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How to intervene, non-violently?

How to intervene, non-violently?

Yesterday, as part of White Ribbon Day, I flew to Melbourne and participated in a panel discussion about violence against women for the Law Institute of Victoria, and at the end of the talk, all 160-odd of us in the room stood to swear the White Ribbon oath ...

The panel consisted of Waleed Aly, a lecturer in politics at Monash University, who also works within the Global Terrorism Research Centre and will next year start hosting the breakfast show on Radio National.

The moderator was Judge Felicity Hampel SC, of the County Court of Victoria, who's also been on the Victorian Law Reform Commission, where she's made recommendations on the reform of defences to homicide, sexual offences, and access to assisted reproductive technology.

And then there was me, White Ribbon ambassador, holding a glass of red wine.

There must have been at least one hundred lawyers and barristers in the room, as well as four judges, so it was a pretty cluey crowd and, I daresay, a group well versed in the art of duplicity and seeing people lie under oath.

So as we said the words of the White Ribbon oath ...

I swear never to commit, excuse or remain silent about violence against women, this is my oath.

... I had to wonder how many of the men and women in that room would actually stick by the words they were uttering.

Being a shit-stirrer, I grabbed the mic after we'd finished and asked them to think how they'd react if they saw three Commanchero bikers beating up a woman in the street.

How many would actually intervene?

There was silence, I had another sip of red and sat back down.

It was, however, a pertinent question for that crowd.

In 2007, lawyer Brendan Keilar was shot dead in a central Melbourne street while trying to intervene in the assault of a woman he had never met - Kara Douglas - who was being roughed up by a Hells Angel bikie, Christopher Wayne Hudson.

Keilar, 43, as well as a 25-year old Dutch backpacker, Paul de Waard, attempted to assist Douglas. Hudson pulled a gun and shot all three.

Keilar was fatally wounded in the head. de Waard and Douglas were popped in the upper body. Douglas later had a kidney removed and de Waard returned to the Netherlands to undergo extensive rehabilitation.

It's a bad story, a worst case scenario, but a variant of this is often what keeps a lot of men silent when they do encounter violence towards women.

It's one thing to pull up your mate on a sexist joke or to offer dissent when a relative or colleague makes light of domestic violence - but when it comes to strangers, how many guys have the balls to do the same?

And more pertinently - how many have the tools?

I've read a lot of columns about violence against women this week, and heard and watched many interviews, but none has actually mapped out how a bloke should step into a heated situation, aid the woman, and not get his head punched in or do the same to the perpetrator.

The easier situation is where someone you don't know makes an off-colour comment.

Having experienced this, this is how I've reacted:

ME: "Maaaaate, seriously, what if that was your mum? Or your sister?"

THEM: "It's not."

ME: "Yeah, but that's someone's daughter. How would you feel if someone said that about your daughter?"

THEM: "My daughter wouldn't dress like a slut."

ME: "Rightio, mate. I hope she never has to hear those words spoken about her."

This can obviously go downhill fast, particularly with guys who are drunk or aggro. Such as:

THEM: "You saying my daughter's a slut?" or "What's this got to do with my mum or my sister? What the f--- you trying to say?"

ME: "I'm just saying all women are someone's daughter, and it doesn't hurt to show some respect. I certainly mean no disrespect to your family."

If he keeps getting aggro, you leave.

Dr Michael Flood, a researcher for White Ribbon, makes these suggestions:

Make your concern plain: Say "That's sexist and I don't think it's funny" or "I think those words are really hurtful," or refrain from laughing.

Personalise the violence or injustice: Bring it home. Make the harms associated with violence more real by personalising them. "What if that was your sister / daughter / mother?" Describe the experiences of people you know or people you've read about and could know.

Provide information: Highlight the facts and debunk the myths.

Question the assumption: Challenge the logic of the statement. No one deserves to be raped, beaten or stalked. No one asks for it. No one likes it. Convey your feelings and principles.

Show emotion and passion: Show that you're deeply affected by what was said or done: sad, angry, etc. Tell them that these types of statements make you uncomfortable and ask them not to say these things around you.

Use humour: Playfully question sexist and derogatory remarks.

Ask for an explanation: Ask, "What are you saying?", to invite critical reflection and change.

Remind him of his 'best self': Say, "Come on, you are better than that".

Invite group pressure: Say in front of others, "I don't feel good about this. Does anyone else feel uncomfortable too?"

However, the reality of actual violence against women is that most of the time it happens in seclusion, where there are no prying eyes.

If a guy is prepared to be violent with a woman in public, it usually means one or more of three things: he's drunk, he's high, or he's so physically imposing, he's confident of not being confronted.

Personally, I'd have to rely on instinct in a scenario like this, but that's often not the best guide. My guess is that plenty of men would charge in and punch the guy being violent towards the woman.

There's a great lesson: stand up to violence with more violence.

Dr Flood makes these suggestions: "When you encounter a violent incident, direct physical confrontation is rarely appropriate."


Call the police.

Be a witness: Stand far enough away to be safe but close enough for the violent person to see you and be aware that they are being watched.

Ask others who are nearby to help.

Verbally intervene: Tell the violent person clearly that his actions are not okay, they are a crime, and you are calling the police. Ask the victim if she needs help.

Create a distraction: ask for directions or the time – such that the abused person has time to get away or the perpetrator slows down or ceases his violence.

Which are all great suggestions.

However, I wondering how many of you have had to deal with this in real life and how you've dealt with it?

What did you do? How did you intervene so that nobody got hurt, and hopefully, the perpetrator learned something?

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Intervene in violent incidents. Men can intervene in other men’s violence against women, that is, in incidents or situations of violence as they take place. When you encounter a violent incident, direct physical confrontation is rarely appropriate. Instead:

  • Call the police.
  • Be a witness. Stand far enough away to be safe but close enough for the violent person to see you and be aware that they are being watched.
  • Ask others who are nearby to help.
  • Verbally intervene. Tell the violent person clearly that his actions are not okay, they are a crime, and you are calling the police. Ask the victim if she needs help.
  • Create a distraction – ask for directions or the time – such that the abused person has time to get away or the perpetrator slows down or ceases his violence.

There are other strategies which you may use either during or after the incident.

  • Talk to a friend who is verbally or physically abusive to his partner. Tell him that what you witnessed was not okay, and he needs to get some help.
  • Talk to a group of the perpetrator’s or victim’s friends and, together, decide on a course of action.

118 comments so far

  • I don't think there's any one answer because it depends on the situation. It could be anything from grabbing a weapon off someone (knife, broken glass etc) to tackling them to stop a punch or a kick, to getting in between two people, to just yelling to get their attention and then trying to settle them down. So there might be many answers, or none.

    Word of warning though, I have seen this happen in person and heard it many times in court - someone, whether police or civilian, steps in to protect a woman and suddenly has the woman turn violent on them as well, "it's none of your ****** business" etc. So, just keep that in mind, potential Sir Galahads.

    Cumberland Oval
    Date and time
    November 25, 2011, 9:28AM
    • I have done some guarding/bouncing work in the past, and had to intervene many times in 'domestics'.

      I think the primary concern for bystanders is evident in the case you have highlighted. You don't know what the guy is carrying:... be it his physical skills or something in his pockets.

      Though,... there are two other issues at play in the mind of someone about to get involved.....

      The first is the potential legal ramifications. Which could be anything from a friendly encounter with the cops,.. to a night in the lockup,... to an assault / murder or manslaughter charge.

      The second is that with both male & female being in a heightened state,... it may be the case that both of them turn on you.
      Suddenly you are in a 2 on 1 confrontation that initially did not involve you personally. The women previously being harassed then becomes more physically violent on you than the guy.

      Personally, i've encountered all of the above,.. and its not pretty.

      I've also seen many cases where the female is continually provoking the male, despite knowing he is becoming physically confrontative and fully aware that her safety is at stake.

      In such cases,.. i will now walk away. She deserves what she gets. If she brings it on herself,.. she can take her white ribbon and shove it.

      So its because of my experiences in these matters,...that unless its a clearcut case (ie: a robbery/mugging, or clear beatup etc...) my personal oath is that i will no longer get involved.

      Date and time
      November 25, 2011, 9:45AM
      • Seen it a few times - one time I intervened & dragged a guy off his bleeding girlfriend in the street - I had him restrained against a wall while someone else rang the cops & the girl dusted herself off & king hit me in the back of the head..... still think I did the right thing in the circumstances.

        Date and time
        November 25, 2011, 10:22AM
        • I have two different scenarios both true.
          My son-in-law was waiting for a train at night and it was fairly quiet, he looked over and this couple were having an argument the girl was starting to look scared and all of a sudden the bloke hit her in the face. My son-in-law didnt even think about it he walked up and dropped him right on the platform and took the girl to a secure place.

          My husband on the other hand has worked with violent people most of his working life and he would be more likely to assess the situation and use negotiating skills or people skills if you like to try and deflect the situation but if all else failed he would jump in. He has a female partner and if something looks a bit off he will go in first and its not that he thinks shes not capable its because he is protective of women and he was brought up that way

          Date and time
          November 25, 2011, 10:32AM
          • I intervened once in a domestic- at a woman's request: she said she was afraid her husband was going to assault her. It meant coming onto their property and standing between them; the bloke was a lot smaller than me but I understand why cops hate going to domestics- anything can happen- this bloke was literally frothing at the mouth and red-eyed with rage- not someone to reason with. But I was able to talk to him and, eventually, he calmed down, but I've thought afterwards that if the physical mismatch hadn't been so enormous, the result could have been nasty.

            Date and time
            November 25, 2011, 10:54AM
            • I'm a huge admirer of Dr Flood, he is a great advocate for the rights of women and children. I think his advice here is spot on. It's very important for men to stand up and make their voices heard in promoting respectful treatment, and language used around women, because this is the only way that it can really become a mainstream message rather than being viewed as a fringe issue.

              E.g., Woman says, "That's sexist and I don't think it's funny". Cue eye-rolling, comments about "feminazis", rejoinders that women/feminists "cannot take a joke" or "have no sense or humour", or that "it's all in a bit of good fun".
              Man says, "That's sexist and I don't think it's funny", more likely to be met with sheepish silence and uncomfortable reflection on whether the comment was out of line.

              The problem is, we cannot divorce violence against women from entrenched patriarchal attitudes that dehumanise, objectify or otherwise undermine women as equal, complete human beings. So while I admire Sam for getting involved in this cause, I would urge him to remember that his blog has, at times, reinforced unhelpful stereotypes about women, gender interactions, and relative values. There is an overwhelming focus upon women's looks/youth vs. men's wealth and status. This isn't a helpful starting point. It commoditises women and feeds into the behaviours we are trying to change.

              Thea (is sleepy)
              Date and time
              November 25, 2011, 10:59AM
              • Why isn't their a colored ribbon for men? Why don't women take the same oath for men? I'm sure there is no doubt that there is a higher rate of violence towards women. However i believe if we wish to work towards equality of both sexes then women must take the same oath.

                Date and time
                November 25, 2011, 11:11AM
                • "And then there was me, White Ribbon ambassador, holding a glass of red wine"


                  Date and time
                  November 25, 2011, 11:14AM
                  • I wouldn't take that oath - because I know that I would never engage in physically violent behavior against a woman, I know none of my friends are like that, and I know I would never intervene into a public domestic.

                    I find the whole white ribbon day an insulting slur on men. 1 in 4 women will have a violent encounter with a man. Assuming none of those are exaggerated or false, (I recall a woman calling police and alleging domestic violence on a friend of mine because he slammed his palm on the table in frustration - she might have been scared, but she wasn't assaulted. Add to that the common story of a guy who pushes off a woman assaulting him... and I wonder how many those 1 in 4 falls to.), I'd still say that many of these women are all being assaulted by the same group of men. How many girlfriends would the average bloke have in his life? 20?

                    So we could be talking about 1 in 80 men being violent, and yet we make this who bruhaha trying to get the other 79 to make a pledge which will never be challenged anyway. Meanwhile physical and emotional abuse against men, which various studies say is anywhere from 30 to 100% as common as violence against women, is totally ignored.

                    Date and time
                    November 25, 2011, 11:44AM
                    • Last year I ran into two situations where women were being abused by their partner in public. In the first case, the woman looked healthy and "normal" for lack of a better word and I talked the man down while the woman ran away for safety.

                      In the second case, both the man and woman looked like unclean meth addicts. I chose not to intervene.

                      Both times I asked myself "Is this person worth protecting?"

                      Date and time
                      November 25, 2011, 11:54AM

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