Training Offers Bystanders Tools to De-escalate Conflict

Paul Ocampo and Dax Valdes. Courtesy photos.

Paul Ocampo and Dax Valdes. Courtesy photos.

Bystanders to harassment, conflicts and even violent attacks sometimes find themselves at a loss for what to do, and refrain from getting involved. For victims, that can add insult to injury. In response to a wave of attacks against Asian Americans, two organizations have partnered to offer a bystander intervention training, which has been in very high demand. Paul Ocampo, development director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice/Asian Law Caucus, and Dax Valdes, a senior trainer with the anti-harassment nonprofit Hollaback, shared in a conversation with “Civic” their experiences with and strategies for safely de-escalating tense situations. 

Ocampo de-escalated one situation he found himself in recently by using distraction, one of the recommended strategies. When a man playing with a soccer ball near a rally Ocampo had been attending lost control of the ball and hit a rally participant with it, Ocampo said he saw the man who’d been hit grow angry. 

“He started to try to defend himself and call it out. But the soccer player was about to also retaliate in some way,” Ocampo said. “In that moment, I was like, ‘I should intervene. I’m aware that I’m fearful.’”

Ocampo said he looked around, assessed the circumstances, and decided that it would be safe to get involved. When the soccer player approached, Ocampo said, he distracted him from a potential confrontation by telling him his ball was rolling into the street. The soccer player fetched it, and Ocampo checked in with the man who’d been hit. 

“I was like, ‘I saw that, I hope you’re OK.’ And he said, ‘yes, that person has been looking at me. But thank you for stepping up and coming in to check in on me,’” Ocampo said.

Most people, Valdes said, don’t speak up because they are at a loss for what to do or say — and fearful that they’ll become a target.

“People just don’t know what to do. They think of intervention as having to step up,” he said. “You might find yourself involved in the situation, also become the victim of the attack or the incident. So I think part of it is not knowing what to do.”

In the training, participants are instructed to use the “Five Ds.” These include creating a distraction, delegating a specific action to someone else, documenting the situation by taking a photo or video, checking in with the victim on a “delay” after the situation has abated or directly engaging with disrespectful behavior. 

Not every intervention necessarily means heading off a physical assault, Ocampo and Valdes said. The kinds of behavior bystanders are encouraged to engage with in the training ranges from jokes in poor taste to violence. One element bystanders are asked to consider is whether law enforcement is really necessary. 

“We focus on the person who’s experiencing the harassment, and we try to take care of them in that moment. So if that person does not want us to call law enforcement for any reason, we should respect their wishes and see if there is something else that we can do to help,” Valdes said. 

Apart from the victim’s wishes, there’s timing to consider.

“These moments happen split-second, right? And so by the time local law enforcement actually arrives, you know, it’s many minutes after the fact,” Ocampo said. “So what we want to do is create a sense for community of safety, especially as we tend to the victim of harassment.”

A segment from our radio show and podcast, “Civic.” Listen daily at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. on 102.5 FM in San Francisco, and subscribe on Apple, Google, Spotify or Stitcher