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Hollaback! Bmore takes aim at street harassment

Photo: Christopher Myers, License: N/A, Created: 2011:02:04 17:02:32

Christopher Myers

Hollaback! Bmore’s Shawna Potter has a “hey baby” for you.


“I’ve been experiencing harassment since I was 14, and it hasn’t stopped yet,” says Shawna Potter, local musician-turned-activist. Last month, Potter celebrated the launch of Hollaback! Bmore (bmore.ihollaback.org), the local chapter of Hollaback!, the international grassroots organization to end gender-based street harassment. Potter coordinated Hollaback! Bmore with the help of a few supportive friends, celebrating with a launch party Feb. 12 at the Metro Gallery featuring Me and This Army, Thrushes, War on Women, and comic Lucé Tomlin-Brenner. “I get harassed just walking down the street,” she says, “whether it’s winter or not, no matter what I’m wearing, what the weather’s like.”

Women and LGBTQ folks know what she’s talking about all too well, and pedestrians, bike commuters, and public transportation riders see it every day. A woman minding her own business at the bus stop who has to deal with the guy who pulled up in a car who thinks he’s flirting but is really just being a dick. The woman crossing the street who tells the man to get back in his truck when he gets out to tell her how good he thinks she looks and starts following her. The kissing and um-umm noises and “say girl” remarks that guys make when a trio of woman head toward the entrance to a club. These are the sort of omnipresent comments that this writer has witnessed in Baltimore when waiting for the bus, smoking a cigarette, or walking across the street—moments when the form and content of an interaction between a man and woman look and feel inappropriate and unacceptable.

Hollaback! exists to raise awareness of this behavior and figure out how to address it. “It’s definitely a form of gender-based violence,” Potter says. “Most women I know, the way we dress is affected, where we go at what time of day is affected by the feeling of, ‘Uh, I just don’t feel like being harassed right now.’ We want a world where we can say, ‘Good morning’ innocently and not put on our tough girl faces and try to ignore it—because that’s not a good feeling, either. As soon as, ‘Hey baby’ is said, I mean, you just ruined my day.”

Hollaback Bmore just launched in January, following the Hollaback! New York model that started in 2005. The site originated as a way for women to post stories about their harassment and create a supportive network of women who felt the same way about it; the organization launched its Hollaback! app for iPhone and Android in November, enabling the harassed to take a photo of their harasser and post it to the hollaback.org community, with the location geo-tracked.

These are the early steps in researching an under-researched problem, at a time when this sort of discussion is fortuitous. As the recent Congressional discussions to limit federally funded abortions show, the language used in the discussion of gender-based violence matters. And with something as omnipresent and often passively tolerated as street harassment, giving a woman the opportunity to say she was harassed, show where it took place, and even post a photo of the man who did it brings the problem to light in a bluntly direct manner.

The Baltimore site has already received a few posted stories, which join stories from New York, Mumbai, London, Buenos Aires, and more. “We never anticipated growing to be this international organization to address street harassment,” says Hollaback! Executive Director Emily May by phone from New York. “We didn’t anticipate all the change that has resulted from it. Much of it has been pleasantly an accidental surprise. And I think what we’ve seen in New York City is that there’s a growing awareness of street harassment. Almost immediately after we launched [in 2005], the NYPD launched something called Operation Exposure. It was intended to catch people masturbating on the subway trains undercover. And in their first weekend doing it they caught 13 men masturbating on the subway. I know, pleasantly disgusting right?

“We’ve seen an increased amount of attention to this,” May continues. “Just this past October, the [New York] City Council held a hearing to address street harassment specifically. And keep in mind that street harassment was something that when we started this site in 2005 we weren’t even sure what to call it. And in those past five years we’ve seen it go from not knowing what to call it to there being an actual City Council hearing to address it.”

May likens street harassment to the workplace harassment recognition that went on in the 1970s and ’80s, only at a faster pace. “When we started, we really had no idea what we were getting into—we were just genuinely pissed off about street harassment,” she says. “We see so much attention now that didn’t exist five years ago. I imagine this is how organizers felt when the seeds of the workplace harassment movement were there but hadn’t really propelled to be this issue that’s on the forefront of people’s minds in the way that it ultimately did by the early ’90s. That’s where we are now and it’s really incredible to see people from around the world standing up on this issue and taking action and doing it in a really unified way.”

Potter recognizes that Hollaback! Bmore is just getting underway, but she would like it to evolve into a more unified and representative community. “I realize that I’m a small white woman in her mid-to-late 20s, and that I don’t represent the entire city and I don’t claim to,” she says. “So I do want to make it known that we’re here for everyone, and I would really love to be connected to other communities in the city, and I don’t really know how to just yet.”

Potter hopes that as Hollaback! Bmore grows, how she can partner with other communities and what actions the local chapter needs to take will come into focus. Right now she just wants to let people know that it exists, because what Hollaback! directly addresses is quality of life.

“We just want people to know that we’re here now to give them a response to those instances,” Potter says. “They don’t have to walk along and ignore it and feel powerless. Whip out that phone and take a picture. You might stop them dead in their tracks when people start to realize there are consequences to their actions. We’re obviously focusing on the women and LGBTQ folks in the city. This is about them, but of course there’s going to be some spillover, and will change the way people start behaving in the street. You know, just to treat everyone with civility, which is a huge theme right now in politics. And it’s just a good life philosophy.”

Me and This Army, Thrushes, War On Women, and Lucé Tomlin-Brenner play the Hollaback! Bmore launch show Feb. 12 at the Metro Gallery, with raffle prizes donated by Big Crunch Amp and Guitar Repair, Stop Street Harassment author Holly Kearl, Red Emma’s bookstore coffeehouse, and Sugar. Krav Maga Maryland teaches a short self-defense demo. For more information visit bmore.iHollaback.org.

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