By Meghann McCluskey, CCASA Blogger
For the past week or so, the heartrending story of Tuğçe Albayrak has been flitting through my news feed amidst daily dispatches from Ferguson . Albayrak was taken off life support last Friday after sustaining several blows to the head in a violent attack outside of Frankfurt, Germany. Albayrak’s assault was far from a random act of brutality – she was intentionally targeted by her perpetrators after her successful intervention as a bystander. When Albayrak overheard two women being harassed by a group of men in a McDonald’s bathroom, she courageously interceded while the women fled to safety. A short time later, these same men cornered Albayrak in the restaurant’s parking lot and bludgeoned her to death. While all forms of violence against women are abhorrent and unacceptable, Albayrak’s murder has produced a unique breed of anguish among community members, grassroots activists, and concerned citizens worldwide. In endeavoring to disrupt violence she herself was violently victimized.
For many of us in the field of sexual violence prevention, the word “bystander” is saturated with promise and potential. We know that most perpetrators of sexual violence are men , but we also know that most men aren’t violent perpetrators. We know that the global epidemic of violence against women grows out of a deeply misogynistic culture  in which the actions of perpetrators are minimized and the actions of victims are scrutinized. And we know that many subtle and overt forms of violence have passive bystanders  – witnesses who choose to do nothing or who feel confused or fearful about doing something. Most members of the human race are not directly involved in perpetrating violence, and yet our tolerance and complicity of violent cultural norms sustains toxic environments such as U.S. college campuses, where as many as one in five women  are sexually assaulted throughout their college tenure.
Bystanders are in the prime position to stop violence where it starts – by refusing to turn a blind eye towards cultural manifestations of hostility, however insignificant they may seem. Bystanders repudiate rape jokes while others laugh. They call out cat callers instead of condoning street harassment. They step in at parties when intoxicated college students are escorted away by those who claim to be friends. And they interrupt when women are harassed in McDonald’s bathrooms. From a prevention perspective, educating and empowering latent bystanders is perhaps the single most hopeful solution in the effort to end sexual assault.
When I first read of Albayrak’s murder, I feared that her story might cast an ominous shadow over the efforts to promote bystander intervention as a conduit for violence prevention. I imagined the inevitable victim-blaming broadcast on the nightly news: She shouldn’t have stepped in. She should have minded her own business. That’s what happens when you put yourself in harm’s way. Instead, I’ve been moved by the outpouring of posthumous support Albayrak has received, both in her native Germany and across the world. Over one thousand mourners gathered for her funeral this past Wednesday, countless vigils have been held in her memory, and Germany’s president has been encouraged to award Albayrak with a Medal of Honor. Rather than being criticized for her efforts to help those in need, Albayrak is being celebrated as a role model for her courageous and selfless action.
Tuğçe Albayrak’s death comes at a stirring historical moment in which the voices of victims are gaining increased recognition. Pugnacious public figures like Ray Rice  are still evading substantial punishment, but the public outrage over intimate partner violence seems to be mounting. Bill Cosby , for example, appears to have far more detractors than defenders at present. At the same time, attempts to dismantle oppressive and militaristic systems  are gaining momentum, and institutions that overlook violence  are being held accountable. To honor Albayrak, it will serve us well to acknowledge her life – and her tragic death – as yet another call to action in these times of struggle and triumph. Albayrak’s story is not a cautionary tale about the dangers of stepping in when violence erupts. Instead, it is a powerful legacy about the merits of standing up for peace. Let’s stand with her.