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From Street Harassment to Stop & Frisk: The Need for More Inclusive Public Space

Stephen Menendian, assistant director, Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley | November 23, 2014

A recent video produced by “Hollaback!”, an organization focused on ending street harassment, has sparked a national conversation about the issue. Filmed from a hidden camera, the short video, which now has over 36 million views, shows a young woman, dressed casually, walking through New York City and receiving over a hundred unwanted passes over the course of the day. The point of the video is to illustrate the experience of women traveling through public spaces.

The response to the video has been polarizing along several dimensions. On the one hand, some critics have legitimately noted that the men pictured in the video were overwhelmingly black and Latino, reinforcing negative stereotypes about men of color. Although Hollaback! points out that 6 of the 18 men on the video were white, it acknowledges that the two minutes of video does not accurately represent the racial composition of men catcalling the young woman, many more of whom were white.

Another set of responses, largely from men, disputes the nature of the experience being represented as “harassment,” or in any way threatening. These criticisms range from explicitly misogynistic and inflammatory, as illustrated by many of the comments posted on You Tube, to more sedate inquiries about whether many of the passes, which could be interpreted by some as simple compliments or greetings, should be construed as sexual or harassment, or whether silencing such passes, including catcalls, constitutes a form of political correctness that undermines First Amendment speech rights.

Although I’m sympathetic to the concerns over representation, I believe that the video is nonetheless important and useful in illustrating an experience that is often invisible to men. And while some of the greetings may be innocent, women point out that many seemingly innocent greetings are used as bait or starters for more virulent and potentially violent conversations. Many women note that responding to a compliment may lead to a more direct pass, and, potentially, escalate to a threatening or insulting remark. As noted by The Atlantic, this is often why women refuse to respond to Tinder inquiries, underscoring the unpredictable nature of these encounters.

Without weighing in fully on either debate, I see the video as raising another, deeper issue: the inclusiveness of public space, and the degree to which women, or any other group, feel welcome and included in public settings. Regardless of the characterization of the passes, greetings or catcalls, the video illustrates the problem of volume. Even a hundred innocent greetings, supplemented by just a few more menacing catcalls, must produce a psychological effect and mindset that most men simply don’t experience and therefore don’t appreciate.

For example, several women I know refuse to travel on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) by themselves, especially after dark, because of the experience of being harassed both on the train and at the stations in a manner similar to those represented in this video. Not experiencing catcalls and passes, it was difficult for me to understand how uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing some forms of public transportation can be for women. One female friend visiting from out of town reported being hit on a half dozen times from the airport to an Oakland BART stop.

The Hollaback! video is not a randomized, controlled experiment. It’s not a rigorous academic study, but it does usefully illustrate an experience consistent with those reported by far too many women. As such, it can provide a useful shift in perspective for those of us who do not personally experience it. It may also suggest a parallel to the experience of people of color in public spaces. Walking in a public space may mean being a target for police or civilian suspicion, as Stop-and-Frisk tactics and Trayvon Martin respectively illustrate.

Being a man may mean not having to be warned “to be careful” when going for a walk at night, being hyper-vigilant about well-lit routes, or having anxiety about traveling on a bus or high-speed rail. One could call this male privilege, but another way of framing it would be a lack of inclusionary public space. Similarly, white privilege may mean being able to walk downtown Oakland at 3 a.m. without being watched or even harassed by the police or getting special screening at an airport.

These are not only concerns in their own right, but have many significant collateral consequences for everyone. Consider the threat of climate change. Part of the response to climate change must be reduced reliance on cars for transportation, and more emphasis on public transit, density and walkability. Yet, if women (who can afford to) refuse to ride buses or take public transit because of the peace of mind in avoiding harassment, then not only does that mean a tax on women (because it is more expensive to own a car), but undermines the political will and needed support for these initiatives.

Hollaback!’s video brings into focus not only the issues of street harassment, but the broader issue of power dynamics in public space. At a time when public space is under attack by the right-wing, defending and protecting public space requires support of all people, which means that it must be welcoming and inclusive of all people. Some of this can be done by more thoughtful construction and design.

Women report having greater levels of anxiety attending sporting events in large stadiums because of the longer-restroom wait times. Having equal numbers of stalls or facilities has a disparate impact on women because of longer per-stall wait times. Inclusive public space would be constructed with a recognition of the impact on different groups of various design options. For example, by reducing the distance between lights on some public streets, women reported less anxiety walking in certain areas at night. Similarly, public transit and public transit stops can be designed, with lighting, cameras, music, messaging, and architecture, to make women feel less anxious and vulnerable to harassment.

But we must also focus on the issue of power dynamics in public space more generally. Part of the issue of public space is not just designing that space to be more welcoming and inclusive, but to push back against the dominance of some groups in public space. In response to the Hollaback! video, some women contend that some of the catcalls are not even passes, but displays of power in public space, an expression of male dominance and control.

Male dominance of public space can be expressed in other ways. In a recent eye-opening article that went viral, one writer contends that “[f]ar too many [men] have been observed sitting with their legs spread wide open, encroaching upon the personal space of everyone around them, especially women.” As one commenter noted, the “[t]hing is, most men don’t even think about this. It’s unconscious, mostly. They just feel a subconscious entitlement to the space.”

Such displays may be fairly interpreted as non-verbal displays of power or dominance. The surveillance of young black men in certain neighborhoods may also be an expression of dominance in public spaces.

Building a more inclusive public space is a necessary step to dealing with a range of problems, not least of which is climate change, racial profiling and street harassment, but also the larger issue of protecting and building a robust public space for all people. When federal courts ordered public schools, parks, and pools integrated in the Jim Crow South, rather than integrate, the response was often to close public space to everyone. All children lost education and a nice swim on a hot summer day in public recreational facilities. Without making public space inclusive, some people won’t want to be there with less space for everyone.