Yesterday was the First Annual International Anti-Street Harassment Day. In Philadelphia, nearly twenty of us gathered to speak out against street harassment and engage our community. Ten of us went to 52nd Street and seven of us met at Rittenhouse Square.
Holly Kearl, author of the book Stop Street Harassment : Making Public Spaces Safe for Women and Girls, is the woman behind all of this. Her call to action mobilized women and men in cities across the world yesterday, to speak out and demand an end to street harassment.
When I heard about this, I figured many of my girlfriends (and some male friends) would be down for the cause. Street harassment is something we talk about. Many of us notice or encounter it on a regular basis. In fact, this is what inspired me to make the film Walking Home. For many of us, street harassment is something we have been conditioned to “get used to.”
Despite this normalization, we recognized the value in coming together on this day, to speak out in solidarity and say STOP. We want to feel SAFE. We want to feel comfortable in our neighborhoods and beyond.
Our first meeting was in a West Philadelphia community center. There were six of us and we had lots of ideas and less than thirty days to organize. After this meeting, we struggled to meet face to face and communicated mostly online. There were four things we agreed upon as a group, however:
2. We wanted to engage people in conversations.
3. We wanted to connect street harassment of women and girls to the harassment of LGBT folks, men of color who are harassed by the cops and others who often feel vulnerable, uncomfortable or unsafe in public spaces due to harassment.
4. We wanted to contribute to this effort inside, outside and online.
The outside piece was important because we wanted to reclaim public space. But there were some things we thought we could do better inside, like a performance that could bring attention to street harassment and our action before March 20th. This idea manifested at Pirate Radio Live at the Blockley Pourhouse in the form of spoken word and reflection. As for online, we wanted to utilize social media to raise awareness and promote dialogue. Digital media would be our tool to document and share our process.
At some point during the brainstorm process, I learned of some work that my friend Iresha, activist and founder of Summer for the Sistas, has been doing. On a sunny weekend you may spot Iresha chalking sidewalks with empowering quotes near bus stops and train stops, i.e. “We can’t afford to be spectators while our lives deteriorate. We have to truly love our people and work to make that love stronger.”–Assata Shakur.
After talking with Iresha, we decided to add chalking to our list as a way to get our message out and start dialogue. It worked. These messages on the ground combined with the signs in our hands and the drumming, drew people in and created opportunities for some important conversations.
After nearly two hours of community engagement, all of us gathered yesterday in Rittenhouse Sq to debrief our experience. In this twenty minute debrief session, we shared and documented our high and low points of the day. I’ll share a few of them below along with a video that documented our efforts on March 20:
- A mother explaining to her young daughters what the Rittenhouse Team was doing, before signing her name to the Anti-Street Harassment Petition (which was chalked on the ground).
- Young fathers articulating concern for their daughters.
- Women telling their stories; some of them mentioned that they usually don’t talk about street harassment.
- The team at 52nd street brought a drum. This drumming created good energy within our team and in the space. It drew people towards us and made our outreach less confrontational. (Thanks, Manchilde!)
- Two men joined us– yes, a small number, but their presence was felt and appreciated.
- There were lots of people at 52nd St– some folks suggested we come back on a Saturday, when there will be even more people. That got us thinking that this is something we can/should continue.
- Some people were dismissive, sarcastic, uninterested and plain mean, particularly at Rittenhouse. The Rittenhouse team worked through this, but it was frustrating at times.
- Police officers tried to interrupt and intimidate us, especially at 52nd Street. First we were reprimanded for chalking the sidewalks, then for loitering. Once the officer understood that we were doing a peaceful protest and were not a flash mob, he allowed us to stay. He let us know that he does not tolerate street harassment and if any of US are ever harassed we should call him personally and he will lock these men up. ???!!! As you can imagine, this led to a longer conversation about our goals, the role of law enforcement and the disconnect.
- Ironically at Rittenhouse, it was some bystanders who reprimanded us for chalking the sidewalks, saying it was disrespectful vandalism.
As Holly Kearl has explained “…March 20 was a starting point for action and dialogue for many people, and a continuing point for many more.” How awesome it is that HollaBack is launching a chapter in Philly this April?
Let us continue to come together, speak out and engage our community.
These are our streets too.
(See here for an article in the Atlanta Post written by one woman who explains why she joined us.)