New Yorkers Prep to Fight Hate Crimes

New Yorkers practice vocal defences as part of the "Upstander" workshop. (Nafisa Masud/ NY City Lens)

New Yorkers practice vocal defenses as part of an “Upstander” workshop. (Nafisa Masud/ NY City Lens)

In a brownstone near 86th Street and Central Park West, a booming “No!” pierces the air. Then the cry changes, and voices, some 60-odd strong, scream, “Stop! This is not okay!” It sounds ferocious, but the people inside aren’t fighting; they’re “upstanding.”

These vocal exercises are part of a training workshop sponsored by several groups, the NYC Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee among them, to help New Yorkers become “upstanders”—empowered bystanders in the event of public hate crimes. This night of “Upstander Training” is the first of its kind for the sponsoring committees, but certainly not the last.

Workshops like these have been increasing in popularity since the presidential election and a corresponding uptick in hate crimes across the country. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported 867 bias-related incidents in the ten days after the presidential election alone, the majority of the crimes based on anti-black and anti-immigrant motivations. California reported the highest number of incidents during these ten days—99, with New York coming in second at 69. New York City has seen a 31 percent increase in hate crimes post-election, compared to the same time period (through Nov. 13) in 2015, according to NYPD statistics released to DNAInfo.

Graphs courtesy of Southern Poverty Law Center.

Graphs courtesy of Southern Poverty Law Center.


The training session, guided by the Center for Anti-Violence Education, was created after the election in response to requests for hate crime intervention training. According to the Center, the sessions are designed to empower potential witnesses of public hate crimes through a combination of vocal commands, conflict mediation, and self-defense, depending on which tool is needed.

The participants at the workshop on February 8 ranged between 15 and 80 years old, and many of them said they had never seen or experienced a hate crime firsthand. That includes Faye Ellman, 63. “I read about it all the time,” she said. “The swastikas on the subway; the young woman in a hijab who was harassed on the train; and no one did anything. Now, I have some tools to help.”

Ellman practices self-defencse techniques with another participant. (Nafisa Masud/ NY City Lens)

Ellman practices self-defense techniques with another participant. (Nafisa Masud/ NY City Lens)

But Ellman had another reason to seek out bystander training. This past May, Ellman said, her 22-year-old daughter was assaulted by a 78-year-old man in her own apartment. Her daughter was so traumatized she didn’t speak about it for months, Ellman said, until she happened to see the man’s picture in a newspaper. In that case there were no witnesses, but Ellman hopes that she can be an empowered bystander if she ever encounters such an event in public.

This is only her second meetup with the NYC Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee, but Ellman said she already looks forward to more. “I was searching for ways to be a little more active,” she said. “It’s not going out and demonstrating, but it’s a quiet way to show solidarity to a segment of the population who are in danger.”

And some portions of the population are in danger. According to FBI statistics, hate crimes in the U.S. increased 7 percent between 2014 and 2015, the majority of those additional hate crimes based on anti-Islamic bias, which alone surged 67 percent. As the graphs below show, the three most common types of hate crime occur due to biases against race/ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation.


FBI statistics show hate crimes based on race, religion, and sexual orientation increased between 2014 and 2015. (Nafisa Masud/ NY City Lens)


The above graph shows hate crimes have been on a slow, but steady decline since 2010, but with 2015 marking a troubling upward trajectory. And while the FBI has yet to release its 2016 data, if we were to extrapolate the 867 bias-related incidents reported the first ten days post-election to the entire year, that would amount to some 31,645 hate crimes.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, in collaboration with Pro Publica, collected 1,372 bias incidents between the day after the presidential election and February 7. Among them were 57 anonymous bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers, as well as 127 Anti-Muslim and 346 Anti-Immigrant incidents, respectively.

Sharon Jackson, a Research Assistant at the Queens College Center for Ethnic, Racial, and Religious Understanding, has devoted herself to using education to help reduce such numbers, but she wasn’t always this passionate about the cause. Jackson was in a public school with no Muslim students at the time of 9/11, and their absence affected the way she understood her classmate’s Islamophobic comments. “There was no counternarrative to the things I was hearing, no one to say ‘That’s not right’,” she said. “So I went along with it.”

Jackson, 28, had her views called into question when she met a Muslim girl for the first time, in a 9th grade Spanish class. “It was like my mind was split in two directions; I could go left or I could go right,” she said.  “And for some reason, I chose friendship. I don’t know why I did, but I’m so glad. That’s when I knew I had to work to counter these things.”

She hopes to benefit most from the preparation. “When you imagine taking action, it’s abstract,” she said. “You freeze because it’s all in your head. But this was good practice, and I think it’ll help.”

Jackson brought her husband Benjamin with her to the workshop. Benjamin, 31, works as a baker at Eataly in downtown Manhattan, and had different motivations for the event. “I want to get in their heads, the offenders,” he said. “I want to understand where they’re coming from so I can defuse the situation.”

For Tehilah Eisenstadt, a director at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, where the workshop was held, the sessions offer a vital lesson. “You worry you didn’t do enough, or did the wrong thing,” she said, remembering a day in December when she helped stop a racially-motivated fight between two men on the subway. It was after this that she and other sponsors decided upon the workshop. She’s hopeful that participants can make a difference. “We can educate, speak to our elected officials, talk to our friends with extreme views. Now we know how to help.”