When hate happens to someone else, what do you do?

Megan Lim used a technique from an intervention course to stop a customer who was berating Target workers.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Megan Lim used a technique from an intervention course to stop a customer who was berating Target workers.

Megan Lim is, by her own description, not the sort who would jump into a volatile situation.

Yet that’s exactly what the 39-year-old Watertown resident did recently at a local Target store. She was in a checkout line when she heard a white man berating two female employees, one black and one white, and his taunts were turning ugly. About a dozen other shocked customers just stood there, frozen.

Lim said she wheeled her carriage over, casually positioned it between the screaming man and the employees, and in a quiet voice pretended to ask the women a mundane question, as if she were shopping.


Weeks earlier, Lim had learned the ploy at a bystander intervention course, a type of training that has taken off since last year’s presidential elections. Course instructors say they have been inundated with requests from people who are witnessing bigoted behavior but are afraid or uncertain how to intervene.

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“I was scared,” Lim said. “I thought other people wanted to speak up, but they didn’t know how.”

The screaming shopper, flummoxed by Lim’s actions, stopped yelling, she said. And then he just stormed out of the store, much to Lim’s amazement.

Hateful incidents don’t usually end in violence. But a tragic turn is always a possibility, such as the fatal stabbing last week aboard a Portland, Ore., train of two men who tried to intervene as a third man allegedly yelled racist and anti-Muslim slurs at two women.

Bystander intervention training isn’t new. Hollaback! , a New York antiharassment group, has offered a course since 2011 and most years trains about 250 people, said Emily May, its executive director.


But Hollaback! executives designed a webinar to make the group’s instruction more widely available amid increasing reports of hateful incidents, such as when Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones and a family recently encountered racist epithets at Fenway Park.

About 1,800 people nationwide, including Lim, have completed the course, with hundreds more signed up, May said. The cost of the online training ranges from $5 to $50, depending on a participant’s ability to pay, May said.

Dan Ottenheimer, a 60-year-old Arlington resident, took the online course, but felt a live workshop would be more helpful for friends who were also interested in such training. While searching online for local workshops, Ottenheimer stumbled upon Quabbin Mediation , a Central Massachusetts community group that has been offering bystander intervention training for 10 years.

Ottenheimer convinced Quabbin’s executive director to offer sessions closer to Boston and to hone her four-hour workshop to two hours to appeal to a wider audience. He also joined with two Arlington neighbors to form the Boston Active Bystander Coalition , a group that has grown to include religious and social justice organizations, and since the spring has promoted workshops on “how to respond when we witness bigotry and intolerance,” according to its website. The group typically requests that each participant donate $10 for the training.

Ottenheimer, whose father is a Holocaust survivor, said he felt compelled to act.


“My family has experienced firsthand how people can be persecuted, how it can get out of control, if other people just stand by and silently let it occur,” he said.

Lim said that when she saw the confrontation at Target, “I knew I had to do something.”
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Lim said that when she saw the confrontation at Target, “I knew I had to do something.”

The two-hour Quabbin Mediation workshop teaches participants to recognize five factors that typically inhibit people from intervening. They include fear of revenge or retaliation, anxiety about acting inappropriately, and confusion among bystanders, which leads to no one stepping forward to take charge, said Sharon Tracy, executive director and cofounder of Quabbin Mediation in Orange.

Participants break into small groups and create strategies to combat their inhibitions.

“We don’t tell you what to do, we teach you how to analyze situations,” Tracy said. “People come up with the most amazing ideas.”

One of Tracy’s favorites was hatched by a group that decided an effective way to defuse a hateful rant would be to start singing the John Lennon song “Give Peace a Chance.”

A more typical solution for a bystander who witnesses someone being harassed is to pretend the target of harassment is a friend waiting to meet for coffee. Striking up a conversation with the person can throw the harasser off-kilter and provide an opportunity for the target of the rant to escape the barrage, Tracy said.

But Tracy and other workshop leaders remind would-be Samaritans to be realistic and to remember that danger is real — a warning Tracy said she intends to underscore in future training sessions by recounting last week’s fatal stabbing in Portland.

“Calling the police in most situations is a good idea,” Tracy said. “But if you are in a bystander situation and you are an immigrant without papers, that may not be an option.”

Tracy said the Portland experience highlights the need for bystanders to pause and analyze a situation before jumping in.

Rona Fischman , a 59-year-old former guidance counselor, recently completed Quabbin Mediation training and now teaches intervention workshops. She tells participants that it is unlikely they will be able to change the thinking of an aggressor bent on hate and to instead focus on safely deescalating a situation.

Fischman also urges participants to seek out a passerby or others in the crowd as allies before stepping in.

“Delegate. Find someone else on the street to help you get between these two people,” she said. “It’s all situation-dependent, but you are always safer in numbers.”

That’s a key part of the training that Lim, the Watertown resident, skipped when she sprang into action at a Target store. Lim did scan other shoppers’ faces and wondered if anyone would step forward. But as the screaming man seemed to be getting more angry, Lim worried things might get violent. So she acted.

If she had to do it again, she would have sought backup.

“It might have been helpful to just grab someone to go with me, so there were more of us,” Lim said. “But I was shocked this situation was happening, and I knew I had to do something.”

Kay Lazar can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.