Jan 062012


The other day I had the great good fortune to hear a wonderful presentation by Dorothy Edwards on the Green Dot approach to violence prevention.

You’ll recognize the visual analogy she scrawled on the board for us. It’s in every science fiction movie you’ve ever watched about some contagious condition: Outbreak, I Am Legend, the end of the new Planet of the Apes. First there’s one red dot, then another, then another, and at some point the pandemic tips into epidemic mode and the red dots are everywhere.

Think of the red dots as episodes of violence, actual or threatened. Dorothy asks, What if every red dot were surrounded by a bunch of green dots: people who will not condone violence and who will take action in some way, whether it’s handled directly, delegated (for example, by calling the police), or accomplished through distraction of some kind?

The world is full of far more green dots than red dots. We just need to know how to act appropriately and effectively and the red dots won’t reach that break-out point.

She asked us to take at least one action in our personal lives and one in our professional lives to pass on this idea, to be a green dot. Just by acting to increase awareness of possibility you make a difference.

This blog post isn’t done just to fulfill that, though. It arose out of my pondering on the talk as I rode home because it relates directly to an experience I had on my bike, and it taps into my deepest fears as a mother—that something bad will happen to one of my babies and that someone who could have done something to stop it stands by, or worse yet walks away.

I think the mere act of riding a bike in some ways makes me a green dot.

Not necessarily always in the direct intervening mode—story to follow on that. But by riding my bike I remove the steel shell that surrounds so many people. I make myself available. I am open to interaction. I make eye contact with total strangers.

This means I frequently give directions to pedestrians and drivers. I smile at the skateboarders in downtown and the people sitting outside the single-room-occupancy hotel or jaywalking on Division. I once told a guy with long gray hair wearing a leather motorcycle jacket covered with patches that I too was “Born to Ride”–that’s what it said on the big patch on his back.

I have the chance to say “Hi!” to the kids waiting at bus stops. I usually ring my bell for them too, to try to get a smile at the crazy lady in the skirt on the bike, and to get their attention so I can be an object lesson: “Look! Adults ride bikes—you don’t have to stop when you get your driver’s license!”

I recognize people and wave, and because I’m not going very fast they have time to see the wave and maybe even respond.

Riding my bike makes me happy so I’m often smiling. At a stoplight I look up at the blue sky or around at the architecture or the trees (depending on where I am), and by doing so I remind people there is more to life than the asphalt ribbon in front of them.

I chat with pedestrians as we wait together at a red light. I admire babies in strollers. I ask people on bikes stopped alongside the road if they need help. I’ve confessed I even get a little ticked off if I don’t get this kind of friendly interaction from a fellow bike-riding member of humanity.

I am in the world in a way I just don’t get from driving.

Someone in a car can just keep driving if he or she sees something happening. Wouldn’t want to halt traffic, now, would we?

On a bike, though, it’s easy for me to stop and take a minute. Since I try to be mindful, and since I’m not as hassled about time on my bike as I am in a car, I’m more apt to make that extra bit of eye contact with someone that makes me approachable, makes me someone you can ask for help.

I’m going to take advantage of the openness a bike gives me to see what difference I can make.

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Reader Comments

  1. “If you survey the general population and ask people if they would commit an act of violence against someone else, the VAST majority of people in the U.S. say NO. ”

    But we are not talking about those people. We are talking about people, no matter what they may have said in response to a survey, are in the act of some violence.

    “This is one person committing one act of violence”

    Q.E.D., and hence prepared to do violence. Ultimately they did indeed win, but they had the good sense to foresee the need for medical attention at Dharasana. Just because it is not formal warfare or genocide does not mean it is not a violent conflict and can therefore proceed without the risk of casualties to the nonviolent.

    Your advice to dial 911 to solicit professional intervention is excellent. I have been responsible for the apprehension of a man with an outstanding murder warrant that way.

  2. Thanks for sharing your story, Todd. You’re right–we do get lots more experience reading other people’s intentions. I hadn’t thought of that.

    To kfg, I have to say that the statistics don’t agree with you. If you survey the general population and ask people if they would commit an act of violence against someone else, the VAST majority of people in the U.S. say NO. They aren’t going to become red dots. The point of the training is that if they don’t act–if they don’t become green dots–the red dots win even though they’re by far in the minority.

    This isn’t about war or genocide. The would-be rapist or gay-basher doesn’t have an army at his back. This is one person committing one act of violence–or not committing it because someone else stepped up. Acting WILL make a difference.

  3. “What if every red dot were surrounded by a bunch of green dots: people who will not condone violence and who will take action in some way . . .

    There will be more red dots.

  4. A few years ago I took part in the entire four day training for college campus administrators and was really impressed by this program. One of the training video’s used comes from the TV show, “what would you do” and involves a staged domestic violence situation along a paved exercise trail between a couple. I was impressed by who actually stopped to intervene and who treated the situation like it was none of their business. At least one of the people who stopped to confront the couple was on a bike, which required them to slow, stop, and get off their bike to then engage the aggressor and attempt to draw away the person being mistreated.

    I think that bicyclists are the most perfect people to do greed dots and here is why. Greed dots can come in the form of being direct, delegating, or distracting the situation. As cyclists we are usually very good at the first two. We can just jump right in and ask the person feeling the negative of power based personal violence if they are OK and if they need our help, or if they feel safe. My personal favorite is to delegate, which means pass the responsibility to intervene to someone else. Usually in my case it involves making a call to 911 from my cell phone and asking that law enforcement investigate or intervene. Distracting is like metaphorically yelling “squirrel” like in the movie UP to distract the attention away while getting the victim to safety.

    Here is why bikers are capable of the most green dots:
    1) They see a lot- they bike and bike many miles and have a statistically higher probability of seeing bad behavior like striking, yelling, harassing, stalking (waiting for someone at their car) that gives the average person the creeps and churns their stomach in that not so go way.
    2) They are great at thin slicing situations- as a bike rider you learn to read people’s intentions and motives a little quicker at intersections and can size up if something bad is about to happen 9 times out of 10.
    3) They are athletic and have a quick means of escape- the bike is a fast evacuation tool for yourself. This is not to say that out of shape people who are of smaller physical presence don’t do a ton of green dots. In those training videos used in green dot training it was also often the grandmother or middle age mother out for a stroll with no perceived physical strengths who would confront the aggressors
    4) We almost always carry our cell phone- you might think that calling for backup like 911 all the time is irresponsible or overly taxing to our emergency response system. I would argue that is exactly what it is for. We pay between 70% and 80% of our city tax towards public safety and it is a wonderful system. It really is one of the best in the WORLD. I call 911 now between 5 and 10 times a year and don’t think twice about asking armed and uniformed officers, and sometimes fire fighters, to look into something that looks very fishy.

    Lastly I have a tale, one I am not too proud of that helped cement my behavior. One early morning a few years back I was nearly to my office on my bike when I passed through a city park (mission park) parking lot. I noticed that there was a white Subaru outback parked all alone in the lot around 7:00 AM. As I biked past it I noticed what looked like a man and a women laying down in the backseat with a few blankets and jackets over them. They both shot me a somewhat terrified glance that they had been caught doing something that they shouldn’t have been doing in a parking lot. I just kept on biking to work and thought to myself that was strange. Now looking back I wish I had done a green dot in that situation and gone over to the car and asked the woman in the car if she was safe and OK. If she giggled and responded that she was just very embarrassed I could have biked away with a clear conscience. But to this day I wonder if those two hadn’t been out drinking all night and if that was a text book case of date rape that I could have stopped. I guess the moral of this story is it is better to intervene when you gut gets triggered instead of “minding your own business” and letting others get hurt. It is after all someone’s sister, brother, daughter, son or wife in that car.

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