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Familiar questions about ‘bystander effect’ arise after man berates woman for Puerto Rico shirt

Friday, July 13, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Darcel Rocket

Familiar questions about ‘bystander effect’ arise after man berates woman for Puerto Rico shirt

A lot of questions arose after a June 14 video was posted on social mediashowing a Cook County Forest Preserve police officer failing to aid a woman being harassed by a white male for wearing a Puerto Rican flag shirt at Caldwell Woods on Chicago's Far Northwest Side

The man, later identified as Timothy Trybus, 62, demands to know why the woman is wearing the shirt and whether she is an American citizen — even though Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and its residents are U.S. citizens.


“You should not be wearing that in the United States of America,” Trybus tells her. The woman asks the officer to intervene, but the officer, seen in the background just yards away, appears not to respond.

The video drew millions of views and, in a time when harassment is frequently caught on video, raises familiar questions about the role of bystanders.

Since the incident, the officer has resignedan internal investigation is underwayat the Cook County Forest Preserve District, and Trybus has been charged with assault, disorderly conduct and a hate crime.

“That type of harassment, that type of white nationalism, we’re seeing increase,” said Black Lives Matter Chicago chapter co-founder Aislinn Pulley. “Unfortunately, it’s not surprising.”

Pulley said videos such as these are considered “cop watching,” in which civilians (in this case the woman in the shirt) witness and record when they see a police officer interacting with another person. Organizations like the People’s Response Team offer cop-watch training, Pulley said.

Being a witness also means the opportunity to become a bystander — a person who is present at an incident but does not take part.

There are a variety of reasons bystanders don’t interfere in a confrontation — fear of being sued, fear of having to come forward later if a case goes to court, just plain inconvenience — said Arthur Lurigio, a psychology professor and senior associate dean for faculty at Loyola University Chicago’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Some bystanders may also fear becoming the target of violence.

But particularly in large groups, fear of embarrassment or the idea that someone else will help, can stand in the way.

That’s called the “bystander effect” — something psychologists and researchers have studied for years — wherein a traumatic or odd event occurring in public triggers an array of social and cultural cues which, combined with human nature, lead witnesses not to act.

“It’s pluralistic ignorance about what’s going on that keeps people from intervening,” Lurigio said.

And adding video and social media to the equation can be good and bad, Lurigio said. Some use the opportunity to amplify their own horrific acts, such as the 2017 incident in which four people used Facebook Live to broadcast their attack on a mentally disabled man. Others use it to publicly call out bad behavior.

“Certainly any bystander watching what is occurring, and seeing that officer on the scene do absolutely nothing, would be under some moral or at least some civic obligation to use their voice and express disappointment. … Calling out the obnoxious person who was acting in an offensive manner actually works very well often to defuse an incident.” said Peter Arenella, a UCLA law professor who specializes in good Samaritan issues.

Getting people to move past bystander status is a social problem without “clear-cut” answers given our current political and social climate, Arenella said.

“I do strongly believe Trump’s legitimation of hatred towards the powerless in our society has not only legitimated inaction but provided some sort of social sanction for the offensive behavior of that individual offender in the Chicago incident,” Arenella said. He also said there has been an increase in hate crimes and xenophobic and racist verbal abuse nationwide. “I don’t think it’s an accident that we’ve seen such an increase in the last two years.”

To get past inaction when facing such public scenes, Lurigio suggests bystanders put themselves in the victim’s shoes.

“Just think of yourself as belonging to a community of others and you’re part of it,” he said. “Turn on your empathy genes is what I’d recommend. Imagine if that young lady was your sister or cousin. And if you think of it that way, you are more likely to do something.”

Twitter @DarcelTribune

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