This is partially cross-posted from the guest post I wrote for Greater Greater Washington earlier today.
Unwanted sexual comments, indecent exposure, groping, and public masturbation: sexual harassment happens often on transit in Washington, DC, just as it happens in cities around the world. Local grassroots activist group Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS)/Holla Back DC! has been tracking and speaking out on this issue for 3 years.
Of the hundreds of stories of street harassment submitted to their blog, 30% take place on the transit system or at Metro platforms or bus stops.
After unsuccessfully trying to meet with WMATA and not receiving responses to inquiries about statistics of sexual harassment, CASS board members, including myself, decided to organize a group of people to testify at yesterday’s WMATA oversight hearing at the DC Council, chaired by Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser.
Six of us testified and we were the only members of the public who testified about anything relating to WMATA, so we had their attention and the attention of the media. After laying out the facts, sharing stories of harassment, and informing them about what transit systems in Boston, New York City and Chicago are doing to address sexual harassment that WMATA is not, we gave our recommendations.
1. Better tracking and reporting of incidents
2. A public service awareness campaign so people know what their rights are and how to report incidents
3. Better training of Metro employees so they don’t harass passengers and so they respond to reports of harassment more appropriately.
Councilmember Bowser was very receptive to these suggestions, especially the PSA campaign. WMATA CEO Richard Sarles said he would talk with his counterparts in the three cities that have PSA campaigns, to get advice on how to bring one to DC. Their responses were very encouraging, but of course we won’t call it a success until we actually have a campaign.
And there is still work to do around WMATA’s responses to and treatment of harassment.
You can watch our testimonies and/or click on the links of our names below to read each of our testimonies. They illustrate the real harassment that goes on the Metro and sadly show Metro employees either mishandling or being the harassers.
Chai Shenoy, co-founder of Collective Action for Safe Spaces (4:23:17 on the video)
Ami Lynch, private citizen (4:30 on the video)
Pascale Leone , private citizen (4:34:05 on the video)
Karen Starr, private citizen (4:38:25 on the video)
Ben Merrion, private citizen (4:52 on the video)
Holly Kearl, Stop Street Harassment (4:55:32 on the video)
Dienna Howard, private citizen, could not attend but submitted her testimony for the record.
At minute 5:16:45, WMATA CEO Richard Sarles begins his response to our concerns.
Metro says they are doing a good job addressing sexual crimes since there were only 84 reported “sexual offenses” last year. We disagree. We know that sexual crimes are vastly under-reported to begin with and then, when people do try to report it, how many of them are like Ami and Pascale? Instead of having their incident handled and recorded, they’re met with laughter or disbelief and their incident is left off the record.
Additionally, after our testimonies, we were told by someone in from the transit police office, that unless verbal harassment is directly threatening, it is not recorded at all and is a matter of free speech. So none of the verbal sexual harassment that we know is so prevalent is tracked.Also, we learned that if someone exposes themselves to you, unless a transit police officer sees it too, it’s doubtful you’ll be able to see any action taken because it will be a “he said, she said” situation.
It’s funny how unwanted sexual comments constitute sexual harassment in the workplace and schools, but, according to the police officer, they are free speech on the Metro system.
While both Councilmember Bowser and the Metro Police said they want to work with us, we know it will not be easy and that our work is just beginning. Especially since Metro continues to not apologize for the harassment and crimes taking place but instead continues publicly to equate harassment with flirting.
We plan to bring a larger group to testify at the WMATA budget hearing in April and we likely will launch a petition or advocacy campaign in March, so stay tuned.Share on Facebook