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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.
When I was 15 years old, I was volunteering in a soup kitchen, and got in a conversation with a particularly kind older man. He was eating a piece of slightly burnt garlic bread and drinking lukewarm water out of a used yogurt cup, and as I sat there, he told me that he believed in my potential and that he saw hope for a bright future ahead of me. Tragically, this same man also told me that he did not have any hope left for himself.
After an hour of speaking with him, I excused myself to go to the bathroom. And I started to cry. Angry, uncontrollable tears. This world, his fate, seemed so unfair to me. Here he was in a soup kitchen and there I was, never having to worry about where my next meal was coming from. And while I got in my car to drive home. He would come back tomorrow. Still hungry, still with this sense of hopelessness.
It was the first time I had to reconcile our country’s great creed, with our country’s harsh realities. Right here in the land of the free, right here in the home of the brave, this man had fallen so far that he couldn’t see his way out. And yet when I looked around in this face of this tragedy– the world kept driving, kept eating, kept laughing like it wasn’t happening. Like it was his pain, not all of our pain. And that really ticked me off.
My mom – the ever resourceful librarian – picked up on my developing sense of justice and directed me towards books about the turbulent sixties. I read them eagerly. The marches, the protests, Woodstock, Martin Luther King, Gloria Steinum, Rosa Parks, Vietnam. I started to see a world full of problems, a world full of injustice – from sexual violence, to war, and poverty and racism.
And I couldn’t help but to think: WHERE ARE MY GENERATION’S GREAT LEADERS?
I am here today to tell you I was looking in the wrong place.
My generations great leaders are re-wired, re-configured, and de-centralized. You see — technology fundamentally changed the way we work. Fads move faster. Information moves faster. Culture moves faster.
Today if you make the mistake of looking for leadership that resembles these great women and men of the past, you might think Lady Gaga or Ashton Kutcher is the best my generation can muster.
But Don’t let the news fool you. There is a lot more to my generation. You see, in the days before the internet, there was only one mic, one podium, one speaker. But now, thanks to the proliferation of blogging and social media everyone has a mic, we can all speak. It’s no longer about who speaks the loudest, or who rules the airwaves. We can all have voices. And I honestly believe that this is changing the way that movements happen.
I want to talk with you today about one movement – the movement to end street harassment – and more specifically my organization – Hollaback.
For those of you that have never heard of the term, street harassment is sexual harassment in public space. It includes verbal and nonverbal harassment, stalking, groping, and public masturbation. Street harassment unfairly targets young people, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) folks, and people of color. It is the most persistent and pervasive form of gender-based violence.
On our site, at ihollaback.org, we document stories of street harassment.
Just this week, we got a story from a girl named Kate. Kate and her friend Mia were grabbed from behind by a jogger. Kate was grabbed by the breast and choked as she began to fight back. “Get the fuck away from me!” she screamed. After the assailant let her go, he began sauntering as if he had done nothing wrong.
We also got a story from Kristin in San Francisco. Kristen was on a crowded bus when she felt a perpetrator’s genitals moving up and down on her thigh. As she moved away the larger man followed her, forcing her to get off at the nearest stop. Kristin now suffers from anxiety attacks.
And when a 16 year-old back in New York saw a man exposing himself to her she said, “I’ve been thinking about it, trying to forget about it because Idon’t want this to ruin my life. I keep saying to myself, ‘it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen’; however, as I type this I’m beginning to realize, ‘yes, it really did.’”
In the words of Chitra Nagarajan, the Director at Gender Action for Peace and Security, “you are either at the table, or you are on the menu.”
But historically an invitation to the table has only been handed to an elite few. A quick look at our presidents show mostly white, all male. A scan of Fortune 500 CEO’s shows that 5 are African American, four are Latino, and there are only 14 women. Out of 500 CEOs.
My parents generation broke glass ceilings and my generation has been left to climb through glass chards. What we thought was a world of opportunity turned out to be a bloody mess so, – a few of us gave up on waiting to be invited to sit at the table. And we started to build our own damn table.
The story of Hollaback begins in 2005, around the same time that cell phone cameras and blogs hit the mainstream. We were a group of friends – both men and women – and we were fed up with street harassment. We were specifically fed up with not having a response. When we walked on, we felt weak. When we yelled at guys the situation escalated. The police didn’t care.
So, using our cell phone camera and the free blogger platform, we started snapping photos and blogging our experiences to bring awareness to what was happening to us.
Low and behold, what was happening us, was happening to people around the world. In the US it’s called “cat-calls,” “in India it’s called ‘eve-teasing’” and in most Spanish speaking countries it’s called piropos. But no matter where you are the world, street harassment leaves you feeling degraded and scared to walk freely in your own community.
Hollaback is a hyper-local, hyper-personal response to a global issue – so, to address it we build a global community. We moved everyone onto the same wordpress platform, gave everyone complete control over their blogs, their projects, their media, their social media – and we connected through a listserve, and started provided trainings and running campaigns together. In short, we built a big, fat, table. And everyone is invited.
And what we’ve seen is that the people who don’t have traditional access to leadership – i.e. the people who aren’t usually invited to the table, are the people who are leading the movement to end street harassment. Our site leaders are 44% LGBTQ, 26% people of color, and 75% under the age of 30. These aren’t just the leaders of the movement to end street harassment. If we’ve built this table as well as we think we have– these will be the next leaders of the world.
Now, I know what we’re doing right now looks a lot like leadership of the past I’m one girl up here with a mic. But I want to be dead clear on this: it is our site leaders, not me, who are making this a movement.
Because let’s face it: I’m an English speaking, 30 year old, white girl. And I can’t represent anything other than my experiences – and you may or may not relate to them. There are some people in this room right now who thinking I’m rocking it now. Some of you thought the guy before me was way better. And some of you are just waiting for happy hour. I’m not going to hit the soul-chords of all of you, it’s just not possible.
But, with 100 site leaders in 38 cities in 14 countries speaking 8 languages — I’d be willing to bet you that one of them will totally knock your socks off. One of them will inspire you to actually sit at our table, to rethink your assumptions, and to hope for a world without street-harassment. As our website will tell you, that’s not the world we’re living in now.
But the beauty of movement building on the web is that everyone has a voice, an audience, for their triumphs as well as their tragedies. And sure, you still have to pick who you sit next to at this big fat table, just like you have to pick who you want to follow on twitter. But don’t worry, you can change your mind and move seats. The important thing is that you’re here. And you’re speaking.
AND THIS change in the way we lead – is changing the way we change the world.
So come. Sit with us. Hostess gifts are tax deductible and welcome, but not required. Just know that at our table you’ll have some the best conversations of your life, you won’t have to scream or shout, and you’ll always have a mic, and you’ll be sitting right next to some of our generation’s greatest leaders.
Join us. And thank you.
I was pulled over by Virginia State Trooper BR Boteler. He told me if I gave him a blow job, he would make the ticket disappear. I took my reckless driving ticket…and my dignity. I made a complaint to Sergeant Nelson and he said that Trooper Boteler’s camera was broken and it was his word against mine. I’m sure he will eventually get caught.
Our site in Tegus, Honduras organized a slutwalk in Tegucigalpa — and here are the inspiring results.
BY AISHA ZAKIRA, Director of Hollaback! Mumbai. (This piece is cross-posted from Hollaback Mumbai)
Our apologies for all the quiet on our end, but we’re back and ready for some serious snap, crackle and pop – HOLLAstyle. We have a lot coming up, but first, we wanted to talk about Umang Sabarwal’s initiation of SlutWalk Delhi, and the issues surrounding the first Asian protest of the movement against the belief that any aspect of a woman’s appearance might explain or excuse sexual violence. It’s an incredibly bold move. And before I start my spiel, I should say that my hat is off to Ms. Sabarwal for this incredibly brave leap of faith.
When a movement that was initiated in a Western country is brought to India, there will be an inevitable mélange of frenzied backlash, unbridled fervor and everything in between. Many a raised eyebrow have I seen. The main issue reiterated by the media is the use of the word ‘slut’ in the Indian context. As journalist Annie Zaidi said “on the street, it’s never thrown at you. You’re never called a ‘slut.’ It’s hard to reclaim a word that isn’t used.” She is absolutely right. The word is generally understood and used by those in the upper echelons of society who have a closer proximity to western culture. It isn’t like verbal expression isn’t used in the wide and wonderful spectrum of harassment (earlier today I was harassed by a group of men, one of whom called me a baigan, an eggplant) but the focus is generally on a woman’s body as a commodity in the present tense, rather than on her sexual history. It often feels like the focus is on how your body will be used, not how it has been used.
Moreover, SlutWalk is primarily about the desire to dress as one pleases, an issue that is often seen as irrelevant to the vast majority of Indian women in the face of more salient issues like basic workplace safety. The concern is that this will be a space accessible to wealthy women, but ideologically closed to women from every other strata of society. I also wonder about the accessibility of SlutWalk in a culture in which the honor and the – dare I say it? – morality of a woman is inextricably linked to the honor of her family and her community. I am concerned about the number of women who will not participate in SlutWalk out of fear of backlash from family and the wider community. To walk in public protest against attitudes that are so deeply ingrained into society is groundbreaking, but who has the power and space to actually participate? Will it be that the only women who can participate are those who have the economically privileged space to do so? What will that mean for those who do not feel they can participate? Journalist Bishakha De Sarkar argues that there is no reason why we can’t have many movements at different levels of society. I’m with her here; I do believe that different initiatives can act as threads that intertwine to form a stronger rope. My only concern is if one of the opening initiatives in this movement makes many women feel alienated from this discussion, then are we shooting ourselves in the foot from the get go?
I think SlutWalk needs to be one thread of a multi-stranded rope. It needs to take place in tandem with other movements to give all women a number of options by which to make noise about harassment. SlutWalk is an incredible movement, but all movements need to be localized. They need to speak to the needs of people in different cultures and contexts so that they can be as useful as possible.
But even if SlutWalk is not localized in name, the movement is ultimately about fighting the attitude that perpetuates harassment. I keep coming back to a quote from Umang Sabarwal, “the way the men look at you, you feel like meat.” This is what it comes down to: feeling like meat. Feeling ashamed and powerless. Feeling like you are not the sum of your ideals, your opinions, your experiences and whatever else you decide, you are just the capacity of your physical body as a sexual object. India is too quiet about street harassment. The world is too quiet about street harassment. And even though SlutWalk is primarily focused on women being able to wear what we want without fear of harassment or abuse, I have a feeling that Sabarwal would remind us that this is one aspect of a wider struggle against the attitude that says that women are less than, and should stay that way. For this reason, I’m all about SlutWalk Delhi. There are issues with this, but we need to start somewhere, and the prospect of women taking to the streets of India’s capital in protest of an attitude that has for centuries served to silence is undoubtedly a beautiful beginning.
First, I heard Emily May , Executive Director of Hollaback! speak at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance’s annual 3 day retreat in Harrisonburg, Virginia this week. Great presentation, by the way.
Now for the story: I was driving home from the retreat and stopped in the little town of Front Royal Virginia to buy some coffee. I pulled my car over, parked on Main Street, proceeded to get out of the car, and cross at a pedestrian crosswalk. A carload of young 20 somethings stopped – one of the boys in the backseat rolled down the window and made some guttural noises and then said ” Oh, baby, lookin good”. I am a 52 year old female. I stopped in the middle of the crosswalk and said ” young man, you are really being inappropriate and cat calls are insulting and violate women of any age. I am old enough to be your mother. How would you like it if someone was disrespecting your mother or your sister? How do you think the noises you are making would make them feel? Furthermore those ridiculous noises you are making with the stupid editorial remarks make you look like a Neanderthal. I am certain your parents did not raise you to be a Neanderthal”.
Please keep in mind, that during my dissertation I was standing in the middle of a pedestrian crosswalk, holding up traffic, and not allowing this particular car to pass. I actually drew a small crowd. When, I was finished I crossed the street, walked into the coffee shop, and the car pulled away.
Many years ago, in the late 70’s, a group of feminists in Chicago went to a local construction site where the workers made obscene gestures and remarks to women as they walked by. The women climbed the corner for about a week, lining up, and yelling at the men making inappropriate remarks. The women would “hey baby” the men that harassed the women. Every time the men grab their crotch or make an inappropriate gesture at a woman walking by, the women on the corner would do the same. It was quite empowering for the women of course; the cat calling construction workers were eventually silenced and looked like fools.
Many years ago I would holler back, but overtime I learned to ignore insulting and degrading remarks and gestures made by men. Hollering back felt damn good.
It was a sunny day and I was waiting on a friend. She was taking a driving lesson and would be finished in about an hour so I bought lunch and sat down on a stone fountain/monument in the middle of the town square. When I sat down there was a couple sitting on the other side of the fountain (they had left sometime before I had finished eating) and lots of people sitting in the outdoor areas of the nearby restaurants and cafés.
I was listening to music and had just finished eating when an elderly man (around 65-75 perhaps) came up to me and seemed to want to say something, so I politely stopped my music and took out the head phones from my ears. He asked something about the weather and I answered conversationally.
See, the thing is that elderly people seem to enjoy talking to me and I’m used to them starting conversations when we’re waiting for the bus, so this wasn’t anything strange for me, and I rather like the conversations myself.
But this man suddenly asked if he could just say one thing, to which I confused said that sure, of course he could. He said that my breasts were beautiful, big and beautiful. I didn’t know how to respond so I smiled awkwardly and thanked him, and he seemed to see my discomfort because he started talking about other things again. But then soon after he returned to talking about my body, and asked if there wasn’t a special boy for me (to which I dearly wish I had told him I preferred girls) to which I answered negative, and he took that as a clue to talk about how I needed a good boyfriend, and I wouldn’t have to worry, because there are surely someone out there, and so on.
And then started talking about how some young girls could be the company of older men and get money for it, and he talked about his own ‘prowess in bed’ (and this is where I got really, really uneasy and started to get freaked out) and gave some very unsubtle hints that he would give me money to have sex with him. I, still very politely, said that I didn’t need any money and I would much rather have a job than be one of those girls, but he persisted and commented my body more.
I then decided I couldn’t stay there longer and picked up my cellphone, to which he asked if I was going to call the police. I said I wasn’t, I was just going to check on my friend that I was waiting for, because she was late, and proceeded to have a false conversation in which I agreed to meet her on the way, and politely said good bye to the old man. But that wasn’t enough, because before I got away he grabbed my hand and tried to kiss me, but I pulled away and hurriedly walked away. There was still at least 45 minutes before my friend’s lesson was finished, so I walked to a park a few minutes away to wait for her there instead. When she finally got there I told her about it and we joked and were shocked about it and that was basically it, except that I didn’t want to go back to that square in case he would be there.
Now, several weeks later I’ve started to feel uneasy around every elderly man and I’ve found myself thinking about going other ways so I don’t have to go through that square. This annoys me so much, because they’re older men and I’m not a small, petite, or weak girl, and they wouldn’t be able to do anything towards me. That man wouldn’t be able to do anything against my will.
But sometimes I feel almost scared of going to that place, scared I’ll meet him. And this pisses me off so much.
My boyfriend was working an early shift and I’d stayed over the night before. When he left at half four I got the bus to town to catch my bus home. Whilst waiting at the stop a man tapped me on the shoulder and told me he liked my nostril piercing. He asked where I’d been so I told him, thinking he was coming on to me and if he knew I had a boyfriend he’d back off. Not so. He asked how I could look so down when I’d had a “night of passion”. I ignored him. He then started asking me if my boyfriend “fucked me good”. I told him I wasn’t going to talk about that, but he kept on until my bus came. He then got on the same one. He sat in the seat behind me and carried on asking me more gratuitous questions about my sex life. I kept telling him I wasn’t talking about that with him, but he wouldn’t stop. The one comment that stands out is when he made an action signifying oral sex and asked “when he does this to you, does he make you come?” I was so disgusted. I told him that was none of his business, and he told me “I’d make you come”. Thankfully he got off at the next stop, but I didn’t stop thinking about it for days.
Another incident happened at the same bus stop, just about a week later. I was walking from there to the stop to catch the bus to my boyfriend’s, minding my own business, when a man stood in front of me as I walked past and said “they’re some strong thighs you’ve got there tonight,” staring at my legs. I don’t know what he thought gave him the right to comment on my body; it’s my body, it’s not there for his enjoyment.
I was walking home from school today and from the corner of my eye, an older man walking past me reached out. I didn’t know what he was doing, then he grabbed my left breast really hard. I didn’t know what to say. I felt so scared and angry… there were a lot of people standing around outside of a bar and no one said or did anything. Hey you old, horrible man: I don’t care where you’re from, I don’t care what culture you grew up in, I don’t care what norms you’re used to, I don’t care if you’re drunk: YOU MAY NOT TOUCH ME. Ever.
I made it almost a year without getting harassed, and Spain is notorious for it’s sexism and domestic violence.
The next time, I will be braver. I will be prepared. I will punch the asshole right in the mouth. This is MY body and it is MY property and scum like you don’t deserve to live.
Last Saturday, on June 11th, the Lesbian Group Kontra, Iskorak and Domine (an NGO) organized the first Gay Pride in Split, Croatia. The theme of was the right for the protection of same-sex couples’ family life. Around the 150 – 200 pride parade participants between 8000 – 10000 people gathered and proceeded to insult, threaten, and throw various objects and tear gas at the participants. Approximately 600 police officers were on duty, but they didn’t stop the insults and throwing of objects that have hurt several participants. Before and after Gay Pride several hate groups have organized throughout Croatia, threatening the LGBTIQ folks using public signs and the internet, and now they are calling for a new wave of violence at the Gay Pride that will take place this Saturday in Zagreb. The safety of LGBTIQ folks in public spaces in Croatia is currently under question.
TO THE ORGANIZERS OF GAY PRIDE IN ZAGREB AND SPLIT
HOLLABACK! and the global Hollaback! community wishes to express its support to all organizers and participants of Gay Prides in Split and Zagreb. The Gay Prides represent a peaceful civil gathering aimed at raising awareness of the discrimination against LGBTIQ people and fighting against the discrimination.
HOLLABACK shares with the Gay Pride organizers the goal of making public spaces free of violence and safe for all people, where everybody is able to fulfil their right for a peaceful public gathering and statement of their causes.
We condemn the violence against the Gay Pride participants in Split and all other types of violence in public spaces, and ask authorities to carry out their duties in the same, responsible way for all citizens, as well as to secure public space for everybody, regardless of their sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, race, beliefs or any other.
Please show your support for Hollaback! Croatia by leaving a comment on their blog.