Chris McVicker’s Friday night marked his third time volunteering behind the wheel of a car.
He’s not a cabbie or an Uber driver. He lent his time to RightRides DC, the program that gives safe rides to women and the LGBTQ community — because for those most often harassed, the simple act of getting a ride from a stranger can be a horrible experience.
The service, which is operated in the District by Collective Action for Safe Spaces, which aims to stop public harassment and assault, began on last October on Halloween weekend. Since then, it has provided rides on New Year’s Eve as well. From midnight to 3:30 a.m., a team of 12, with help from Zipcar DC, will hit the streets for the first time all over the city (as opposed to just NW and NE) to provide secure rides. But it’s disheartening that a city that claims to be progressive needs such a service.
The horror stories are well known: An altercation with a ride-share driver that ends with a rape accusation. A rider getting slapped in the face after dealing with a barrage of homophobia and general hatred. An assault by a driver who doesn’t approve of your relationships. And those are just the cases that are reported.
Here’s how the system works. When RightRides DC gets a call, two people are dispatched in one car. One is always a woman. The task of navigating and driving are kept separate to make things go more smoothly. because there’s no arguing over routes. With more people, and the driver distracted, problems arise. With two people, the driver just drives. All volunteers, they undergo a criminal background check. Many of the people who sign up already understand the need for such scrutiny.
“I wanted to be a part of it as soon as I heard about it,” said McVicker, 30, who lives in Bloomingdale. “As a gay man myself, I have been on the receiving end of street harassment, and have felt unsafe taking public transportation in the past. The only frustrating thing was that we weren’t able to provide the service to more people.“
The numbers aren’t huge, but they are growing. Collective Action for Safe Spaces’ co-director Zosia Sztykowski said they got 20 people home safely on Halloween and 36 on New Year’s. “Each time, we got around 40 calls,” she said. In New York City, where the RightRides program originated, operating on weekends “a busy night draws about 30 calls,” she said. “I think this goes to show how deep the need is here in D.C. for this kind of service.”
Explaining the importance of having a safe space can be difficult. The microaggressions that make people afraid are often difficult to quantify, nevermind, say, report to a police officer. CASS sent its volunteers to ANC meetings, community centers and grocery stores throughout the city to pass out flyers and explain their cause.
It’s all part of an effort to eradicate rape culture, which is not only about the physical act. It’s also about eliminating the culture that trivializes violence and harassment of women.
Scott Berkowitz, founder and president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), which started in D.C. in 1994, thinks that we’ve made significant progress.
“I think we’ve come a long way. We’ve progressed to the point where people are largely aware of the [general] risks, where many more survivors are willing to come forward and talk about what happened to them,” Berkowitz said. “We’ve also found there’s the big evolution in corporate America. Even 10 years ago, most brands were afraid to be associated with it, they didn’t want to go near it. We see much less of that now. In fact, you see a lot of companies starting to come to us because they realize that for their customers, this is a huge issue to them.”
As a cisgender heterosexual man, I am absolutely availed of most privileges when it comes to the concept of feeling safe. But as a black person, I know how scarring and uncomfortable it can be when you feel either unwelcome or potentially under attack. For those of us (namely men), with the luxury of viewing a safe space as non-problem, being more aware of the danger that exists for women and the LGBTQ community is important.
“Organizations like CASS and others that have sprouted up in the city … are beginning to change the mindset that, that sort of behavior is not okay,” McVicker said. “I feel like we’re making strides as a community, to change this perception that being a bystander and seeing this sort of behavior happen in public is not to be tolerated anymore.”
With enough help, maybe RightRides DC can operate every weekend, in the future. Everyone deserves a safe space.