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Today on Holla Back DC!, a bystander witnessed a man harassing and stalking a woman on the street in Mount Pleasant, and decided to step in. After a confrontation, the bystander walked away with bruises courtesy of the harasser’s belt. Here’s the story:
I was walking off a late-night snack around 3:30 in the morning. There was a woman walking with a man right behind her. She kept turning around at him. I could tell that she didn’t want his attention. She was headed down Irving which is a very dimly lit street. At one point the woman suddenly jumped back and began dialing on her cellphone. I figured she was calling the police. Being just across the street, I approached them and ask for the time. The woman seemed startled. The man just looked at me. The woman then continued down Irving street. The man began to follow her. I yelled,”You shouldn’t be doing that.” The guy stopped and turned around towards me. I pulled out my pocket camera and took a quick picture. That really got his attention. The woman kept walking down Irving and the man’s attention was now on me. He mumbled something and then came towards me.
I crossed Mount Pleasant street and he followed me. He began taking off his belt and then began swinging it at me in a zig-zag cross motion. The belt buckle struck me several times. I lifted my cane to stop the blows. I began yelling. There was a couple walking across the street and a guy yelled, “We’re calling the police.” I managed to strike the assailant with my cane on his head. I had hit him so hard that my cane bent. He ran across the street into an alley. Another man was walking past me and I told him to watch out. The assailant was now gathering beer bottles as the police approached. He threw a bottle just as the first of 3 police cars stopped. . . . The assailant was arrested. The woman was safe. I am covered in bruises.
When the problems of street harassment and public sexual assault are raised on this blog, readers sometimes respond by placing the onus on ending harassment on the harassee. This usually takes one of three forms:
(a) Don’t overreact. Just learn to take a compliment.
(b) Why didn’t you fight back? Kick him in the balls.
(c) Street harassers are too dangerous for us to expect anyone else to intervene.
Of course, challenge (c) points out the problem with expecting victims of harassment to either (a) shake it off or (b) fight back. It also shows how violent misogyny can transfer pretty easily from female targets to anyone who would defend them. So—-beyond preventative measures—-how do we help minimize the risk of street harassment when we see it, while keeping ourselves safe? Last year, local self-defense expert Lauren Taylor gave Sexist readers some tips on being a pro-active bystander:
* Look out for number one. “Always think about your own safety first,” Taylor says. “Look at who’s around who could back you up if necessary. If you’re inside, say at a bar or social event, figure out where the doors are.”
* Speak to the victim. “When you’re thinking about intervening, address the person you think is being targeted,” Taylor says. “Say to her, ‘Are you OK?’ Or, ‘Can I do anything?’ Or, ‘Do you want to come with me?’ This won’t necessarily solve the situation, but it will let her know that there are other options. It will let her know that people are seeing what’s happening, and it lets the harasser know the same thing. There are witnesses, and it’s not going to go unnoticed.”
* Make a scene. “For example, you could draw attention to it by saying something like, ‘This guy is putting his hands all over her!’ Or, ‘This guy is harassing her!’ and that could draw enough attention to the situation that the harasser would cut it out,” Taylor says. “Airing any of these things, and making them more visible, will ultimately make them better.”
“Now, the harasser may respond by saying, ‘Who are you? This has nothing to do with you! She doesn’t mind!,’” Taylor says. “But you still have transformed what’s going on, and possibly made it safer. The harasser talking back doesn’t mean it didn’t work.”
* Even if the victim doesn’t ask for help, you can still do something. “Like with everything, it totally depends on the situation,” Taylor says. “Especially if it’s a partner thing, you may hear the victim respond, ‘Oh, I’m okay, go away.’ But I still think it makes a difference that it was noticed and recognized.”
The Holla Back DC! witness looks to have followed Taylor’s tips to a T. Results were mixed: While the initial harassee got away safely and an obviously dangerous person was arrested, the bystander paid the price with a painful and scary physical confrontation.
Photo of Mount Pleasant by NCinDC, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0