Tactical Interventions and the power of throwing beer
In 1993, i was dispatched as part of a team of Austrian and Czech anti nuclear organizers (and diplomats, technicians and lobbyists) to block the US from funding the completion of Soviet designed reactors in the Czech Republic. Honza Beranek and i were asked nicely to leave from the Friends of the Earth Death City offices where we ran up a $5K phone bill in 2 months call Central Europe. Greenpeace US happily became our camp out office home. Greenpeace had figured out how to get cheap international telecom, even before the internet had taken off.
I was riding the DC metro during rush hour. When i got on the car it was full and there was just one open seat with many people standing. As i approached the seat it became clear why it was being left empty. Across the isle there was a young man, perhaps 20, who was berating and occasionally yelling at the woman in the seat near the vacant one. I took the empty seat.
After a couple of minutes of his continued disrespectful acting out, i turned to the woman and asked if she was okay. This dramatically changed the dynamic.
The young man moved away from this woman and started focusing his attention on me. I dont remember a lot of what he said, but the first part of our dialog was clear
“What did you say to her?”
“i asked her if she was okay.”
“And what would you have done if she said ‘no’?”
“i would have asked you to stop”
More animated “You better have a gun or you better have a knife, because otherwise you are not messing with me and my girl.”
The doors to the subway opened and the woman slipped thru them. The young man loudly insulted her as she left, But his attention was really focused on me. But i had realized that as uncomfortable as the situation was, i did not really want to be either the audience for this guy or engage him. So i took out my work and started to pretend to read my files. This did not go over well.
A stop later my noisy critic got off the train and a friend of his who i had not noticed before threw a mock punch at me as he got out as well. And as i looked around at my fellow passengers, no one would meet my eye.
It was explained to me by my friends at Greenpeace US that these people were upset with me, because i had endangered them by increasing the chances that this person who was acting up would freak and take out a weapon or something.
“So we are ceding the world to the biggest assholes?” i asked mockingly
It was agreed i should get out of the city before i got hurt.
One of the things i love about Abigail is she puts me in touch with people who want to talk with me about things that i have not actually thought much about, but might still be useful in thinking about. The other day it was about bystander intervention.
We met with Erin who is working with Abigail’s student educators on giving presentations to fraternities to encourage them to intervene with their brothers to prevent sexual assault. We had slightly different approaches, they ideally want the brothers to step up to stop their friends from assaulting women because it is the right thing to do. i want them to do it, because it makes them a hero and amongst other things heroes are sexy. i think culture trumps dogma. i was saddened to hear that many people don’t want to intervene because they are afraid of not fitting in even if they oppose this type of poor behavior.
We talked about creating a menu of options for bystanders who want to be helpful. We talked about looking for your moment to act and how being patient is often useful. And we talked about throwing beer.
Throwing beer is certainly effective to switch the energy and direction of what ever is going on immediately before something bad happens. The survivor of the inappropriate behavior is now a secondary focus of the abusers attention and the guy or gal who just threw the beer is the primary focus. This of course also makes this tactic somewhat dangerous.
On another level this kind of intervention sends a social message. There is a shaming which goes on when a beer is thrown at you. You don’t want to replicate the behaviors which got you into this trouble if you can avoid it in the future. People will talk about you if you act up in a way that warrants a beer being thrown. It has an educational and discouraging effect.
It also creates the opportunity for community building. Ideally, before you go rescue one of your brothers from messing up. You will turn to another brother and say “i am going in, will you back me up?” This is an opportunity for them to be a hero also, but at a lower level risk than you are taking by actually throwing the beer. They just have to try to keep you apart if he starts swinging.
Finally, it forces a time out on the perp. They have to find new clothes, perhaps finish a fight with the beer thrower, but there is ample time for anyone who does not want to stick around to leave.
Beer is fairly cheap, throwing beer is nearly non-violent, but not quite. It can be thrown as some distance so you can get a running start away from the guy. And of course there are a dozen other intervention options, many of which are superior in certain circumstances (inviting the guy for burritos, telling the target she has a phone call or otherwise pulling her out, or if you have that kind of relationship: just telling them they are screwing up and should stop).
Why can’t the survivor do these things? In many circumstance they can. But the point here is that the brother has more influence over their fraternity brothers and it is a community problem so the community needs to take responsibility for fixing it.
I want to do a fingerbook on bystander intervention. Who wants to help?