Just a few hours after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, dozens of concerned D.C.-area residents took their own oath in a local church to become “active bystanders” in the Trump era, intervening to protect victims of harassment.
“So there was an oath taken on the Hill today and we don’t really want to think about it,” said Tameka Bell, a grassroots organizer leading the “nonviolent active bystander” training in an Episcopal church in Silver Spring, Md., Friday afternoon.
Bell then led the group in their own oath, pledging to “uphold honor and respect for others with my words and actions.”
The group of about 100 locals split up into groups of four to act out various scenarios where someone is being harassed to practice how to intervene without escalating the confrontation. They learned how to use “combat breath” — breathe in for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds — to lower their heart rate and stay calm during tense exchanges, and how to videotape conflicts on their cellphones. Hundreds of others participated in similar training in more than 20 area churches Friday.
Participants found playing the “aggressor” by far the most uncomfortable. “I apologize to you in advance for anything I say,” one announced before demanding that her partner, playing a Muslim woman, take off her imaginary hijab. “I felt like a total jerk,” she said afterward. “But the people who do that don’t feel that way. They feel empowered.”
“Go back to Mexico! Speak English!” another woman yelled at the “target” in her group. The group’s designated “bystander” swooped in, serving as a physical barrier between them and asking the victim if she needed help.
“Being the harasser was awful,” said Judi Rockhill, who came to the training with her two high school-age daughters. Rockhill said she had seen more harassment going on in her community and wanted to come to the training to learn how to respond.
Several people who showed up for the training mentioned they were worried about graffiti at a local elementary school that said “Kill blacks,” which appeared in November. In December, police investigated graffiti at the same school that said “Kill all whites.”
“I thought that our community was better,” said Frances, a participant who did not want to give her last name.
Robert Harvey, the reverend of the Episcopal Church of Our Savior nearby, said he decided to come to the training because of two acts of hate he had witnessed in recent weeks. The Thursday after the presidential election, he saw two young men in a thrift store parking lot shouting at a Latina woman to leave the country. He helped her walk back into the store and told the men he would call the cops. Harvey said they responded they could do what they wanted because Trump won. Two days later, Harvey’s church was defaced with a marker. “Trump Nation Whites Only,” was scrawled on the building and on a banner that announced a Spanish-language Mass. (About 80 percent in Harvey’s congregation are immigrants.)
The Southern Poverty Law Center published a report saying acts of bias-motivated harassment were up dramatically across the country after Trump’s election. These claims are hard to verify until authorities have investigated them.
Bell, the leader of the training, told the group to harness their “moral outrage” so they can step in and protect people who are being harassed when necessary. That prompted a back and forth with participants who worried that moral outrage and anger were not appropriate because they could lead to more hate and tension in their community.
“There’s a difference between hate and moral outrage,” Bell said. “The folks in this room are the freedom fighters.”
The training was organized by the D.C.-based group Swamp Revolt, which encourages people to do one thing a day to “denounce the politics of division.”