British Columbia

The 'bystander effect': responding to racist, violent incidents in public

An alleged assault on public transit in Vancouver on Monday has sparked a discussion about how and when bystanders should intervene.

Natasha Aruliah says racist incidents are not uncommon but the human response not to intervene is normal

Noor Fadel standing with Jake Taylor, the only passenger to intervene and help her. (Clare Hennig/CBC )

An alleged assault on public transit in Vancouver on Monday has sparked a discussion about how and when bystanders should intervene.

Noor Fadel, the 18-year-old Muslim woman who was allegedly attacked, looked around the train car for help but she said she was met with blank stares.

"Everyone was aware of what he just tried to do. They saw him yelling at me and continuing to yell at me, but everyone stayed seated. There was not a person who got up," she told On The Coast host Stephen Quinn Wednesday.

Eventually one person did step forward: Jake Taylor, another passenger, stood between Fadel and her assailant until the man got off at the next station and stayed with her until first responders arrived.

According to Natasha Aruliah, a social justice and diversity educator and consultant in Vancouver, the 'bystander effect' is a known phenomenon where witnesses are less likely to step in, if there are other people watching the same incident happen.

When there are many people around, a witness will start to think about their own safety and question whether or not they are capable of intervening, she said.

"The more people there are, the more we dissolve responsibility," Aruliah, told The Early Edition host Rick Cluff.

"We assume that somebody else will step in, so we don't do anything."

What to do

Collective action is what she suggests, calling it a "rallying of the troops" to show the abuser that what they're doing is unacceptable and reducing the element of risk of a single bystander intervening.

"When one person acts and starts to ask for help from other people, collectively, we can actually do a lot. We can flip and reverse that bystander effect, but it takes someone starting the ball rolling," she said.

The action doesn't have to be physical either. Speaking up or yelling can distract the aggravated person and de-escalate the situation.

"We can do something simple as a verbal thing.. We can go and sit next to the victims, and engage them in conversation to distract them and to ignore the person," Aruliah said.

Discreet action

Monday's attack would have been the perfect moment for a bystander to use the yellow emergency strips that are on all of TransLink's trains according to Anne Drennan, the spokesperson for Metro Vancouver Transit Police.

"Any of the witnesses could have done this without the suspect being aware that they were doing it," Drennan told B.C. Almanac host Gloria Macarenko.

The Transit police's report-by-text system is another solution that Drennan suggests, which allows bystanders to discreetly send a message to the number 87-77-77 with a brief description of where the incident is happening. The incoming messages are monitored in real time and officers are dispatched immediately.

With files from The Early Edition and B.C. Almanac