Nicola’s Got Nerve

Targeting Women in Upper Washington Heights, and Inwood

As a longtime resident of Washington Heights, I had become almost inured to the constant reports of shootings, muggings and other random acts of violence which take place in my neighborhood every day. Until a few months ago, most of those attacks were drug-related, and happened quite a few blocks south of where I live. However, now it seems that attacks which specifically target women are on the rise, and happening right on my doorstep. This not-so-new danger has hampered women’s ability to come out and enjoy their neighborhood in the warmer weather, and to feel safe even in their own homes. The threat of violence is very real, as three sexual assaults have occurred within hours of each other here, over one brutal weekend. One woman was dragged into Dyckman Fields of Inwood Hill Park, another attack happened out on the street as the victim was walking on 184th Street and Bennett Avenue, and the third attack was in the woman’s apartment building, where she was dragged to a higher floor and sexually assaulted. From personal experience in this neighborhood, I’ve observed that although the 34th police precinct is only blocks away from where all of these attacks occurred, there is definitely not enough regular police presence on these streets.

I can personally attest to the fact that there is a quiet (read: desolate) nature to the residential sections here, which although happily removed from the bustle of downtown, can at times be oppressive and dangerous, and an invitation to crime. Just a few months ago, I myself was attacked by a group of male teenagers, who saw fit to punch me in the back of my head as I was entering the 181st Street subway stop, on my way to teach a Tai Chi class. At first, I felt like a glass bottle had been thrown at me, it was so hard, but then I quickly realized that it was the group of three “kids” standing across the street, laughing at me, while I stood there holding my head in pain. I yelled and in my rage, started to run after them, but it was probably a good thing that I couldn’t catch up to them. Moments later, another woman walking toward the station reported the same thing had just happened to her. I reported it to the police immediately, but they were never caught. I’m sad to say it, but there is definitely a problem in this neighborhood with violence that targets women.

Crimes of this nature are born of a predatory instinct married to opportunity, and if there are less cops on the beat, there is simply more of an opening to take advantage of a woman walking alone. In response to the heinous sexual attacks, and the outcry for more law enforcement, police have finally taken to the street in droves, handing out flyers with a profile sketch of the Inwood attacker, and they’ve also released a video of the man who attacked a woman in her building. But I and the other women in the neighborhood have been wondering how long this increase in numbers will last. It’s like using roach baits or a roach bomb to get rid of an infestation ~ when you stop putting the baits out, and your building still has them, the roach population will immediately bounce back, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a problem again. What we need is a stepped-up, long-term presence in this neighborhood to make it clear to attackers that they’re no longer operating in a safe environment to do their evil business. City Councilman Robert Jackson has formally requested just that in a letter to NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly, and other elected officials have also joined their voices to the chorus of people calling for more protection. This is all a step in the right direction, but for the women who’ve already endured assault, way too late.

There are those who’ve responded to these crimes by saying that we should not focus on how women can avoid rape, but INSTEAD teach men not to harass or assault women. This is all very well and good for a long-term solution that has as it’s goal the total transformation of gender relationships, but the brutal fact is that rape has been used as a way of dominating women for millennia. Which is not to say that we should’nt raise our boys up to be respectful men, but for the protection of women NOW, we’ve got to keep our focus on personal self-defense and the support mechanisms in our society which can help keep us safe ~ with groups like the Inwood Safety Patrol, a volunteer pedestrian safety group, as well as more women willing and able to fight back against their aggressors. Whether we like it or not, we must take the necessary precautions to keep ourselves as safe as possible. And it’s NOT always possible, even when we take every precaution in the book, but we can drive down the odds that something bad will happen if we remain alert and sensitive to our surroundings. I agree that it’s a shame we are (again) placed in this defensive posture, but the cardinal rule of self-defense is awareness. And this means modifying you’re personal behavior to keep you from harm, like running in pairs, not jogging late at night, early in the morning, in desolate surroundings, etc. I know it’s not right, but we’ve got to do what’s necessary to fight again another day.

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  1. Kathleen says:

    While I always enjoy Nicola’s column and am inspired by her courage and perseverance in fighting back against the oppression and domination of women felt through harassment and assault, I find myself uneasy reading the ending paragraph. It’s the same uneasiness I feel when hearing others speak about how to avoid assault and harassment, or when others ask where you were, why you were alone, or what you were wearing when it happened.

    This is a frustrating truth to admit, but one that I’m sure we’re all aware of…By limiting ourselves and trying to preempt every possible attack on us as women, we cannot avoid assault or harassment. I know that we have to be realistic and live in the world as it is and not as it should be, but in doing this, we enable others to become complacent (as they have) and neglect the problems we face everyday.

    Trying to reshape the way we all think about women will not be easy, but it needs to part of the plan, in conjunction with self-defense. It’s wrong that women have to live as second-class citizens, backing themselves into smaller and smaller spaces where they feel safe. Anything can happen to you anywhere and sometimes, it doesn’t matter how hard you try. There is only so much control you can exert over your environment. Education and awareness is key and Hollaback! is a crucial part of what needs to be done.

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