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.

the masters of making environmental action look sexy

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.

Abigail makes better posters

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.

no images of throwing beer i could find

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?

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About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

8 responses to “Tactical Interventions and the power of throwing beer”

  1. Whisky Doll says :

    I do! …I have been in the position of breaking up fights before (strangely repeatedly). The last time was the most intense, and being female I think methods may be different? Here’s the story: 3am, Staten Island Ferry Terminal (Manhattan side). 2 short stout 30/40 something guys casing each other. One is egging the other on and goes outside. The other paces the room b/c he doesn’t want to fight, but eventually follows. The ENTIRE community of people who were in the terminal exit the terminal and make a ring around these two men as they start pounding the shit out of each other. Me: 21, tired, feeling unsafe b/c of violence in my vicinity – and between people I have to share a late night ferry with to get home; FURIUS about what is happening. I follow the crowd out of the terminal, make my way to the front of the circle, stand rooted on my own two feel and let my deepest, most connected Mother Voice rip: “STOP IT RIGHT NOW.” Command. I could not have physically gotten between them, but that voice acted like a splash of beer, I suppose. It surprised these men and they both paused and looked at me for long enough that a couple of taller, more hefty men could step into the circle and pull them apart. That was the end. Safety returned to the evening. What I find interesting about this is that the community itself surrounding the fight needed the splash of cold water to regain it’s own senses. It transformed from jr. high school ring of cheering onlookers, to a group of people agreeing to be responsible to each other and in community. It took no time once I had spoken and the fight halted for people to step in and break it up. No time for the circle to disperse and the expectations of these two men to drastically shift…

  2. Abigail says :

    I think throwing a beer is a wonderful intervention if someone is being aggressive and it is obvious the attention is unwarranted. Unfortunately sexual assault can often be trickier.

  3. Mena says :

    I have felt privileged on a few occasions to have been in the right time and the right place and been mindful enough to make a difference. Other times I have not noticed or have not had the right intervention for the problem. A model (to me) of expert intervention is Oskar Schindler. He was results focused, which I think is critical. You need to fix a situation first and “look” heroic last. This requires a lot of creativity and a certain self-less-ness.

    My best intervention moment: I am driving home from a friend’s house at about 5am after a long night talking. Feeling relaxed and content. Notice a woman walking across front yards sequentially, it’s odd. Slow down a little. Notice her knock on a door, pause, and then hurry on. Notice a man following her walking fast. She sees me, we make eye contact, I abruptly pull over and she runs to my car and I unlock the door and she gets in and I am driving away before the door has closed. Man runs into the road and stares after us. We didn’t talk a lot. I don’t need to know why she needed to get away at 5am. I drove her to an address and she thanked me and that was the end of it.

    • paxus says :

      @Mena: Heroics may not be required and as you did you can take how ever a modest approach will help the person in need. Andi want to inspire heroics, because heroics catalyze conversation and we are still ot having he conversation we need to about this pandemic problem.

      Thank you for your story and the actions behind it.

  4. Jason Sharma says :

    I am worried about this approach. I think you are I against a person with a genuinely violent personality would lose horribly without backup, plus you may not know how unstable or criminal these kinds of people may be. It is not worth risking your life to contain a psychopath. I take a more cautious and conservative approach. I will help defend someone I know, but I will have reservations about intervening where complete strangers are concerned. I would not pick a fight that I could not win. I think a method of conflict resolution that is utilized FAR too infrequently is simply running away. Don’t walk, don’t talk, don’t do anything. Simply shout RUN and bolt away. OR you can combine the beer method with running. I’ll dub that method the soak and split.

  5. Seby (aka Twigsy on facebook) says :

    As a person who, in the past, has been involved with people who have acted in a way toward me, in public, that was both violent and degrading, I can say that my biggest memory, during those times, was feeling humiliated. How wonderful it would have been, if anyone had come up and confronted the abusor and simply said “How awful of you to humilate her like that”. I probably would have burst into tears of relief and he would have likely been embarrassed himself. I hope to have the opportunity to save some other victim in a similar situation in the future.

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