Thais Freitas

Communications Strategy & Storytelling

Bystander Intervention: 5Ds to Stop Harassment

Bystander intervention photo

Did you ever see someone being publicly harassed and wanted to intervene but didn’t know how? I did, and afraid of making things worse, I did nothing and felt awful. I was also harassed in a couple of scary situations and desperately wanted someone to intervene, but no one helped. It can’t be like that, I’m glad things are changing and the importance of intervening when someone needs help is now obvious. I wanted to learn how to do it the right way, so today I attended the Bystander Intervention Training offered by the SABA Foundation. The tips were so helpful; I wanted to share them here!

The presenters were Sufyan Sohel and Tamer Y. Abouzeid, from CAIR-Chicago, an organization that works to create equal opportunities and normalize the image of Muslims in America.

Reasons bystanders don’t help

Sufyan and Tamer explained that most people suffer harassment for being perceived as a particular ethnic origin or nationality. And the common reasons bystanders don’t interfere are:

  • Not having enough context
  • Fear of making things worse
  • No one else is doing anything
  • “I’m a person of colour and afraid that it’ll turn on me”
  • “I’m white and don’t want to look like a ‘white saviour'”
  • Risks of intervening in online harassment are too high

All these reasons make sense, but it turns out people who are being harassed want help. The presenters showed a study which revealed that 79% of the people wished someone intervened when the harassment was happening, but only 25% were helped.

How to use the 5Ds to intervene and stay safe

Each of the 5Ds of bystander intervention represents a different way to help:


Take an indirect approach to shift the focus to something else and make the harasser stop.

If you see someone being harassed on the subway, for example, start a conversation with them to change the focus and ignore the harasser. You can say something like, “excuse me, do you know what the closest station to X street is?” or “Wow, I love your dress! Where did you buy it?”


Get help from someone else if you don’t feel comfortable intervening yourself—usually people in a position of authority, such as store managers and teachers.

Think thrice before calling the police, though! They escalate the situation and it often ends badly, especially for visible minorities, undocumented immigrants, and people with language barriers. Always check with the person being harassed if they want you to call the cops.


If someone is already helping, document the incident so that there’s proof of it. Filming, photos, taking screenshots, etc. Once you’re done, check with the targeted person what they want to do with it, as it’s not up to you to decide.


After the incident is over, check in with the person who experienced the disrespectful behaviour, how they’re feeling and if they need anything.

You can ask: “Do you need anything?”, “Want me to walk with you?”, “Want me to stay here for a while?” and so on.


Speak up about disrespectful behaviour when it’s happening. There are three ways of doing that:

  • Name the behaviour – “That’s racist!”
  • Name what you observe – “She looks uncomfortable. Why don’t you leave her alone?”
  • Ask a question to give the harasser a chance to understand their unacceptable behaviour and self-correct – “What do you mean by saying ‘Chinese virus’?”

In online harassment cases, only intervene if you know the harasser and feel that the platform is safe. The risks of directly intervening in sites like Reddit and Facebook are too high, so it’s always best to tell a moderator.

When choosing which strategy to use, always follow the three steps of the bystander in action:

  1. Notice the scenario, access your safety
  2. Consider your personality and concerns about intervening
  3. Decide which one of the 5Ds works best at the moment

Knowing the strategies, you can choose the better fit for your personality, more appropriate for the moment and, above all, safer for yourself.

More information

The Bystander Intervention Training was offered in partnership with Hollaback!, an organization dedicated to ending all forms of harassment. Their site has many helpful resources, including a Bystander Intervention Guide and a Conflict De-Escalation How-to-Guide. And if you’d like to attend a training, there are many scheduled over the year.

It’s also important to encourage others to act, something you can do by sharing your harassment story on sites like Hollaback! and Stand Against Hatred.

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