By LOU LaROCHE
“Activism” has become a modern-day dirty word for some, synonymous with dodgy police tactics, professional protesters and “grubby-looking transient types” who seem to like complaining about everything. It’s very easy, when watching news footage of the latest actions being taken, to feel divorced from other types of people who don’t just have opinions but feel the need to shout, march and break stuff because of them.
But actually, that’s not what activism is about. From the end of slavery to women’s suffrage to ending Third World debt, activism is about not just complaining about something, but getting those complaints to the right people at the same time that other people are doing the same thing. Seems obvious, right?
Yet somehow society’s need to get up and change things from time to time, to say “Enough is enough” has been translated to mean action taken only by those who identify themselves as being on the far fringes of society. Yet everyone has opinions, and everyone gets frustrated when they’re not heard. So how is it that more “mainstream folk” came to feel that it wasn’t our place to demand hearing?
About three weeks ago, I was on a bus with my autistic five-year-old son, traveling through Bristol, UK. Three older teenagers got on and – though my child was plainly visible – proceeded to verbally abuse me (graphic sexual language), touch me, run their fingers through my hair and laugh at my demands that they stop. When another passenger threatened violence, I took my child, complained to an indifferent bus driver and got off the bus.
About three days ago I gave up hope of finding anyone save my closest female friends who would care at all about what happened to me (and my son) that night. Met with constant indifference, “Boys will be boys” and “Well, no-one was hurt, were they?” I’d fallen foul of the crime we all commit when this happens to us: I chalked it up to experience, pushed it to the back of my mind and let life continue. I’d tried to use my voice and had been told, quite clearly, to shut up.
Then I read about Hollaback! And I became an activist.
This campaign isn’t about gathering together disgruntled women in enough numbers to grab a quick media spot on the news before being forgotten. It’s about a constant and sustained refusal to put up with aggressive verbal and sexual harassment in our public places. It’s not about “action” in any brutal sense, but about collecting our experiences together and using the sheer multitude of them to draw attention to what we have to deal with almost every single time we leave our homes and workplaces. It’s about raising the profile of this sort of unacceptable behaviour and about letting women and gay men (and anyone else who is victimised in the street) know that they DO NOT have to put up with this any longer. Like all proper activism, Hollaback! is about empowerment and change.
To be a Hollaback! activist, you just need to talk to someone. No marching. No sign-waving. No throwing stuff through windows. No rubbing shoulders with complete strangers. Share the story of what happened to you on the website with hundreds of thousands of women from around the world; it’s surprising how good it feels to actually say out loud “This happened and it was horrible” and know that no-one is going to palm you off with “Don’t know what you’re making such a fuss for” or “They’re just playing about”.
But Hollaback! isn’t a victims’ club, either – you don’t even have to have experienced this first-hand to jump in. Try asking the next woman you see if she’s ever been cat-called in the street and whether she thinks that sort of thing is acceptable. If her reply is something along the lines of “It’s disgusting”, tell her about Hollaback!
In that moment, to your enormous surprise, you’ll have become an activist, too.
Lou lives in Bristol, England, and will be leading July’s Hollaback Bristol launch. To get involved, please email us.