A Primer On Responding To Hate In Your Backyard

By Steve Tanner 

By arming ourselves with a solid understanding of best practices, we can all be ready to respond properly — and safely — when acts of hate unfold before our eyes. Every situation is unique, but the following list is meant to serve as a guide for how to best respond to acts of hatred and bigotry:

1. Draw Attention Away From Hateful Protests and Demonstrations
Whether it’s a Ku Klux Klan rally down main street or an anti-immigrant protest at a public park, the best response is to draw attention away from the event by creating an alternative, as noted in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC’s) Ten Ways to Fight Hate: Community Response Guide. Sure, the natural response is to attend the rally and stage a counter-protest, but such confrontations tend to serve the perpetrators (in this case, the bigoted demonstrators) and often lead to violence.

Instead, the SPLC advocates that “every act of hatred should be met with an act of love and unity.” Specifically, this could take the form of an alternative event — held at the same time as the hate-based event but in a different area — emphasizing the strength of the community in all its diversity.

For example, once when the Klan came to Indianapolis for a rally, museums and other local attractions provided free admission to city residents; a youth rally was held by community leaders in a ballroom; and a coalition of community leaders took out a full-page newspaper ad deploring the Klan and what they stand for. Similarly, a Klan rally in Pulaski, Tenn. (the birthplace of the KKK) prompted local businesses to close down, which meant there were no restaurants or even public restrooms for the Klan marchers.  

2. Do Not Engage with the Attackers
People who show disregard or outright hatred for Muslims, African Americans, Jews, LGBTQ individuals, immigrants, or members of other minority groups cannot be expected to act rationally. This means confronting or arguing with such individuals likely will not help the situation, but could actually pour gasoline on the fire.

“People attacking and using hate speech are acting on high emotions; the antidote isn’t trying to reason with them or throw facts at them,” explains Amy Cox, Director of the International Peace and Conflict Resolution master’s program at Arcadia University in Philadelphia. “Bad situations become worse when individuals try to directly address the attacker.”

So if confronting the attacker is the wrong approach in most situations, then what can you do when hate rears its ugly head? Generally, we want to protect the person being attacked.

3. Focus on Protecting the Attacked Person
If it’s a random person on a train, the sidewalk, a restaurant, or some other public place, the key is to help the person being targeted to feel safe and protected or to physically create a safe space for them, Cox explains. She acknowledges that our knee-jerk reaction is often to try and “talk down” the perpetrator, but stresses that helping the person being attacked is almost always the safest and more effective approach. She offers the following guidelines:

  • Engage the attacked person in a conversation about something random (such as the weather) just to interrupt the hateful act.
  • Gently step between the attacker and the attacked person, engaging the attacked person with simple conversation or even just a smile.
  • Give the attacked person a safe place to move toward, such as a seat in a different area of the bus or a spot where they would feel more secure.
  • Act as if you know the person being attacked and pull them away from the unpleasant situation.

This strategy also is explained through a series of illustrations titled “What to do if you are witnessing Islamophobic harassment” by an artist named Maeril. In the illustrated guide, all of the focus is on creating a safe space for the attacked individual (depicted as a woman in a hijab), while the attacker is simply ignored.      

4. Alert the Police and Other Authorities When Appropriate
Speak up and contact the authorities if you witness an act of bigoted hostility or harassment, according to attorney and outspoken LGBTQ rights advocate Gina Scialabba, who regularly interacted with police while working as a deputy San Mateo district attorney.

If you witness (or are the victim of) a hate crime, be sure to take notes — assuming it’s safe and practical to do so — and report it immediately. After reporting it to your local police, you also can file a report with the SPLC, which tracks hate crimes across the country. The organization Muslim Advocates provides a state-by-state directory of FBI and attorney general contacts for reporting hate crimes, while the Human Rights Campaign (a prominent LGBTQ civil rights organization) offers a step-by-step guide for what to do if you’re the victim of a hate crime.

It’s important to keep in mind that hate speech is generally protected by the First Amendment, while not every act of bigotry is a “hate crime” in the technical sense. Regardless, reporting acts of bigotry can help the police and other authorities be more aware of what’s happening and potentially prevent the escalation of more serious acts.

5. Prepare in Advance
Hindsight is 20/20, but opportunities to nip a hateful act in the bud often come along when we least expect it. Lecia Brooks, Outreach Director for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), recommends preparing for these kinds of encounters in advance: “If a person has given careful consideration to how they’ll react,” she says, “they’re more likely to muster the courage to speak up. For example, someone who isn’t prepared may resort to a knee-jerk reaction (such as arguing with the attacker) that could escalate the situation instead of extinguishing it.

Brooks also suggests reviewing the SPLC publication “Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry” as well as their brand-new guide, “SPLC Campus Guide to Countering ‘Alt-Right.‘”

Steve Tanner worked as a journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 10 years, covering technology, business, and the culture of Silicon Valley, before pursuing a paralegal certification. He currently writes about the law for FindLaw.com and lives with his family in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Copyright © 500 Pens. August 2017.