By REBECA IBARRA
Twenty-year-old Tahira Huff was walking to her Bedford-Stuyvesant home late one night when a man tried to chat her up. “What up mamma?” the stranger yelled from across the street. “You lookin’ fine.”
Having grown accustomed to routine come-ons from random men on the street, Huff ignored the fellow’s remarks and, eyes fixed on the pavement, continued her journey home.
Then things became unpleasant.
“What, you don’t wanna talk to me, bitch?” the stranger yelled, and proceeded to follow her home, firing off lewd comments and haranguing her to respond.
Huff quickened her pace and reached for her phone.
“I felt scared,” Huff said. “I had to call my dad and get him to meet me at the door. Then the man disappeared.”
For many women, creepy come-ons have become part of the day-to-day.
“It’s crazy,” Huff said. “The amount of disrespect a woman can feel walking down the street.”
This common occurrence is known as street harassment. According to StopStreetHarassment.org, it ranges from leers, whistles, kissing noises, to more insulting and threatening behavior like vulgar gestures, sexually charged comments, flashing, and stalking, to illegal actions like public masturbation, sexual touching and assault.
Community organizers Anthonine Pierre and Marly Pierre-Louis are up in arms and set on tackling this phenomenon.
“I think sometimes the issue of street harassment gets reduced to catcalling,” said Pierre, head of the Brooklyn Movement Center, a Bed-Stuy community-organizing group. “But it is so much broader than someone yelling, ‘Hey baby’ down the street.”
According to Pierre, street harassment has become so normalized in our society many find it hard to discern why it is wrong.
A 2008 survey of 811 women conducted by StopStreetHarassment.org showed almost 1 in 4 women had experienced street harassment by age 12 and nearly 90 percent by age 19.
Pierre-Louis believes street harassment is part of a larger cultural problem.
“It’s part of a rape culture, of a culture that sexualizes women’s bodies,” Pierre-Louis said.
In an attempt to raise public awareness and draw attention to their campaign, the pair of Bed-Stuy community organizers threw a chalk party at Fulton Park in April.
Dozens of fed-up women and girls answered their tormentors by scrawling scolding messages on the park’s pathways with bright-colored chalk.
Messages that read: “Sorry, I am not your mami” and “Don’t ask me to smile” covered the pavement.
“It’s so creepy when you’re walking down the street and some random guy asks you to smile just because you’re walking with a serious face,” said Ashlee Perez, 16, who checked out the slogans with friend Narrissa Miguel, 15.
Pierre explained that the problem isn’t that women don’t like smiling. The problem is that a random guy is asking a complete stranger to give him a smile simply because he feels entitled to receive it. And sometimes – as ladies like Huff have experienced – that guy might react in a hostile manner if he doesn’t get what he wants.
“This is creating an environment of fear,” said Pierre-Louis, who believes street harassment is one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence.
“You don’t known if ‘Hey Baby’ guy is going to turn out to be a threat,” Pierre added.
In the blink of an eye, overly friendly comments can turn into situations that feel life-threatening — as women who have been followed, pushed, spat on or circled by men know all too well, she said.
When asked to relate her own experiences with harassment Pierre couldn’t help but laugh.
“Where do you want me to start?” she asked, letting out a sigh of frustration. “We were even harassed by men while we were writing messages at the park!”
Pierre couldn’t believe men were hounding the women in a place they had just designated – in chalk on the ground, at least – as a “harassment free zone”.
There is strength in numbers, however, and the women at park felt encouraged to speak up and fight back.
Pierre-Louis is intent on finding a way to engage in constructive dialogue with men who are actually in the act of harassing women. She admits they have a long way to go before this problem is mitigated and doesn’t quite know how to do so yet; but bringing it to the forefront of people’s attention and igniting conversation is a step in the right direction.
Pierre and Pierre-Louis are not the only ones focused on combating street harassment. This problem has spawned advocacy groups like Boerum Hill-based Hollaback! which has come up with a phone app for posting photos and descriptions of encounters with impertinent men and has reached women and men in over 25 countries.
International Anti-Street Harassment Week, which Brooklyn Movement Center’s chalk party was part of, drew participants from 19 countries from Poland to Peru.
Not all the men who walked past last week’s the chalk party responded negatively to the writing on the pavement.
Boys joined in and jotted their own phrases down. Many related their own stories, saying their mothers deal with harassment everyday. Even former aide to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer showed his support for the cause, posing for pictures next to a signboard that read, “I am an ally.”
Other men awkwardly avoided eye contact with the organizers, afraid, perhaps, being approached by the women, or angering them. Pierre-Louis felt the uncomfortable men would get a small taste, perhaps, of what it feels like to be a woman walking down the streets of New York on a Daily basis.
“I don’t think I know a woman who hasn’t gone through [harassment] at least once a day,” said Brian Stanley, 32, who was looking after his 6-year-old daughter. “Men could not possible know what that feels like.”
“Speaking up is important,” he added “These men are encouraged by women not responding and by men not admonishing their behavior.”