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Fighting for safer streets for women bike commuters

A woman holds a sign asking for respect, not harassment, as part of a Collective Action for Safe Spaces anti-harassment workshop

For Nelle Pierson, like many women in D.C., the decision to become a bike commuter was partly for safety.
“For me, I feel infinitely better on a bike than I do on foot,” Pierson, the outreach and programs coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), tells Elevation DC. “There are streets I avoid on foot that I’d bike through in a heartbeat.”
Even so, Pierson has been catcalled on her bike too many times to count. And so on November 20 at the Mt. Pleasant Library, along with Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), an organization that aims to end public sexual harassment in D.C., Pierson helped put on a workshop geared toward helping women cyclists in the district feel safer on the streets.
“The environment around a perpetrator can make a difference. It has the power, over time, to change culture.”
According to WABA, women only comprise a quarter of cyclists in D.C. Pierson says that in a survey of 49 women distributed by WABA before the event, more than two thirds said they have experienced street harassment while biking. Many women are harassed at least once a week. But 41 percent surveyed say there’s no safer mode of transportation in the city.
The problem is the attacker, the organizers stressed, and no one should ever feel like he or she has to respond in a certain way or that the harassment was spurred by their own actions or decision to bike. Raising awareness and starting a conversation can only help spur the kind of cultural change needed, Zosia Sytykowski, director of community outreach for CASS, says—and we live in the kind of society that allows street harassment to happen.
"If it feels threatening; you never know what could happen next. It’s on a larger spectrum of sexual violence,” Sztykowski says. “The environment around a perpetrator can make a difference. It has the power, over time, to change culture.”
Julia Strange, director of programs and policy for CASS, echoed Sztykowski’s sentiment.
“This isn’t our problem. It’s much bigger than that,” Strange says. “We don’t want to be asking what we can do to prevent our own harassment, but stop it.” Strange says this can begin with activating communities to talk to men (and women) at a young age not to harass.
Sztykowski and Strange led a discussion that taught the 28 women in attendance non-violent, verbal methods to engage perpetrators.

In a role-playing exercise, one woman pretended to be biking while another mimicked a truck driver leering at the biker.  “It doesn’t look like she wants to talk to you,” one "bystander" said, stopping the trucker.
In another situation, a biker put up a “stop sign” with her hand to keep a perpetrator from coming any closer. Another tactic is the all-purpose statement: “Stop harassing people. I don’t like it. No one likes it. Show some respect.”
“Stop harassing people. I don’t like it. No one likes it. Show some respect.”
Stzykowski instructed the room to say the all-purpose statement repeatedly. She was met with shy voices and giggles at first until the voices grew strong, filling the room.
Workshop participant Kris Klassen, 26, who lives in NoMa and bikes to and from her job near the White House daily, says she is harassed on her bike frequently.
Remarks range from a simple “hey, beautiful” to more vulgar comments about Klassen’s body from passersby. Truck and bus drivers lean out of their windows to get Klassen’s attention and talk to her, whether she wants to engage in conversation or not.
“I dread having to stop at stoplights,” Klassen says. “It feels like a violation of my space and being.”
Wednesday’s event was so important, Klassen says, because women need to know they’re not going through street harassment alone. The sense of community is vital—and the workshop provided participants useful tools to fight back.
“When you’re sort of sitting around thinking about it in your own head, you think, it’s only me, the best I can do is ignore it or get angry on my own,” Klassen says. “But the important part is solidarity and feeling like other people are working toward ending street harassment.”
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