Fifteen-year-old Veralyn would have chuckled at the idea of one day organizing to stop street harassment.
I vividly remember the moment I realized my breasts were something to be desired. It was the first day of 7th grade, and I was walking to my school, which was up the block from my house. I was very excited about my back-to-school outfit. I had on a blue denim fitted-dress, with a zipper down the front–a dress I begged my mom for, after seeing Tamera on Sister Sister wearing the same outfit.
As I walked to school, just knowing I looked fly, I heard, “[insert expletive], look at those titties,” from one of the corner boys I passed often on my block. Instead of being horrified, like I would be now, I was pleased that the dress was working (getting me noticed). And so began my entry into the unspoken “game” that I would come to participate in for years to come. My job was to look fly as I walked through the streets. Their job was to let me know that they noticed by hollering at me.
I never thought of it as harassment. Getting hollered at on the street was expected and often the main event. Fridays after school that same year, my best friend and I would head to Fordham Road in the Bronx to be seen by the boys. We’d argue about whose butt looked bigger (she always won) and who got the most attention. In our eyes, we were always in control.
And since I’m being so honest, I should also mention I met my first boyfriend on the street. I was walking to the store for my mom, and I saw him before he saw me. I thought he was gorgeous, and when he finally noticed me, I immediately turned my head. Unwritten social rules dictated that he approach me. He immediately did, and we talked as he followed me to the store and back. And in front of my house we exchanged numbers.
Being followed was a regular thing for me. When I was in high school, a guy I met on the D train followed me all the way to my after-school youth theater program in Lower Manhattan, a 40 minute ride. My director (White male, in his 40s) was horrified that I’d let a strange guy (Black male, in his 20’s) follow me to rehearsal. I honestly didn’t want him to, but given my experience with guys up until that point, I didn’t think I had a choice. And I was too embarrassed by my director’s reaction, to be able to articulate this to anyone.
Though I cannot (and will not) classify the totality of my experiences growing up as harassment (because the streets were for me, what I imagine the mall is for suburban girls– a place to socialize and flirt), I recognize how embarrassingly naive I was to think I was choosing the male gaze. Or that men commenting on my body parts, following me, or often touching me to get/keep my attention was simply about their desire of me– as if becoming undesirable is the key to ending harassment.
What I’ve come to realize is harassment has a lot more to do with exerting power over someone, and there is no opt-out button for it–something I desperately wanted early one morning during my first year living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I was waiting for the bus and this guy (on foot), seeing my suitcase says, Iif I were your man, I would be driving you to the airport.” And then he proceeds to persist that I give him my number, despite my polite “Thanks, but no thanks” responses, as I prayed 1) he wouldn’t get physical– because who knows what a guy being that aggressive with a stranger, before the sun comes up, is capable of and 2) that if he did get physical, the other man at the bus stop would step in. He didn’t stop until the bus pulled up, a bus he thankfully didn’t get on.
Looking back, my naiveté at 15 probably saved my life. Back then, it hadn’t occurred to me to say “No,” because I felt validated by the attention and because I believed that I was somehow asking for it. Well, the many college classes I took with “Black” and “women” in the title gave me license to call BS on all that. And now I refuse to validate, protect or encourage a social conditioning (patriarchy), which says “Just smile, say ‘Good morning’ back, and give a fake number if you have to.” The consequences of allowing men to feel entitled to the time and attention of anyone they choose is far too great. Just ask the families of Sakia Gunn, Mary Spears, or the women we will never know who’s lives are threatened or taken for simply saying “No” to male propositions.
No, I don’t want to live in a world where two strangers can’t ever meet or interact on the street. I know there are ways men can approach me with respect. It’s happened. But there have been many more times I’ve felt unsafe or objectified. THAT is why I’m working to end all forms of harassment in public spaces. It’s why I’m apart of No Disrespect (ND), an anti-street harassment collective committed to transforming the culture of intrusions, intimidation and harassment in Central Brooklyn, to one of community-building and mutual respect.
For us, men are not inherent harassers. In historically Black and Brown gentrifying communities, ND, as largely Black and Brown women, recognize that we cannot afford to criminalize or dispose of the men in our community. Doing so would harm the very community we are working to transform. Instead we are working towards creating systems for community accountability, which (even the fifteen-year-old in me believes) will one-day end street harassment.
Veralyn Williams is a Social Justice Journalist and Community Organizer, working to build power in Central Brooklyn as Communications Organizer at the Brooklyn Movement Center (BMC), a membership-led, direct-action, community organizing group. She is a member of No Disrespect, BMC’s anti-street harassment collective, currently comprised mostly of cisgendered Black women. Learn more about their perspective, work, and anti-street harassment week (April 12-18) actions here.