want to make is about building bridges. The one thing that the election showed us is that we are a nation deeply divided. Finding common ground, and moving from a place that assumes positive intent even when the impact is incredibly hurtful, has got to be our first step.
Coming together is not a step that everyone is ready to take. Some of us are still too hurt to be able to think about reaching out. If that describes you, it isn’t your job to find common cause with someone who is hurting you. I hope you’ll channel your energy into protecting yourself and your loved ones.
If you are privileged enough to have the emotional energy to reach out, I hope you will – that you’ll work both to find common cause with those who disagree and also to fight for justice and dignity for those who are threatened. Both are the acts of allies.

At Thousand Waves, we do what we can to foster peacemaking through empowerment. In the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

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