A group of community members gathered Sunday afternoon at Singing Oaks Church of Christ to discuss how to confront conflict head on. This event, dubbed "Bystander Intervention Training", was led by J.E. McNeil, a Houston native who is now an attorney in Washington, D.C.
The focus of such an event is to encourage proactive thinking by citizens, and to consider the possibility of an event arising where intervention may be necessary, such as a hate crime.
"There has been an escalation of hate crimes since the election," said McNeil. "We are here to flex your interventionist muscle, and when the time comes, [for you] not to be too insecure to intervene."
Statistics confirm McNeil's statement — according to the annual census of hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there has been a dramatic uptick in hate crime since 2015, with anti-Muslim groups alone rising from 34 in 2015 to 101 in 2016.
Getting past hesitations
The training began with a TED talk by Ken Brown at the University of Iowa discussing the "Bystander Effect," or the tendency of those in large crowds to shrug off involvement when conflict arises. In his talk, Brown provided examples of incidents along with actions citizens can take when such situations arise.
According to Brown, there is a diffusion of responsibility when more people are added to the equation, and thus a person is less likely to intervene or help someone in need when there are several people around than when they are alone. The key to gauging intervention, according to Brown, "is not to get any person, but one person [to help]," and thus channeling a responsibility to an individual, making them more likely to react.
The video ended with a quote by Brown that other people will follow should one person be willing to step forward and commit to intervention against injustice, and that "movements are born from the commitments of a small group of people."
Following by a brief introduction to the topic by McNeil, and a short exercise where duos took turns being the "target" and the "attacker", attendees were given packets with scenarios and then split into larger groups to act out situations where intervention might be necessary.
De-escalation of the situation is paramount is intervention, namely not engaging with the attacker and supporting or helping the target of the attack.
"I learned a whole lot," said Ian Campbell, a junior history student at the University of North Texas. "I've been to other [events like this] where they talk about engaging the attacker, but I enjoyed the focus [on peaceful intervention]."
The principles discussed are all grounded in a commitment to non-violence in the vein of Rev. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. The "Rules of Engagement" as dictated by McNeil are simple:
1) Speak from your own experiences.
2) Give others the benefit of the doubt.
3) Step forward; then step back and allow others to step forward.
4) Listen lovingly.
"One of the most important things we have in common is a love for this country and this state," said McNeil. "[You are] part of a history of actions we are continuing."
"Silo-ing" of America
At the end of the session, McNeil spoke off-the-cuff regarding the current state of affairs in the United States, and what she refers to as the "silo-ing of America."
"You have one silo here, one silo over here," she said. "But they aren't connected. We have forces pushing us apart in [the United States] today. It is a vision that we've lost — we are all in this together."
McNeil stressed the need for dialogue among citizens, and encourages those caught in gridlock but wishing to break free to "start with something that is important to you — something you are [both] passionate about," and letting the conversation go from there.
Susan Wheeler, organizer of the event, member of Singing Oaks Church and a former high school classmate of McNeil, said the event came about when she found out her old friend was going to be delivering the same training in Houston, their hometown. Another former classmate of McNeil, Judy Winston of Fairview, also attended the event.
"We all reconnected years ago after a class reunion and have stayed in touch since," said Wheeler. "I told her during the election that I was concerned about the rhetoric [in the country], and when I saw she was going to be in Texas, I invited her to Denton."
McNeil said for those who were unable to make the meeting but wishing to know more about bystander intervention and de-escalation there are a wealth of resources online.
"Think about [these kinds of things] in advance, and watch the TED video," she said.
Harrison Long can be reached at 940-566-6897.
On Twitter: @HarrisonGLong