Aug 20 2013

Blinders & the Tyranny of Good Intentions: Street Harassment, Stop & Frisk, and Criminalization…

These are some thoughts… They were written fast & are therefore incomplete and subject to revision.

Yesterday evening, a friend emailed to share a press release by Hollaback!. In it, the anti-street harassment group was announcing its launch of a “NEW APP FOR REAL-TIME REPORTING OF STREET HARASSMENT AND VIOLENCE TO CITY OFFICIALS.”

From their press release:

“Emily May, Executive Director of Hollaback! was joined by Speaker Christine Quinn, her wife Kim Catullo, and Council Member Diana Reyna today to unveil a new, targeted system to report sexual harassment to New York City Councilmembers via iPhone and Droid app. Speaker Quinn also released a plan for assessing the safety of neighborhoods across the city, block by block, using community-led safety audits. By gathering information in a coordinated way, the city will be able to better direct resources and more effectively combat harassment.”

My first reaction after reading this was “Why would Hollaback! partner with a staunch defender of ‘stop and frisk’ policies in New York City to launch an anti-violence initiative?” This is inherently contradictory to me. Surely, Hollaback! is aware that stop & frisk is itself a form of street harassment. Relying on a defender of such a practice to promote any new initiative would seem to undercut their anti-street harassment efforts.

Christine Quinn is quoted in the press release as stating:

“People who violate women either by their actions or words won’t be able to hide any longer. We will know who they are, what they do, where they do it – and we will put it to an end. By coupling valuable information with targeted resources we will arm ourselves with the tools we need to put an end to street violence and harassment. Public spaces belong to all New Yorkers, and street harassment is not a price women and LGBT New Yorkers have to pay for walking around New York City’s neighborhoods.”

The ironies in Quinn’s statement are many. First, as a proponent of stop and frisk, she clearly has no problem with some New Yorkers paying the “price” of harassment for “walking around.” Doesn’t she realize that some of the people victimized by the practice identify as women and as LGBT?

Next, at a time in the country when we are finally debating the size, scope and reach of the surveillance state, a quote like this one by Quinn: “We will know who they are, what they do, where they do it – and we will put it to an end” takes on new significance. We have to ask what will happen to the data that is collected, how will elected officials use this data, and how exactly does Quinn propose to put an end to harassment through use of this data. Should we believe that Quinn won’t favor a law enforcement approach to addressing the problem given her history? Is that plausible?

Hollaback! says that it eschews a criminalization approach to ending street harassment. The organization suggests that information collected will only be disseminated to councilmembers and the Mayor if the app user opts-in. I think that many who use the app are extremely likely opt-in to this feature because there is little analysis of what this might mean for marginalized populations readily available to the public. We all drink from the well of “law & order” in this country. This ideology is seldom challenged. Most people have internalized the rhetoric and support the associated policies. I believe that Hollaback! knows that in this case, the city council and the Mayor are merely proxies for law enforcement.

Hollaback! pointed me to the following essay by Debjani Roy as an illustration of its stance. The first sentence of Roy’s essay is: “When it comes to combating street harassment, increasing criminalization is not the answer.” Roy goes on to write:

“The criminal justice system disproportionately targets and affects low-income communities and communities of color, as evidenced by more recent policies such as New York City’s Stop and Frisk program and other degrading forms of racial profiling. Our objective is to address and shift cultural and social dialogues and attitudes of patriarchy that purport street harassment as simply the price you pay for being a woman or being LBGTQ. It is not to re-victimize men already discriminated against by the system.”

How someone representing Hollaback! can offer such words and then stand with Christine Quinn (a prominent defender of stop & frisk) to unveil an app that WE KNOW WILL LEAD TO MORE CRIMINALIZATION is perplexing to say the least. The rationalizations that Hollaback! offers are unconvincing and not consistent with Roy’s words in the essay.

YWATlogo In mid-2004, about a dozen young women of color sat across a couple of local elected officials. They had a set of demands for addressing what they experienced as rampant street harassment in their community of Rogers Park in Chicago. The demands were:

1. To improve the lighting on two main streets (Howard and Morse Ave).
2. To provide funding for a poster campaign that would ask business owners to enforce no loitering laws and raise awareness about the harms of street harassment.
3. To provide more jobs for youth and adults in the community.
4. To increase police patrols on certain streets during after-school hours (3-6 p.m.)

This last demand was not unanimous and engendered heated conversations among members of the group. It was only included on the list after a couple of young women threatened to leave the group. Later, this demand would be rescinded and completely repudiated. I’ll return to this point.

The elected officials agreed very quickly to demands #2 and #4. Eventually, after many years of organizing and activism, the girls would succeed in getting new lighting too. However, one of the unintended consequences of this meeting was to make the members of the Rogers Park Young Women’s Action Team (YWAT) targets in their community. During the meeting, the elected officials asked the girls if they believed that placing surveillance cameras in various locations would mitigate some of the street harassment incidents. The girls were unanimous and adamant that they were against surveillance cameras. They explained that harassers would simply move to other locations to harm people. They also said that they would personally feel uncomfortable in a community where all of their actions were monitored on camera.

Can you guess what happened next? The elected officials did in fact put cameras in various locations in the community and used as their rationale, the need to protect girls and young women from sexual harassment and assault. They even went so far as to thank YWAT for their “input” on the matter.

The girls were livid and they were also afraid. How would members of the community react to the cameras? They were particularly wary of the reactions of some of the local drug dealers. A few months later, the door & window of their meeting space was tagged with graffiti which read: “Bitches; Get Out.” Young women going about their daily lives shopping or waiting for public transportation were approached by strangers and asked if they were “the girls who brought the cameras to the neighborhood.” Tayari (not her real name) was at a local fast food store waiting for her order when she was approached by a man who she didn’t know: “Aren’t you that girl that was on TV talking about you don’t want to get harassed?”

“I was just surprised,” Tayari told everyone. “I said, yeah, that’s me and I hoped that my food would get done fast.”

Tayari was worried because she had heard stories from other group members who had been negatively confronted for their work with YWAT. She couldn’t tell if the man who approached her was supportive of her efforts or opposed to them. She couldn’t tell by his tone. She mentioned feeling scared for a moment until she “calmed down.” Tayari was 14 at the time.

Before the camera incident, the young women of YWAT were well-known in our community. They had appeared on television, in newspapers, and on radio. They held many community events (including town hall meetings). Most of the girls lived in Rogers Park and had attended elementary & middle school in the neighborhood. So they were visible and known. What they hadn’t been prior to the camera incident was fearful.

Sonia explained:

“A lot of people think that it was us who got the cameras up. So there’s a lot of people who are like mad. We are bringing heat to Morse (Avenue). So now people don’t like us. I am usually by myself or walking with Lili (her 1 year old daughter), I don’t want somebody to do something to me.”

Nicole added her concern for her friends who lived in the community & worried that they might be targeted by those who relied on the street economy to make a living:

“We didn’t want the cameras… they used us. But it’s like S and C and J and T, they all live directly in the neighborhood and they can be like these girls are taking our living away and they can try to do anything. When you mess with somebody’s money, you’re affecting everything.”

Those were difficult times for a group that was made up of girls of color between the ages of 13 to 17 (at the time). We had many discussions about “safety” and about the merits of organizing in public. There is both promise and peril in organizing against violence in your local community when you are 15 years old, black or brown, and a girl. In the end, the girls decided that they would not be intimidated and that they would continue to organize in spite of the threats. Some of the girls pointed out (correctly) that they had more supporters in the community than detractors.

Eva articulated what came to be the group’s position:

“I know that we do have certain things to worry about and we probably didn’t know that as we first took on this work. We are going to have people respecting us and we’re going to have people who don’t like us, then we are going to have people who are against our ideas totally about trying to change our community and things of that sort. But it’s like if you let people come at you like the dude did and run you away from the problem then how are you supposed to solve them. You know what I am saying. If you let people scare you. It’s like Martin Luther King, all these people coming at him, if they would have been scared, we wouldn’t be where we are today. So of course we have things to worry about but we still have to take a stand no matter what and that’s what our motto is.”

Dana amplified Eva’s point:

“So does the end justify the means? If we sit down and say nothing it will continue to happen. If we say something and speak out, OK some people will be against us but we have others who will support us. I think about we should think about it like we are making a change, I could care less what you think about me. I know that I am making a change.”

I learned a lot about community accountability for violence in working with YWAT over the years. I also learned about backlash, fear, and unintended consequences. I want to return to my discussion about Hollaback! in light of YWAT’s experiences. First, we learned that it was impossible to trust politicians. They never did deliver on the girls’ demand for more jobs. They were, however, eager to press the police into targeting more people. They even went so far as to use the girls’ legitimate safety concerns to increase surveillance on the entire neighborhood. There is absolutely no reason to believe that this new version of the Hollaback! application won’t suffer the same fate. I simply don’t trust the government to collect more data on its citizens and then to use that data for non-law enforcement focused solutions. It’s never happened.

After about two years of anti-violence organizing, the two young women who had insisted on including a demand for more police patrols during afterschool hours, both repudiated this as a solution for ending street harassment. One young woman’s partner became a consistent target of police harassment in the neighborhood. This experience hit home for her in a visceral way. We had many, many conversations about the roles that law enforcement played in our community. The girls eventually took a position as an organization that they would never call for increased policing to address violence.

Hollaback! has actually contributed beneficially to advancing the concept of community-based accountability for ending violence. I support their efforts to end street harassment. I am, however, very disappointed that they have seemingly decided to privilege publicity over principle by standing with Christine Quinn to unveil their latest initiative. I also wish that they would be honest about the fact that having people report their incidents of harassment to the government (as opposed to their organization) IS in fact the same as reporting it to law enforcement. The police ARE gatekeepers of the government & they are on speed dial. It’s that simple.