Bystander Intervention to Stop Anti-Asian and Xenophobic Harassment

Updated: Jun 9


Vilma Kari’s Story


Vilma Kari embodies the ideal of the American dream. Coming to the U.S. to pursue advanced degrees in business administration and economics, the 65-year-old Filipino immigrant soon fell in love, married, and had a daughter.


Vilma is no stranger to loss. Her husband died eight years ago, and COVID-19 claimed the life of her brother. Feeling isolated during quarantine, she left Chicago to stay with her daughter in New York City.

This is how, on the morning of March 29, 2021, Vilma found herself walking down the street to a church in a neighborhood just outside of Times Square. Suddenly, she was kicked in the stomach, causing her to collapse to the pavement. Crumpled on the ground, the assailant repeatedly kicked her in the skull, shouting, “F--- you, you don’t belong here, you Asian!”

The brutal attack on Vilma was caught in its entirety on a surveillance camera located inside a luxury apartment building. The violence is sickening, but perhaps even more horrifying is that three men, two security guards and one delivery man, stood by watching the violence unfold from inside the building.

At one point, Vilma struggles to stand on her fractured pelvis. One of the security guards walks over to the door, and the viewer almost breathes a sigh of relief that Vilma will be safe—until the guard shuts the door in her face.



Bystander Intervention as a Way to Reduce Trauma

As horrifying as this attack against Vilma was, the situation comes as no surprise. Asians have been falsely blamed and scapegoated numerous times throughout United States history. Asians are treated as vectors of the disease responsible for the Coronavirus, Asians are to blame for increasing tensions between China and the U.S., and Asians have historically been scapegoated as responsible for global war and conflict. According to a recent California State University study, Asian hate crimes have risen by 149% in 2020, while all other categories of hate crimes declined by 7%.

Critically, 79% of people victim to attacks say the situation improves when a bystander intervenes, but only 25% of people say that someone helped them. Studies have shown that even a knowing glance can significantly reduce trauma for the person being targeted. It is tremendously important for the targeted person to know, in some way, that they are not alone.

For this reason, it is so crucial that we, as potential bystanders, employ a proactive approach to intervention. On National Asian American Pacific Islander Day Against Bullying and Hate (May 18, 2021), and as part of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Colorado, in partnership with the Colorado Bar Association and the Center for Legal Inclusiveness, sponsored a bystander intervention training by Asian Americans Advancing Justice and hollaback! to stop anti-Asian/American and xenophobic harassment. It was gratifying to see so many in our Colorado legal community sign in to learn how they can implement specific strategies and techniques to transform from being bystanders to upstanders when witnessing racism and xenophobia against others.


5Ds of Bystander Intervention


Specifically, we learned that something as simple as the five “Ds” of bystander intervention developed by hollaback! can help to save someone’s life:

Distract

Distraction is as its name implies. The purpose is to ignore the harasser and engage with the person being targeted without discussing or referring to the harassment. Examples of distraction techniques which would draw attention away from the target are: pretending to be lost, asking for the time, or pretending to know the person being harassed. You could also accidentally-on-purpose spill your coffee or the change in your wallet, or make a commotion.


Delegate


Delegation entails bringing another individual in to help. The bystander can seek out the help and support of an individual in a position of authority, or even another nearby bystander. This method can be a good compromise for a bystander who may feel it is unsafe to intervene themselves. You could also check in with the person being targeted and ask if they would like you to call the police.

Document


Documentation is exactly as it sounds. It can be especially helpful for bystanders to try to film an incident covertly, pretending as though they are checking their email. Tips for documenting harassment include: keeping a safe distance; filming street signs or other landmarks that help identify the location; and saying the day and time as part of the recording. It is important to remember to record as much of the event as possible and to give any footage to the person who experienced the harassment, so that they may decide what they wish to do with it. Do not post the footage online or use it without their permission.

Delay


Delayed intervention involves checking in with the victim after an attack. Learn from the victim how to best support him/her, validate and affirm his/her experience, and provide him/her with any resources if necessary.

Direct


Bystanders may also intervene directly by naming what is happening or confronting the harasser. This can be risky as the harasser might redirect abuse towards the bystander and escalate the situation. As such, it is recommended that this direct approach be used with caution. Therefore before taking this approach, it is prudent to assess the situation first: Is it physically safe to do so, for yourself and the person being targeted? Does it seem unlikely that the situation will escalate? Does the person being targeted want you to speak up? If the answer to these questions is yes, then this might be a possible approach. However, it is encouraged that those employing this approach keep it short and succinct and not engage in dialogue, debate or an argument, as this could escalate a situation.


An important caveat is that bystanders should never risk their safety to help someone out. Bystanders are encouraged to always think about safety and consider methods that are unlikely to put you or anyone else in harm’s way.


Conclusion


The point of bystander intervention is that we – as bystanders – are powerful. We can all do something to show up for one another as active bystanders. This past year, with the string of violent attacks against the Asian community, it is more important than ever that we actively commit to being not just bystanders but upstanders supporting those who have been targeted.

The words of Vilma Kari, who is still healing physically and mentally from her attack, serve as inspiration as we face our fears and embark on the road of bystander intervention:

“I feel I just have to accept and be open…even though that fear is in my heart. But if we let fear overcome all these things, then nothing will happen. We have to rise above fear and be stronger than that—be stronger than fear.”

In continued remembrance and honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, please join us tonight for a discussion of The Making of Asian America by Erika Lee. Register and join us Amy as she leads discussions about the book.”

Deborah Yim is the founding attorney of the Primera Law Group, where she specializes in employment and civil rights law. Previously, she served as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Central District of California, as an employment attorney at the Department of the Interior, and as a commercial litigator at Reed Smith. She is a past president of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association (APABA) of LA and currently serves as the community outreach chair of APABA Colorado and as legal counsel for the Asian Real Estate Association-Denver. Deborah is also a member of the Federal Pro Se Panel and a graduate of the Legal Entrepreneurs for Justice incubator program whose mission is to provide the legally underserved with access to quality legal representation. Deborah is also the founder of Kids Reading to Succeed, a children’s literacy program, and Kids Against Hate, a non-profit that empowers youth to stand up against hate, discrimination, and bullying.