Boston to fight Islamophobia with viral ‘how to’ transport cartoon

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Source: The Guardian

By Elle Hunt

A viral online illustrated guide on how to respond to Islamophobic harassment has been adopted by US cities in a bid to make commuters more confident to intervene if they witness abuse.

Marie-Shirine Yener’s step-by-step guide first appeared on Tumblr in September, in response to what she described as “wave of Islamophobic hatred” in France. In it, the Paris-based illustrator, who goes by the alias Maeril, suggested supporting the victim by engaging them in conversation.

“It can be anything: a movie you liked, the weather …” she wrote. “Keep eye contact with them, and don’t acknowledge the attacker’s presence: the absence of response from you two will push them to leave the area shortly.” She concluded by urging her followers on Tumblr to share the how-to guide: “it could push a lot of people to overcome bystander syndrome.”

The cartoon quickly went viral, garnering more than 200,000 responses and came to the attention of four San Franciscans who were seeking to make the city’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (Bart) system more inclusive. With Maeril’s permission, they crowdfunded a run of 40 posters and displayed them in the advertising spaces on Bart trains.

Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for the transit system, told Guardian Cities the project inspired the network to its own poster campaign for inclusivity, which launched in March on the theme of “the Bay Area rides together”.

But not all of the response to the campaigns was positive, said Trost. “There was very nice social media reaction, but they also spurred racist and insensitive tweets and letters.” She added that while they don’t have any evidence that the posters helped to deescalate abusive situations, the city “strongly feels the posters help raise awareness and get people thinking about these important issues.”

Now the city of Boston has followed suit, with Maeril’s cartoon at the centre of a new public service campaign. On Monday, mayor Martin J Walsh announced a run of 50 posters to be displayed at bus stops and in other public spaces for the next six months.

In a statement, Walsh said the posters were “one tool we have to send the message that all are welcome in Boston,” adding: “Education is key to fighting intolerance, and these posters share a simple strategy for engaging with those around you.”

Suzan El-Rayess, the civic engagement director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Centre, has said the campaign “couldn’t come at a better time.” Police data last year showed hate crimes against Muslims in the city, while small in number, had nearly quadrupled from five in 2015 to 19 in 2016.

Last month a man was charged for allegedly shouting anti-Muslim slurs at a fellow subway passenger, and falsely claiming she had a bomb. Days earlier, three New Hampshire teenagers had been charged with assault and battery for allegedly beating a street performer while using racial epithets.

Faisa Sharif, the Somali neighbourhood service liaison for the mayor’s office in Boston said Maeril’s posters outlined “a proactive, inclusive strategy anyone can use if they see harassment around them.”

Maeril said the responses she’d had since the guide went global had left her confident that the technique worked. “As the creator of this guide, it is very exciting to know that the public is going to discover it in a more official, accessible way,” she said.

“It makes me hopeful that this could be a real tool against the surge of Islamophobic hate crimes.”

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