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From left, Sarah Jane Knoy, Madeja Stewart, Carol Backus and Viola Katusiime from the Granite State Organizing Project are training "active bystanders" to intervene safely when something harmful is happening. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Manchester group teaches how to defuse difficult situations by being 'active bystander'


MANCHESTER - Carol Backus was standing in a checkout line at Market Basket when she heard the cashier tell the man in front of her to go to a different line.

"She said, 'You don't even know how many things are in that basket,'" Backus recalled.

The man spoke English with an accent; he and a woman with him appeared to be immigrants, Backus said. Her quick peek into his basket proved he had far fewer items than the limit for that line. But the man moved to another line.

Backus stepped in.

"Sir, I saw what happened just now," she said, loudly enough for the cashier to hear. "May I assist you in going to the manager to complain about this?"

This is what being an "active bystander" looks like.

Backus is president of the board of Granite State Organizing Project, a faith-based community organization that works on economic and racial justice issues in New Hampshire. GSOP has been hosting "active bystander" trainings to teach people how to intervene safely when they see something harmful going on.

Sarah Jane Knoy, executive director of GSOP, said her organization started the program after hearing stories from members who were targeted because of their race or ethnicity during last year's divisive election campaign. Other GSOP members, she said, "felt that this level of hate speech was bothering them because it's not the America that most of us believe in."

Active bystander training teaches participants to assess a situation to see what the best course of action may be, Knoy said. "The training makes it very clear that you shouldn't always intervene. There may be times when it's too dangerous."

That became clear last month after three men were stabbed, two fatally, on a train in Portland, Ore.

The trio had tried to calm a man who was yelling invectives at two teenage girls, one wearing a head scarf. The abusive man suddenly attacked the other men with a knife. He faces numerous charges, including aggravated murder and attempted murder.

Those organizing local training sessions plan to discuss the Portland incident and decide how to incorporate it into future training, Knoy said. "But I think part of it is going to be to make sure that people understand the point of the active bystander training isn't to push people to do things they feel unsafe to do," she said. "Sometimes the best way you can help is to get out of the situation and call 911."

Active bystander training focuses on supporting the target, not confronting the wrongdoer, she said. "Certainly the training encourages people to take action, but it doesn't urge people to take action that they think is unsafe."

And often, Knoy said, it's best to get others involved before acting.

Backus, who has taken the training, said it focuses on de-escalating situations. "We're trying to help people think deeply about the situations that we're facing, to think about how we protect our neighbors and ourselves when there are troubling incidents."

Backus said she didn't worry about violence in the supermarket that day. "But I saw someone I felt was being picked on because of perhaps race, perhaps ethnicity."

The man in the supermarket declined Backus' offer of help. But his demeanor, and that of the woman with him, changed, Backus said. "They looked more relaxed. He smiled. He understood that somebody knew what had happened."

She said she hopes her intervention also may have made an impression on the cashier. Maybe the woman was just having a bad day, she said. "And maybe she will rethink that kind of response in the future."

Madeja Stewart, youth and education organizer for GSOP, has organized active bystander trainings in Manchester and Nashua; about 110 people have attended the sessions so far, from middle-school youngsters to senior citizens. They've also trained 20 trainers who can pass on the techniques to others.

This fall, GSOP will hold trainings at the University of New Hampshire that will be open to faculty, staff and students.

Stewart said she understands that what happened in Portland could scare some people away from intervening in future situations. "But at the same time, you realize somebody has to do it," she said. "If not you, then who? Are you going to wait for the person next to you to step up? Because they may be waiting for you, too."

She thinks about the victims in such incidents. "Imagine what fear is in their heart and how they can be scared for their lives."

What happened in Portland, and the recent terrorist attack in London, won't change how she acts in the future, Backus said. "We hope we'll use good judgment and do the right thing if we find ourselves in a situation where physical courage is demanded," she said. "But most of the time, it's moral courage that's needed."

"I think it's very important to stand up and use our voices to try to bring about good relations with all our neighbors," she said.

Backus said it's also important to realize that most interventions don't turn out the way the Portland incident did. "We don't hear about the ones that are successful," she said. "We hear about the tragedies."

Knoy said the larger goal of active bystander training is to change communities for the better.

"When you speak up, you teach other people to speak up," she said. "And if enough people do it, it becomes the community norm."

The GSOP will hold active bystander training on Tues., June 27, at 5:30 p.m. at Manchester Unitarian Universalist Church, 669 Union St. To register, call 668-8250.

For more information: granitestateorganizing.org.

swickham@unionleader.com