By Amy Harris
The key role of the active bystander was a central focus of “A Place Without Hate: Forum on Hate Crime in Maine,” convened by New England Arab American Organization (NEAAO) and held at the University of Southern Maine, Portland.
A hate incident or bias incident is conduct that is motivated by hatred or bigotry and directed at any individual, residence, house of worship, institution, or business expressly because of the victim’s actual or perceived race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or disability. Hate incidents could include ongoing harassment, name calling or offensive gestures (called hate speech), or actions that prevent a person from feeling safe because of their identity.
Hate incidents involve discrimination and, according to the Office of the Maine Attorney General, “In the State of Maine, the law prohibiting discrimination is the Maine Human Rights Act. The Maine Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodation and credit based on race, color, sex, physical or mental disability, religion, ancestry, or national origin.” The federal government defines a hate crime as a criminal action motivated by bias against race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity. If a person or group uses hate speech such that it interferes with another person’s or group’s life and freedom of movement, then it should be reported as a hate crime, according to Maine’s Civil Rights Act.
New England Arab American Organization (NEAAO) convened the educational forum, which approximately 50 people attended, including representatives from New Mainers Public Health Initiative, ProsperityME, Through These Doors, Violence Intervention Partnership, Maine Attorney General’s office, Equality Maine, Maine TransNet, Maine Access Immigrant Network (MAIN), Catholic Charities Maine, University of New England faculty, Maine Immigrant and Refugee Coalition, Empower Maine, Unified Asian Communities, Khmer Maine, Cumberland County District Attorney’s office, and the Westbrook’s Mayor’s office and police department.
Zoe Sahloul, NEAAO Executive Director, stressed the need for more people to be educated on what hate incidents and crimes are, as well as how to effectively intervene – all with the goal of improving the health of Maine’s communities. Frank Pezella, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told attendees at the forum that “hate crimes are one of the most underreported crimes in the U.S., despite being one of the most lethal crimes with the greatest psychological effects upon entire communities. … We really have no clue of the true number of hate incidents and hate crimes because they are so underreported.”
Bystanders can play a key role in reporting, but they need to know how. According to PAC, “Bystanders should always offer documentation to the person targeted. Documentation can include taking a video or photo of the harasser, not the target, written notes of the harasser’s actions, a photo or notation of a license plate, and a photo or video of damage to property, including symbols or written messages. PAC discourages posting videos or descriptions of the event without the targeted person’s permission.”
Prevention Action Change (PAC), a Portland-based organization committed to countering harassment, assault, and abuse, led participatory “Active Bystander Training” activities at the forum. An active bystander is someone who witnesses harassment, bullying, microaggressions, or other harmful or inappropriate behavior and chooses to intervene to stop the behavior and help the person or people affected to regain composure or get away from the harmful situation, according to the Digital Library Foundation.
PAC leaders Clara Porter and Nuna Gleason taught the “5-D’s” of bystander intervention, which are Distract, Delegate, Delay, Document, and De-escalate, as developed in 2017 by Right to Be, a social justice nonprofit. Porter and Gleason applied these 5-D’s to five different hate incidents that have been reported in Maine. They modeled different interventions, such as how to use the strategy of distraction to interrupt an aggressor harassing a woman with a hijab in a store checkout line. For this scenario, they acted out someone running up to the pair and frantically asking for help locating a lost dog. Another distraction strategy was to “accidentally” spill coffee or water right in front of the aggressor (store clerk) and target (woman in the hijab). Such distractions interrupt the hostile dynamic and shift everyone’s attention, which provides space for the person targeted to safely leave.
The afternoon featured a panel discussion with Portland City Councilor Pious Ali; Gia Drew, Executive Director of Equality Maine; Jake Kulaw, Director of the Maine Attorney General’s Office Civil Rights Team Project (CRTP); Safiya Khalid, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Community Organizing Alliance; and Leanne Robbin, Maine’s Assistant Attorney General. Representing many different community sectors, they expressed a shared understanding of the importance of uniting in solidarity against hate.
“Hearing community leaders and experts in the field discuss what resources and avenues we need to work together to make Maine safe is not only productive and preventative – but also healing,” said Molly Fox, NEAAO’s Hate Crime Victim Services Coordinator.
In May 2023, Fox wrote in Amjambo Africa, “In 2021, there were 75 victims of hate crime in Maine, 50 perpetrators, and a total of 83 offenses. About half of these were directed at individuals because of race or ethnicity. A third were directed to individuals because of sexual orientation.” At the June 2 forum, Fox said these numbers most likely greatly underrepresent the true numbers, and that a clearer picture of the state of hate in Maine would enable more effective responses from law enforcement and government agencies.
That clearer picture depends on increased reporting from bystanders and targets, which once again points to the key role of bystanders in changing the culture in Maine. Pezella also advocated for greater collaboration between law enforcement agencies and community organizations like NEAAO to develop a shared understanding of how to prevent the progression from hate incidents to hate crimes.
Clara Porter of PAC noted that playing an active bystander role takes courage. Preparation helps, she said. “People have to want to change, but to do so, they need to feel like they have options and ways to intervene safely, if they witness or are a target of a hate incident.”
Prevention Action Change suggests the following resources for reporting hate incidents and crimes anonymously: FBI (800) CALL-FBI, www.tips.fbi.gov; National Street Harassment Hotline (855) 897-5910; Southern Poverty Law Center, www.splcenter.org/reporthate; and Stop AAPI Hate, stopaapihate.org. NEAAO has an informational phone line, (207) 800-5398, which includes a confidential, anonymous chat line open on Tuesdays through Thursdays, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., to answer community members’ questions or offer support or help reporting hate incidents or crimes.