Recap: Futures Initiative’s Bystander Intervention Training

On Wednesday, April 26, 2017 from 5-7:30pm, the Futures Initiative held a Bystander Intervention Training as a continuation of our recent University Worth Fighting For roundtable discussion, “Global Perspectives on the Fight for Higher Education.” This hands-on, practical workshop was an important counterpart to the initial discussion, since efforts towards transformation must not only be theoretical and limited to the classroom, but also lived, practiced and embodied. In my role as Futures Initiative Graduate Fellow, I briefly framed the training as an opportunity to reconnect higher education to the ontological work that stands.

Instruction was provided by the Center for Anti-Violence Education, and the event was free and open to the public. In a world plagued with ongoing violence, the fight for higher education begs revolutionary political education and a transformation that attends to the liberation of all geographic scales.

The training started off with the group moving physically through the workshop space. With the intention to encourage participants focus on awareness, CAENY instructors asked participants to make note of exit places, our colleagues’ clothing, tone(s) of voice and much more.

As CAENY instructors created a safer space for us, we talked about our individual experiences with violence and/or harassment. Afterwards, CAENY instructors helped the group to distinguish what it is to be an “upstander,” “bystander” or an “active witness.”

Focusing on the voice as a de-escalating facet of self-defense, we shared strategies on how one might “flip the script” in order to intervene in a manner to keep ourselves and others safer. In one example, our lead instructor referred a YouTube video showing a bystander filming an incident of violence and an attendant upstander intervention. (The video went viral; you can see a short write up of this encounter here). In watching the video, it might be easy for someone with racist or biased politics to quickly diminish and categorize this incident as people of color battling with other people of color. However, such an analysis would be shallow and inaccurate. I however, instead, want to draw our collective attention to something much richer.

First, I want to look back to an earlier event. In the “Global Perspectives on the Fight for Higher Education” roundtable discussion that I organized and moderated on March 6th, I referenced Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s call for the University Worth Fighting For to embrace what Gilmore has described as “an abolition geography” a year prior when Gilmore spoke at the Futures Initiative’s “Teaching as Social Justice” event, on April 14, 2016.

So what does this YouTube video and Gilmore’s “abolition geography” have to do with the Bystander Intervention training that we organized last month? Well, what is happening in the video mentioned above is not just a random intervention, but more specifically, it is demonstrative of what an abolitionist approaching this situation might evoke. I am not saying that the woman who intervened in the video is an abolitionist; I do not know her politics, and neither am I saying that anyone who approaches a situation like this is inherently an abolitionist. Abolition is very serious and specific work. Rather, what I am suggesting is that the idea of using a commonality (in the case of this video, a Latinx ethnicity or identity) as a way to pull someone in, is a different approach to correcting violent behavior and other social problems. Perhaps this video captures a different kind of awareness, one that approaches intervention and problem solving, by not casting someone out or away, but by drawing them as a human being back into the community. It’s an approach that, when practiced meaningfully, calls us to attend to a (collective) sense of self that defies a dominant logic of punishment. The incident captured in the above mentioned video might be undergirded by a set of values that attends to and prioritizes a revolutionary love.

The geography of racial capitalism has oriented the world to engage in what Gilmore calls “the displacement of difference” (2002). Too often, rather than bring people into the community, our world is predicated with putting people out, putting people away and placing people behind bars (either metaphorically or materially).

It is for this reason perhaps, that in our Bystander Intervention Training, CAENY Instructors asked participants to think about not calling the police to intervene. The police do not prevent (nor can they predict) crime and neither do they solve social problems. Incarceration cannot and does not stop violence because at its core, it itself, is violent. One of the things that it is to be “radical,” means that we get at the root of a problem and further, that we imagine emancipatory possibilities. Gilmore’s “abolition geography” is also a philosophical demand that we make abolition a lived experience of our everyday lives. Higher education means that we understand and can act on different ways to be in the world. At its heart, this is an ontological imperative that might suggest a different relationship with each other, and it might act as the fertile ground to live in the otherwise.