soap box

By: Mari Morales-Williams and Nuala Cabral

It’s April 5, 2014, International Anti-Street Harassment day and a crowd has gathered in Love Park, Philadelphia.  Two teen girls next stand beside a milk crate while a teen boy stands next to them with a sign that reads, “Share your story on the soapbox.”  The girls are telling the camerawoman about how moments ago a random stranger scolded them for wearing mid-drift shirts and “carrying [themselves] like prostitutes.”  Next the teenage boy tells his story about being harassed by police.  The teens are young Black youth, and represent the faces and bodies that are disproportionately targeted in gender based harassment and police harassment.

For the past five years,  we have organized young women of color and our allies to hit the streets and raise awareness on International Anti Street Harassment Day.  Our outreach — from workshops and film screenings to street theater and rallies, has required creativity, reflection and tough conversations about freedom, justice and safety. Engaging youth, male allies, and LGBT folks (a group that disproportionately experiences street harassment) has been critical in our efforts to end street harassment.  We are not interested in criminalizing a man who calls teenage girls “prostitutes” at his behest.  Our goal is to raise awareness of street harassment and eradicate it through a transformative justice approach: community accountability and community healing.

We do this work as apart of FAAN and Black Youth Project 100, two collectives committed to ending race, sexual, gender based violence.  While collaborating with groups like HollaBack Philly in the past, our racial and structural analysis has informed our collective outreach. To engage male allies of color around this issue without acknowledging the harassment that they face from police, for example, is a missed opportunity for mutual understanding. As women of color who are actively concerned about the criminalization of black and brown bodies in this country, we are interested in lifting up the voices of everyday victims, encouraging bystander intervention, and reclaiming public space as a safe space – without police intervention.

Five years ago gender based street harassment was not a national conversation. Now it is a national and global conversation. As this discourse continues to amplify, it is critical to center the voices and experiences of queer, gender-nonconforming individuals, transfolk, and women of color, who are often missing from news headlines, viral videos and public concern. And for those of us who are committed to both gender and racial justice, we must remember that any solution to street harassment that relies on criminalization does not make our community as a whole more free.  So let the conversation and advocacy continue, but let it continue in a way that is inclusive and transformative, so that community accountability and healing occurs as well.