“You are wearing that dress!”
Those are a few of the things that have been yelled at Brianne K. Nadeau as she walked down the street, the Democratic Ward 1 council member said last week at a D.C. Council roundtable discussion on street harassment.
The four-hour event last Thursday was co-chaired by council members Anita Bonds (D-At Large) and Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5). It drew 30 public witnesses, many of whom reported even more offensive catcalls than the ones Nadeau listed (some too vulgar to be printed). A few witnesses wept as they explained that intimidating shouts and actions caused them to relive incidents of sexual violence they have endured.
Nearly half the women who testified reported that they first experienced sexual harassment in a public space when they were 11 or 12. Several said the situation was worse in Washington than any other place they had lived.
“This is a problem we can’t continue to ignore,” said Jessica Raven, interim executive director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces.
The group is an outgrowth of Holla Back DC!, a blog that began in 2009, Raven and CASS board member Dave Chandrasekaran said after the meeting.
“Our blog has received over 900 submissions about people’s experiences with harassment in D.C.,” Raven said.
“It went from an online presence to a community group over a course of five years,” Chandrasekaran said.
The first step to dealing with the problem, Raven said, is recognizing the significance of sexual harassment. “This, for many people, has been viewed as just a nuisance,” she said. “Some have gone so far as to say it’s a compliment.”
The group has one paid staff position — Raven’s — nine volunteer staffers and a board of directors. It doesn’t maintain a list of members. “Anyone can identify as being part of the CASS movement,” Chandrasekaran said.
CASS sponsors Right Rides, a service that provides free safe rides home for women and LGBTQ people, and Safe Bars, which trains bar staff members to recognize and block sexual harassment. The lead trainer for Safe Bars is Lauren Taylor, who runs Defend Yourself, an organization that teaches women how to contend with abuse and assault.
Taylor also testified at the roundtable, describing how she was harassed every day during the six years she walked from Mount Pleasant to a job near Dupont Circle. The message of such bullying, she said, is that “public spaces belong to straight men.”
Other witnesses included Holly Kearl, founder of Stop Street Harassment; Nelle Pierson, deputy director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association and the organizer of its women and bicycles program; and Ruby Corado, whose Casa Ruby supports and advocates for transgender women. Another speaker, Darakshan Raja, discussed the hostility experienced specifically by Muslim women.
Many of the women described forms of intimidation, including groping and indecent exposure, that are clearly unlawful. Yet Raven and other witnesses expressed opposition to further criminalizing men’s bullying of women and LBGTQ people.
“We’re not advocating the decriminalization of anything that’s already a criminal act,” Raven said after the roundtable discussion. “We just don’t want further criminalization.
“We know that criminalization negatively impacts communities of color,” she added. “We also think that the very people experiencing harassment, primarily women of color, trans women of color, already have a complicated relationship with police.”
Among the government witnesses was Metro Transit Police Chief Ronald Pavlik, whose department partnered with CASS to create a public-awareness campaign with the tagline “If it’s unwanted, it’s harassment.” Metro’s efforts were repeatedly praised during the roundtable.
“What they have done could serve as a model for the city,” CASS board member Ben Merrion said.
D.C. Council roundtables are held to discuss an issue, not come up with a remedy. Although Bonds promised “action very, very shortly,” no bill has been proposed.
“Right now we’re not advocating for any specific form of legislation,” Raven said. “We just wanted to elevate the issue, and are happy to have these conversations and give people an opportunity to come and share their stories.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.