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Posts Tagged ‘street harassment’

I saw a woman harassed and frightened by a man. I was too far away to do anything about it. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing until it was almost over. It was a crowded A train during morning rush hour. I had only just managed to squeeze myself onto the car. I wasn’t looking at people around me, was mostly thinking ahead to the meeting I was headed for. As we pulled into Hoyt-Schermerhorn, I focused. I’d been kind of staring off ahead, not really looking at anything.

At that moment I focused and saw a man, maybe close to my height (5’10”), stocky, doing some kind of bob-and-weave movement. He was about a third of the length of the train car away from where I was sandwiched in, but I could clearly see his weird bob and weave. I looked closer. He was bobbing and weaving into and away from the face of a woman. She was small, maybe five-foot-two or three. She was slight, not waif-slight, but very slender.

I stared at them for a few seconds, trying to tell if they were together. Had I seen the man’s face, I would have known they were definitely not together because when he turned around as the train pulled out of the station, the man’s face gave him away — he looked unstable, looked unkempt … not like a homeless person but like a madman who didn’t waste time pulling his look together.

But I hadn’t seen his face yet. I just saw him diving in and out of the woman’s face. I watched him for several seconds that felt a lot longer. By the time I registered that something was deeply wrong with what was happening, the woman had removed herself from the space, had ducked under the arm of the person on her other side and moved down the car. She was so small, I lost sight of her immediately in the crowded space. That was when her harasser turned around, when I saw that, whatever he’d been doing, it couldn’t have been pleasant for that woman. I would never want that man’s face anywhere near mine.

He turned and started talking to the people around him. Not like excusing his actions, but like bragging. He looked quite proud and pleased with himself, as if scaring that woman was a kind of triumph for him, and I guess it was. I couldn’t hear anything he said. It was loud on the train, and he was quiet, talking for the people directly near him, not for all of us. The train pulled into Jay Street, he took a seat and that was that.

But that wasn’t that. Couldn’t possibly ever really be that.

I was so angry. Angry at him, sure. Of course. More, I was angry at all of the people in that section of the train. I’ll grant that the man’s appearance was unsettling. I wouldn’t have considered it a small thing to confront him. But he was menacing someone. He was all up in that woman’s face, up in the face of a person who was small both in height and size. He was taking pleasure in frightening her — because that was the first thing I saw when he turned around, his big, I’m-the-man smile. He was having a great time ruining that woman’s commute, and maybe her whole day, maybe her week — who knows what that incident may have triggered for her? He was having a great time … and not one person thought of a way to do anything to stop him, to shield her, to defuse the situation.

Everyone stayed in their books and newspapers, stayed on their phones. Everyone chose to ignore what was happening right beside them. When the woman saw her chance to squeeze through the crowd to get free, she moved past the man standing beside her. He was tall and had one arm stretched out to hold the overhead rail. She ducked under his arm, and he bowed his body to make a little more room for her to pass … and then he held that position a moment longer, as if giving the harasser a chance to pass, too. He was prepared to facilitate the woman’s continued abuse by making way for her abuser. WTF? True, he hadn’t tried to help the woman at all, but simply straightening his body, putting a barrier between the woman and the man, would have at least been a protective gesture. Nope. No protection there.

I don’t know what I want from people, what I expect. I’ve had my own experiences with people on the street or the train not coming to my aid. I know it’s easier and certainly feels safer to stay out of a charged and troubling situation. But seeing this moment on the train really upset me. How can you stand next to someone who is being terrorized and do nothing? I was too far away and too tightly packed against other riders to do more than witness. I have no idea what I would have done if I’d been standing closer, but I would have done something. Some thing.

That’s easy to say, of course. But I have receipts. I’ve intervened between abusive men and their partners in the past. I’ve called out harassers on the train, even used some low-grade violence once, though I don’t recommend that. Confrontation isn’t a thing I make a habit of, but it has happened. There seemed to be something wrong with that man, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been stopped, couldn’t have been made to back off.

Full disclosure: a big part of my surprise is because the woman was white, and the man harassing her was Black. Our raison d’etre as a country is to stand up for the safety and honot of white women … especially in the face of a threat from a Black man. And yet no one stepped up for this woman.

But just on the level of basic human decency, I don’t understand what I saw on that train. Do not understand.

This morning I was at a conference and heard NYC Public Advocate Letitia James reframe Michelle Obama’s line, saying: “When they go low, we need to get loud.” She was talking about the opposition (the Resistance) being big enough, forceful enough to “drown out the noise” of harmful policies and ill-conceived decisions (hey, I’m trying to be generous).

I get what she’s saying. It makes perfect sense. But how does that happen, exactly? Where is this solidarity and readiness for the fight supposed to come from when we don’t care enough about one another as individuals to step up when the person next to us is in danger?

People knitted pink hats and came out in the hundreds of thousands for the Women’s March. They felt like, and were, a giant mass of “No!” directed at THOTUS¹. And yet, for all that sisterhood and comradery, there was also silencing, erasure, and exclusion.

Am I wrong to see a connection here? Empathy is going to be central to the success of whatever fightback is strong enough to carry us forward. If we can’t care enough for the woman standing beside us, how are we supposed to be standard-bearers for refugees we’ll never see, Palestinians losing their land in a place we’ll never visit, women denied reproductive care in nations we erase when we think of their continent as a country, Black bodies left in the street for hours?

But then I think about the people who came out for Muslims travelers over the weekend. They put out calls for lawyers, brought supplies, came out and stayed out. They stepped up. They gave me some hope.

I still don’t understand what I saw on the train. It’s just not okay to ignore someone in distress. Not okay.

And I can’t help but believe it’s these small acts of brave kindness and compassion that will help us feel strong enough, able enough to step up in bigger ways. Because we’re going to need to do that. We’re going to have to take risks, put ourselves in harm’s way. We’re going to have to stop pretending not to see what’s right in front of us.

We have to do that for strangers on the train, and we have to do it for this nation of strangers that has never needed us more than it does now.

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In 2017, I’ve committed to writing an essay a week.

It’s not too late to join if you’re feeling ambitious! Check out Vanessa Mártir’s blog to find out how!

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¹ Titular Head oThese United States


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Today, I was not wearing a dress. Today I was walking down Eastern Parkway to a meeting at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. It was a semi-gorgeous afternoon and my coat was open. My lovely multi-pink scarf (thank you, Sonia!) was fluttering around me, my hair was big and fabulous. I was looking forward to my meeting because I love the library.

“Big-legged woman.”

And I thought, “Oh, come on.” I mean, after all, I just finished writing about this nonsense. I need new material if I’m going to make it through the rest of this Slice of Life Challenge.

The speaker was behind me. I just kept walking. And he kept on, too.

“I don’t know, but I been told. A big-legged woman ain’t got no soul.”

(In tune, in a really good, deep, raspy voice, too. Maybe he was even doing a little air-guitar accompaniment.) Still, I resisted turning around. I was so close to the Children’s Library entrance . A few more yards and I could duck inside and be done.

“You don’t need no soul, baby. I got enough to share.”

And into the library. Free.

He had enough soul to share. And he sang the exact LZ line I referenced in my last post. That almost made me laugh out loud. It really might be the best bit of street harassment of my whole life. (Or maybe a close second to another street singer from a couple of years ago.) The universe, she likes playing with my head.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

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Yesterday I wore a dress. It’s not a big deal, or shouldn’t be. I was still beat to my socks after Saturday’s adventure, and I had to sit on a panel mid-day, and I wanted to perk myself up. So I wore a new dress, a dress that hits just about at my knees. For me, this is as out of character as wearing a micro-mini. Folks who know me: when have you ever seen my legs? Seriously. But I’ve been wearing “short” dresses for a few months now, so it’s weird but becoming not weird for me.

So I wore a dress. With tights and boots. I went to work, I went uptown to sit on the panel. I left the place where the event was held and walked to the subway.

“Nobody wants to see that.”

I heard this semi-surly voice say that as I headed down Park Avenue. I kept walking because it seemed to be one of the random snippets of someone else’s conversation that filter into your consciousness.

“Big-legged women in short dresses. You’re too big. Believe me, no one wants to see that.”

This time, the speaker — a small, maybe-40-year-old Black man in a leather stadium coat over a suit — got right up on me to say what he had to say.

People often tell me they’re surprised by the things folks have no problem saying to me. I’m not surprised. Certainly not about this. Being rude and insulting to fat people is the last truly safe bullying, discriminatory behavior people have. Yes, you can be a jerk about all kinds of things, but there will almost always be someone ready to speak up for the person you’re insulting, someone ready to call you out on your racism, homophobia, sexism, anti-semitism, ableism. With fat people, that’s pretty much never going to be the case. Fat people, because we have the audacity to be fat, are assumed to deserve whatever bile you choose to spit on us.

But you know what? Not really. And not me.

I stopped and looked at him. I made a dramatic “shocked” face, complete with one hand on my cheek and my mouth in a stunned “O.”

“Really?!” I asked.

He looked pleased, ready to tell me all about how disgusted he felt at the sight of me.

I dropped my hand and smiled. “Good thing what I wear has absolutely nothing to do with anyone but me.” I looked down, gave myself a once-over. “You’re only seeing my legs because you’re looking at them.” I started walking again. “You don’t like what you see? Look at something else.”

Yes, it hurts my feelings to have some jackass say no one wants to see a woman who looks like me. But you know? I’m not here for anyone’s fat-shaming. I’m not here for men thinking I can or should be ruled by their gaze. I’m not here for strangers on the street who think they have anything to say about what I choose to wear, how I wear it, or how I look wearing it. You can miss me with all of that.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

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… and yet folks wonder why I’m angry.

There are so many things I would rather be writing about today.  There are so many sad things I could be writing about today.  Instead of those things, I am writing this.

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Yesterday I was walking in lower Manhattan.  I was nearing Houston Street, thinking about ducking into the subway station at the corner and getting back to my book once I was on the train, thinking about the volunteer work I was scheduled to do later in the day, thinking about the residency applications I’m working on, thinking.

“Smile, big lady!”

Yes, because any moment of my life can only be made better by some random man demanding that I smile.  Because — obviously — I only exist to window-dress your day with my smiles.  Yes.

I could write an entire post about how annoying it is to have men ask women to smile.  That’s not this post.  I didn’t smile.

I didn’t smile and I kept walking up the block.

And then he grabbed my arm and spun me around to face him.  I was so taken by surprise, I almost fell into his chest.  Before I had a chance to rebalance and focus, he got in my face yelling about what made me think I was too good for him and how sick he is of angry black women, and how — fat and ugly as I am — I should be glad any man was talking to me.

Generally speaking, men don’t accost me.  They make any number of comments, give all kinds of looks, but they don’t put their hands on me.  I’m not saying it never happens, but it doesn’t happen often.  The last time I can remember it happening is five years ago.  Because it happens so infrequently, my first reactions are a little slow-motion.  First reaction: surprise that some stranger is grabbing me.  Second: look at the stranger and gauge how strong he seems to be and if I think I can fight my way away from him.

So I looked at this man yesterday.  He was taller than I am, maybe 6′ 2″.  He was slender, but he had spun me around.  Aside from the fact that he caught me off guard and so off balance, I am a big person, it’s no easy thing to spin me around.  That told me he was probably stronger than I am.  Third reaction: use my words.  I’m pretty good at talking my way out of trouble.  And I’m pretty good at shaming street harassers into backing off.

But this man was bigger and stronger than I am, and was already worked up, shaking me roughly, yelling crazy crap about fat black women and how entitled we act and how we should be more respectful when a man shows us some attention.  And I froze for a minute.

But then I unfroze.  And I started yelling for him to let go of me, started trying to break out of his hold.

And then I realized I was on a pretty populated street, and there were people around me.  I started asking people for help, asking people to call 911.  Most people ignored me, acted as if they could neither see nor hear me, didn’t even flinch away or glance in my direction.  I didn’t exist.  One man laughed at me.  Two men said they didn’t get involved in couples’ problems.  Couples’ problems.  As if anything about that scene looked like a couple having a disagreement.

I understand why the women who passed didn’t step in.  That man had already devolved to violent behavior.  I don’t think I would have stepped in, either.  But I would have stayed there.  I would have engaged the woman and called 911 as she’d asked me to do.  I would have let that man know that he had a witness to his harassment and that it wasn’t cool.  And I’m willing to bet that, one person stopping might have emboldened other people to stop, and that an audience might (might) have pushed that man to let go of me.

But no one stopped.  No one stopped.

I wish I didn’t have to stop here and say this, but I have to stop here and say this: every single person who walked by me yesterday was white or looked white.  The man in my face was white or looked white.  And that was when I my fear of the man shifted over to fear of what could happen to me if the police did come.  I wasn’t as tall as that man, but I am definitely bigger.  I could imagine police officers seeing me and seeing Eric Garner, seeing Eleanor Bumpurs, seeing a big black person who needed to be subdued, not bothering to see that I was the person being assaulted.

I shouldn’t have to fear men messing with me in the street.  And I shouldn’t have to fear the people who are supposed to protect me from men messing with me in the street.  Shouldn’t.  Do.

This whole scene didn’t take very long, from the moment he grabbed me up to this point was maybe only 20 or 30 seconds.  It felt much, much longer.

A group of black teenagers walked up and one asked if I knew the man.  I said I didn’t, and they immediately stepped between us got him off me and away from me, formed a shield between him and me.  They tended me — was I okay, had he hurt me, what did I want to do, did I want them to travel with me.  The man ran and two of the boys were going to go after him, but I stopped them.  I wasn’t going to be the reason for someone misinterpreting the sight of two young black men chasing a white man down the street.  More things I shouldn’t have to worry about.  But do.

The boys — because really, they were babies, maybe 15-17 years old — walked me to the subway and were ready to throw off whatever their plans for the afternoon had been to see me safely wherever I was going, but I said no.  Those boys were beautiful and fine and exactly the kind of men you want every man to be.  And I thank all of the people who raised and shaped them. And I didn’t mind at all that they called me “ma’am.”  I don’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t been coming up the block.

I was badly frightened by that man.  And I was angry.  Angry at him for not seeing me, for seeing only a female body that he felt he had control over.  Angry at him for putting his hands on me.  Angry at the people who wouldn’t help me.  Angry at every one of them who pretended not to see or hear me.  More than a dozen people passed me.  More than a dozen people ignored (or mocked) my call for help.  And I understand fear of putting yourself in danger.  But practically every one of those people had their phones in their hands (for all I know, someone put my street assault on Instagram).  It would have been an easy thing to call 911.  Just hearing someone make a 911 call would surely have sent that man packing.

I want to believe I was mistaken in my fear of the police, but how can I be?  There are too many stories that back up my fear.  There is Marlene Pinnock as just the latest example of black women not being any safer from police violence than black men.

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I want this post to be more articulate (yes, I used that word).  I think I am still too close to yesterday.  Retelling the story gives me a stomach ache and I lose sight of the points I want to be making.  I keep coming back to this: I shouldn’t have to fear men messing with me in the street.  And I shouldn’t have to fear the people who are supposed to protect me from men messing with me in the street.  And I shouldn’t have to fear that expressing my absolutely valid and appropriate anger sets me up to look like an aggressor, to fit someone’s stereotype of a loud, angry black woman, to make me someone to be ignored.  All the things I shouldn’t fear.  Shouldn’t.  Do.

Something that doesn’t give me a stomach ache?  Those boys.  Those boys who have probably been stopped and frisked all kinds of times.  Those boys who saw a bad situation and knew they could do something about it.  Seven children — all loose limbs and baggy pants and over-long muscle shirts and ball caps and big hair (one of the boys had a gorgeous afro!) — seven children stepped up.

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I’ve been away for a LONG time, but today is a Slice-of-Life Tuesday, and the slicers are going strong over at Two Writing Teachers!

Click over and see what everyone else is up to!

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