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Active bystander training key to building culture of solidarity

Nonviolence and active bystander training before the Women's March was an important, if overlooked, step toward building the movement for the long haul.
Participants in a nonviolence and active bystander training in Washington, D.C., on January 20. (Swamp Revolt)

Editor’s note: In the wake of nationwide protests demanding justice for George Floyd, we are sharing some of our previous coverage about how to end systematic racism in America. For more, see this collection of stories from our archive.

On Jan. 21, millions of men and women marched in cities around the world for women’s rights and a vision of justice and equality. The march in Washington, D.C., was one of the largest the city has ever seen, and it demonstrated that there is tremendous energy in speaking up for social justice. Since the march, activists and writers have grappled with the question of what to do with that energy. Many have rightly pointed out how essential it is to translate  passion into political will. Key legislation and elections matter. But in order to build a movement for the next four years and beyond, we cannot overlook the importance of building a culture of solidarity.

I experienced this personally the day before the women’s march, when more than 1,500 individuals from all walks of life gathered in churches, synagogues, mosques and community centers around the Washington area to learn about the basic principles of nonviolence and being an active bystander. The trainings were organized by Swamp Revolt, a Washington-based community group, and the Christian social justice organization Sojourners.

“Being an active bystander is what ‘love your neighbor’ looks like in action,” said trainer Rose Berger, which is especially relevant in a situation where a person is a victim of aggression based on their identity.

Active bystander intervention is the practice of supporting the person who is being targeted without engaging the aggressor and escalating conflict. We trained for this by alternately playing the roles of aggressors, targets and bystanders. In doing so, we learned to respond to conflict in a new way, by directly engaging the person being targeted, and asking them what they need — a basic act of solidarity. This act not only supports those being targeted, but can also transform the perspective of the bystanders, particularly those occupying positions of privilege.

“I was tempted to simply be an onlooker,” said Sandra Moore, who was a participant in one of the trainings. “But for those of us who have the privilege of avoiding hatred on a daily basis, it was valuable to be confronted with it and learn to take action.”

Repeated action can generate and reinforce norms, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s six principles of nonviolence, which in turn can sustain the solidarity required to organize for the long haul. All too often in our political culture, which constantly uses the language of battle, war and defeat, the interests and ideas of people affected by the policies under debate — on issues like health care, immigration and police violence — are not heard. Practices like being an active bystander can be powerful ways of concretely supporting the vulnerable and demonstrating that they matter. Learned through training and sustained by repetition, these principles can help maintain a foothold for solidarity in an often ugly political culture.

Practicing solidarity is not easy; it certainly does not come naturally to me. Without training, without a chance to actually “practice” it, I wouldn’t honestly know how. Over the coming years, we will need communities and institutions that can reinforce what solidarity means, and how to practice it. That will require time, energy and sacrifice. But it is one profoundly important way to build a larger community we all want to live in.



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