Why we need bystander intervention

The following story was written by Nadine, a Hollaback! Ottawa supporter now living in San Francisco. We are posting her story here because it is a stark reminder of the importance of bystander intervention.

Nadine deserved better. We all do.

[Trigger warning for graphic descriptions of sexual violence]

Something happened to me this evening.

I took the subway home after class this evening. During the journey home, a man boarded and sat next to me. The train was full to capacity with passengers and I was, in essence, trapped in my seat. The man was clearly agitated, he was loud, disruptive and I was immediately, intensely uncomfortable. Because of his agitation, I was reluctant to do anything that might be perceived as a provocation. When he began speaking, I tried to keep my tone calm, while engaging as little as I could without making him angry.

He proceeded to threaten me, saying that he was going to kill me. He had a backpack and showed me half a dozen horror movie DVDs, saying that he had done these sorts of things to other women. He threatened to sexually assault and kill me several more times. I didn’t think he had any weapons in his bag, but I wasn’t sure. My instincts told me to stay calm, so I tried.

As I said, because the train was crowded, I couldn’t get out of my seat easily. Several passengers were glancing at us, aware of what was going on. I tried to signal them, to make eye-contact and mouth “help”. And when I did, every person who had been looking at us, looked away from me.

Eventually, I did get off and the guy never harmed me. I alerted authorities as soon as I got off the train and now I’m home safe and sound. But I can’t shake how alone I felt riding on a crowded subway full of people.

I get it. It was awkward, it was scary and they probably didn’t know how to help. So I want to tell you what could have helped me this evening, in case you ever see someone who might be in trouble. If someone had come over and said “hi,” or started a conversation, so that I didn’t appear to be alone. Pressing the help button that I couldn’t get to. Approaching a clearly antagonistic man alone is obviously intimidating, but perhaps joining up with another passenger or two or three or four and interceding together might work. Even maintaining eye contact and nodding, so the person in trouble knows you’re looking out for them, even if you can’t do anything at that exact moment can help.

I did what people always tell women traveling alone to do. I stuck to a well-lit, crowded location. But the crowded location isn’t safe if no one in that crowd will help. So if you see someone who looks like they’re in trouble, please, please, please try to help if you can.

To learn more about our bystander intervention work, check out “I’ve got your back!”

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