Spurred by a 35 percent increase in hate crimes throughout the city since the election of Donald Trump, about 50 New Yorkers spent two hours of a recent Thursday night learning when and how to speak up for victims of bias attacks. Rachel S. Blum Levy, a social worker who organized the free workshop, walked attendees through the four D's of bystander intervention — direct, delegate, distract, delay — and provided specific tactics to carry them out. “Your instincts are really important and you have to listen to them,” she said at the Dec. 8 workshop. “Oftentimes, not always, but oftentimes using our voice is enough to defuse a situation.”
Opportunities to speak up have been all the more available lately. Last week two Muslim women — one a police officer and one an MTA employee — were verbally and physically assaulted in different incidents. Swastikas have appeared in graffiti in multiple locations, including a 1 train and inside the elevator in state Senator Brad Hoylman's apartment building. In response, some New Yorkers are stepping up to educate themselves and help others
James Mulvaney, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former deputy commissioner of the New York state Division of Human Rights, isn't surprised by New Yorkers' capacity for vitriol. “While you have a diverse population, it doesn't mean that it's a melting pot,” Mulvaney said. “There is still a substantial amount of tension — racial, religious and economic.”
Imam Ali Mashour of the Upper East Side Islamic Cultural Center, however, was shocked and disappointed. “Outside of New York it would be something I would expect,” said Mashour, who attributed the recent incidents not directly to Trump but to the “outrageous” campaign he led. Mashour was surprised by Trump's election, but thinks the damage would have been done even if Hillary Clinton had prevailed.
Over the course of the 17 months Trump spent campaigning for the presidency, minority groups were targeted by his supporters and his Twitter account. According to widely reported NYPD statistics, New York's hate crime count has doubled since this time last year, with 43 incidents in the 27 days following the election. The NYPD was not available for comment for this article.
Historically, New Yorkers have a — possibly misplaced — reputation for apathy that dates back to the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, which gave rise to a national conversation on the “bystander effect.” News accounts following Genovese's death said that multiple people had witnessed it or heard her screams for help but no one came to her aid. The bystander effect is defined by Psychology Today as “when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation.”
Earlier this month, 18-year-old Muslim student Yasmin Seweid claimed she was harassed and assaulted by several men on the subway who tried to rip off her hijab, but these allegations were later revealed to be false. On Dec. 14, Seweid was charged with filing a false report and obstructing governmental administration after, according to DNAinfo, police failed to find any witnesses or video to confirm her story.
Dr. Celia Fisher, psychologist and director of the Center for Ethics Education at Fordham University, said people are more likely to intervene in a situation if the victim is a member of a group they identify with. “When you have groups that are being dehumanized or considered the 'other,' there's something else that's at play when people don't do anything,” Fisher said. “People are violent against others because it gives them a sense of power and belonging to a larger group. In order to combat that, it's a larger cultural issue in terms of beginning to talk about minorities ... in terms of Americans who are one of us.”
At her workshop last week, Levy laid out nine strategies that bystanders can use to defuse potentially dangerous situations whenever they encounter them. “Forced teaming,” for example, suggests that bystanders use “we” statements to form a kind of false alliance with the perpetrator so that they feel like someone is on their side and no longer need to be verbally or physically violent. Assertively interrupting the perpetrators, pointedly ignoring them and naming their behavior were a few of the others.
“My goal for all of you is to be able to leave and think about how you scan your environment, how you assess danger, and then be able to think critically about what tactics you can employ,” Levy told her audience.
In response to the rise in hate crimes, elected officials have spoken out condemning them. “These acts of hate will be pursued and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and those responsible will be held accountable,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement after the Muslim MTA employee was assaulted earlier this month. “New York will continue to set the example for the nation – safeguarding our diversity and our differences, and rooting out bigotry and hatred wherever it exists.” Two weeks before that he had announced the creation of a new state hate crimes unit and said he was expanding New York's human rights law to apply to all students. Previously, as determined by a 2012 state Court of Appeals decision, public school students were excluded from its protections.
Despite the possibility that the pattern of attacks could continue through the next four years, Mashour isn't as worried as some. “Honestly I don't think it's as concerning as it's being made out to be,” he said. “I hope that I'm right.”
This story was updated on Dec. 14 to reflect that Yasmin Seweid, the 23-year-old Muslim woman who had reported being harassed by three men earlier this month, had recanted the allegations.
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at email@example.com