Neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, swastikas and KKK nooses in public parks, bigots screaming abuse at our neighbors in the grocery store—this is toxic. Since when do we put up with Nazi brown-shirt behavior in America? The unfettered irrational rage against Jews, Muslims, women, people of color, immigrants and LGBTQ folks is dangerous. When a right-wing extremist starts spouting off, bystander intervention is the fastest, most effective antidote. Nonviolent intervention works.
What we do—and how we do it—matters.
There are only two ways to stop a neo-Nazi from ramming a car into a crowd of people: find and defuse him before he gets behind the wheel, or set up traffic-control barriers around the perimeter. If you’re doing peace-keeping at a large protest action, try to focus not on the loudest antagonists but on the guys who seem most frustrated, because those are the ones we need to defuse.
Most of the time, we’re dealing with individual bigots or a small group of harassers. There are many specific intervention techniques that work in one-on-one and small-group incidents, without escalating. So don’t just get upset—do something that works.
Here’s a tested tool-kit of five successful intervention options for the next time a bigot with an attitude starts to go off.
#1: Take the behavior seriously.
If you’re a bystander, report these ugly episodes fast.
Record them on your phone. Call the store manager or police. Every business and public transit system should be training its staff to defuse racist/sexist incidents.
#2: Do the unexpected.
Break it up by asking the abuser something completely unrelated, out of the blue. Interrupt urgently: “Wait, stop, do you know where the clinic is?” Or politely: “Wait, I need your help, can you give me a hand here?” This is not just a diversion. It’s a role-transformation tactic, to make the aggressor switch gears and take a different path. There is a positive, deeply human instinct to be helpful in response to a direct request.
#3: To intervene, focus on the person being targeted.
Say, “You’re welcome to be here.” Stand beside the victims and physically shield them as you talk with them quietly, lowering the tension with your presence. If it feels like the situation may get violent, say, “Come with me, I can help,” and escort the victims to safety.
#4: If you decide to confront the aggressor, you’re going to need to use some psychological judo.
Leave at least three feet of space, face the bigot and make eye contact. Name the behavior. Calmly say out loud what the bigot is doing, in plain, factual terms: “You’re making some pretty rough comments about your neighbors here.” Just describing the behavior out loud can put a damper on it. Then change the trajectory.
De-escalate—it confuses the heck out of the aggressor. Use relaxed, open body language and a quiet, concerned, almost bored tone of voice. Slide in under the tension level and tell the bully, “Whoa, that’s enough. No one here did anything to harm you.”
In the same calm tone, set a short, clear boundary: “Stop harassing her. No one likes to hear that kind of stuff.” You’re resetting the decency standard. Repeat as necessary. Or use a low-key interruption tactic like a time-out or a stop sign. Put your hands in a time-out T, as you say, “Time out. We’re not going down that road.” For the stop sign, put your palm up, facing out, close to your shoulder. Say, “Pump the brakes.” It’s amazing how fast that can work.
Make a positive statement of principle: “This is about respect. We treat people with courtesy here.” It takes only a minute or so to tone down a yeller, if you lower your own volume as you keep talking. Think of it as verbally walking down the stairs: Start below the antagonist’s volume and then keep on stepping it down, getting quieter and quieter. It makes the yeller quiet down to hear what you’re saying.
#5: If you get into a discussion, don’t argue.
Don’t feed any emotional energy to the aggressor. No insults, no big lectures, no cursing, hostility, or sarcasm—and don’t wave your finger in the bigot’s face. You’re right to feel angry about the abuse, but you have a dead-serious job to do here: to protect the victim. Venting is not an option—you need to shut this incident down.
Be strategic. We’re trying to reduce the violence on the planet, not add to it, so stick to your nonviolent tool-kit. Flatten out the tension by countering sweeping bigoted stereotypes with simple one-line examples, in that same almost-bored voice. “My sister-in-law is from Mexico. She’s terrific.” Or: “The best boss I ever had was a Black woman.” “My brother is gay—he’s such a good guy.” AI’ve got a transgender cousin in the military.” Diversity is normal and valuable.
You can make it historical: “These folks have been helping to build this country for 500 years.” Or use a little sociology. Describe your own immigrant family. Ask the bully: “Where’s your family from?” Ask, “What kind of off-base, insulting assumptions do people make about you?” You may actually get an interesting answer. If you’re religious, you can even discuss scripture: Hebrews 13:2 and many other verses.
Or put the aggressor’s actions in the past tense and ask, “Can you explain why you went off like that?” Watch the bigot’s rationalizations fizzle out when you don’t react (neither argue nor agree). No matter what the bigot says, just say, “Hmm,” and repeat the question: “But what made you think it was okay to do that here?” Watch the bully run out of steam. The stupider the behavior, the more impossible it is to explain.
Facts won’t change a bigot’s mind, but you can toss in a few to change the harasser’s direction. Corporate owners and banks closed down the factories and coal mines—it wasn’t our Black, Latino, gay or Muslim neighbors who did that. Or ask the antagonist what he or she thinks about the fact that immigrants have lower crime rates than native-born citizens. (Doesn’t that mean they make our neighborhoods safer?)
Keep using that quiet, matter-of-fact tone of voice. If the harasser starts verbally abusing you, be smart—don’t take the bait. Your goal was to interrupt the situation, and you’ve already succeeded. You’ve disrupted the dynamic. At this point, the bigot is flailing around, trying to save face. So don’t respond to any personal venom; this is not about you. There’s nothing to gain in getting defensive. Don’t give the antagonist any traction. Simply repeat the moral boundary: “We don’t diss people here. It’s not okay.” Quiet repetition is powerful. For the harasser, it’s deflating (like running into a wall).
Keep intervening until the victims are safely on their way, the aggressor backs off or the authorities arrive on the scene. You have the power to change the outcome. Saying nothing is a passive, fear-driven response. It’s understandable, but it’s worse than useless. Bigots take our silence as approval. That’s harmful to the people being targeted—and morally damaging to us as well. Acting powerless in the face of abuse feels lousy.
So do something productive. Use the element of surprise—instead of silence, block the bigot with nonviolent action. There are dozens of ways to interrupt and derail the behavior and reduce the risk of escalation. Clear, ethical, nonviolent action demolishes bullies. There is a systematic structure to what works. It’s verbal aikido. We don’t escalate, we don’t ignore it and we don’t ask bigots pretty-please to be nice. We just step in with some calm, serious intervention and make it impossible for them to continue.
You can take some positive community-building steps as well.
Offer to accompany at-risk neighbors to the store or the bus stop. Be an ally across racial, ethnic, gender and religious lines to defend people who don’t look like you. That always surprises the bullies. And break the family silence—use a little nonviolent intervention to make your bigoted uncle back off.
Talk to your friends and co-workers about how to intervene—teach them a few techniques. Interrupt racist, sexist and other bigoted comments at work. Interrupt the ridiculous sexual harassers who hassle women in public places (street harassment is so tiresome). Organize friends and neighbors to help report and clean up bigoted graffiti. Post rainbow flags or welcoming community signs to set a neighborhood tone.
Talk to the children around you. Ask them what they would do if a bully were picking on a friend, and listen to what they say. Then role-play some easy intervention skills. Notice and actively praise your children and grandchildren when they’re being kind and inclusive with other kids.
The rise of far-right aggression is no accident. Trump’s belligerent posturing was the key to his campaign. Like the right-wing media blowhards and internet trolls, he set out to inflame a sense of angry, self-righteous grievance among whites—staging white rallies, slashing his opponents with personal contempt and marketing a vicious, bullying, tough-guy persona as if it were patriotic and “manly” to be a jackass. (A deep psycho-sexual hostility to women runs all through right-wing aggression; it’s all about manhood.) When politicians shred the boundaries, our communities pay the price. There’s a straight line from the strutting, posturing Bully-in-Chief to the neo-Nazi thugs who are attacking immigrants, gays, African Americans and Muslims.
It takes no courage to be a brown-shirt. The heroes are the folks who step up to protect their neighbors.