There is a thing called the “bystander effect.” You’ve probably heard of it. The term goes back at least a couple decades; I seem to first remember it applied to a situation when a woman was knifed in broad daylight on a busy New York City sidewalk and no one came to her aid.
Officially, the term refers to a social psychological phenomenon wherein individual people are less likely to assist or defend a victim if other people are present. Presumably because everyone thinks (or prays) someone else will step in so they don’t have to.
We saw something different on Friday, May 26; something both incredibly uplifting but also, to an ever greater level, heartbreaking and worrying for its larger implications.
On that day in Portland, Oregon, two men (Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Ricky John Best) were stabbed and killed when a man (Jeremy Joseph Christian, currently in custody for that attack) shouted racial slurs at two women, one of whom was wearing a hijab, and they tried to intervene to defend and protect those women. A third man, Micah David-Cole Fletcher, was also stabbed in the attack though the most recent word on him is that his injuries are serious but not life-threatening.
It is comforting to see strangers move in to protect two people who are being targeted…as seems in this case to be a case of racism/Islamophobia against the women. It gives me hope that we aren’t lost and unable to care or to risk ourselves to protect others, especially when they are people on the margins. My heart goes out to their family and friends with sympathy but also gratitude for the selfless actions of those men and how they were raised.
But it is incredibly sad, too, and perhaps a bit demoralizing as well to see yet again a racist emboldened in the age of Trump. Feeling empowered to threaten, terrorize and strike out at people who pose no threat, simply because they aren’t “real Americans” in the eyes of these hateful people.
Hate crimes have been on the rise since Donald Trump became president. To act like there is no connection between the two things is ridiculous when Trump campaigned on a platform of blaming undocumented immigrants of being dangerous criminals, demonizing refugees as being potential terrorists while ignoring that most terrorism in this country is committed by white conservatives, and demeaning Black people and other marginalized groups. When white people at his rallies would assault and threaten non-white people over and over. When people commit hate crimes now and admit they were inspired by Trump’s victory and what he stands for.
Trump has made it clear that making America great again, in his eyes, means making it whiter and/or taking safety, dignity and power away from people who aren’t white as much (and as fast) as possible.
To be fair, the racist (and misogynist and religious and sexual) hatred in the hearts of these people was always there. Racism and the other nasty ‘isms didn’t remotely go away in any of the years since the Civil Rights Movement. But Trump, along with others before him like Fox News and all sorts of conservative pundits who helped lay the foundation (but make no mistake, Trump was the one who essentially announced it was OK to hate and he would support and defend hate, as long as it’s from white people against those “other” people)…well, he and they made it honorable somehow. Made it socially acceptable again to openly despise POC, LBGTQ people, women, Muslims and more. Trump leads the way in telling hateful people that there is dignity in their hate and goodness in white supremacy, male supremacy, Christian supremacy and more. That holding other people down and denigrating them is just being “enthusiastic.”
It’s not enthusiastic. It’s just hateful. And undignified. And pretty much counter to most of the religious and ethical philosophies of this planet.
The Trump effect remains fully in force, and it is only going to grow the longer Trump remains in power and fans the flames. Frankly, even when he leaves office, whether willingly or not, the effect will linger. A fire has been stoked for hate, and it won’t burn to ashes anytime soon. And if you know anything about forest fires, even hot ashes can start a conflagration after the open flames are gone.
In this period of renewed hate and increased support for that hate from on high and in many forms of media, I can only hope there are more people like Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Ricky John Best to protect the innocent and sometimes helpless.
And I hope fewer of them have to die in the attempt.
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