Kill Me or Leave Me Alone: Street Harassment as a Public Health Issue

By Guest Contributor Renina Jarmon (M.Dot) cross-posted from New Model Minority

This one is for Afrolicious and the notion of Appophenia.

Last Saturday on the way home on the metro platform I was tired.

I had been dancing. Bier was consumed. I spent the afternoon reading, and the evening posted up with my friend All Spirit and then the night dancing.

All Spirit bounced early, and he was my ride so I darted home on the metro. Looking back I should have asked another homie for a ride home.

I am walking on the metro platform and these two young Black men, are eyeing, me, saying something and if you know me you know I always trust my intuition. Full stop.

My intuition told me that I wasn’t safe and that I needed to act.

So rather than go back and for with these cats because it is late,  and I still needed to get home, and the platform was relatively empty,  I say to him “Aye blood, I’m from East Oakland California, either kill me or leave me alone.”

Even as I type it, I still can’t believe that it came out my mouth.

One of the dudes was like she from Oakland. She from Oakland and kinda let me be.

The other one took it personal as a threat. He left me alone, but there were was definitely a threat of violence in his body language and his words.

Whatever my fate was that night, I was ready.

I am so sick and tired of being treated like shit because of what is between my legs.

I felt uncomfortable the next day about what I had done, so I called my brother.

I mean, I understand full and well that things could have escalated. However over the last 3 months I have had these public interactions with Black men challenging, with the explicit threat of violence, my right to be in public.

So I called my brother to help me get some context. He told me that you never know what you are going to need to do to stay alive in a situation. Sometimes it is being silent, sometimes it is setting someone straight from the gate. After he said this, and related a similar experience that he had around standing up for himself when someone threatened him, I felt better. Still uneasy but better.

This street harassment+gendered violence experience also has me thinking about Charlie Sheen.

One of the reasons why I take all of these Charlie Sheen tweets so serious is because he beat his ex wife, and because he is imploding right in front of us.

The whole time I have been trying to think about how to write this post I have been watching the discourse around Charlie Sheen.

Men, Black men and White men can joke and shit about how Charlie and what not is funny, but as a Black woman, trying to get from point A to point B, who demands to be treated like a human being, violence or the threat of violence is a real part of my day to day existence.

Nothing Charlie says is funny because that man speaking to me that way on the train platform was not funny.

It really is out of pocket that I have to damn near be ready to die just to assert my humanity after dancing to Prince all night long.


Street harassment as a public health issue?

Can you believe I said it?

Is it time for me to leave the city?

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  • RodT3

    I would say it is time to leave the city

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  • zindzhi

    Not from the US in Haiti right now, but I get you ! Since i’m back home I have stop interacting with men in the street for this very reason even if they are saying hello. I’m just a walking p%$#y to them and nothing more . It was worst when i went to the a small town in the DR were men just grabbed me and touched me. frankly i’m tired. When I lived in the states I lived in a white town in upstate NY and no one bothered me . I was the invisible black woman. I miss that invisibility. My country is Patriarchy on steroids . Rape has become endemic in IDP camps after the quake so I take no chances. I can’t wait to leave.. sometimes you can’t go back home again

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  • J Sunshine

    Thank you for writing this. Just last week I vented on facebook about how I want to shoot the tires of cars that honk at me…just the tires. I don’t understand what harassing type men receive from honking (or hollering) at us as we mind our business walking down the street, other than some kind of perverse joy that we are uncomfortable. They think women exist simply as daily eye candy for them to judge and harass? I am sick of it. I am all for organizations like that urge women to take pics of these creeps and post them/out them. But we can’t always do that. Like your brother said, each situation is different and sometimes it’s silence that will keep us alive. But YOUR comment “kill me or leave me alone”? Wow….I can’t believe it either, but I admire your courage. That takes ovaries!

  • bdsista

    That’s why I drive. My girlfriend is from NYC and lives in Silver Spring and loves taking the metro everywhere. I take the metro only when necessary or if there is going to be exhorbitant parking. I am too old to run and not a good fighter. Damn shame. Do we need another Million Man March to address this?

    • AndreaPlaid

      YYYEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSS! I’m loving this idea, bdsista. A Million Feminist Man March, and I want all the men of color who are writing about their feminist/rape culture epiphanies to lead it. Then I want them to march on down to Cleveland, TX, and do a verbal beatdown of the men who raped that 11-year-old girl. And that’s just a start…

  • VaNessa

    My name’s VaNessa and I’m a dark-skinned Black woman. I’ve lived in Memphis, TN all my life (I’m 18 now) and I’ve walked/ridden bus/public transportation since grade one. Thank you for addressing it, because this is a part of my life, however I don’t belive it’s a public health issue. I think it’s a social construct on par with instilling curfews for underage children. A huge part of it is about control; making sure that you know your place as a woman. How many women refuse to go out alone at night, or change their style of dress to be less noticable/desirable? It’s just wrong. Men like that are part of the reason I spent 5 years hating my body and clenching my teeth at every cat call, whistle, and car horn I got on my way home. No more!
    You were completely within your rights to say what you did, and blessed that nothing more came out of it than discomfort. If men cannot give respect, they don’t deserve it in return. I’m not saying be reckless, because safety should be your first priority, but by all means let them know you’re no one’s plaything.

  • AndreaPlaid

    So framing this as something only Black men do I think is counterproductive. This is something that many men do and the focus should be on changing attitudes across all ethnic lines. Otherwise this becomes just more Black dysfunction.

    And framing this as something that “many men do” also tends to obfuscate the reality that some Black men *do* participate in and perpetuate this harassment, which—dare I say it?—is dysfunctional. It is that reality that Renina decided to write about and tie it into the larger problem of sexual violence against women. It is a reality that Arielle Loren decided to discuss in her post that I highlight in today’s Links Round-up. It is my lifelong reality, which I gave a snapshot of in my initial comment on this thread.

    Such comments remind me of the rush to defense during the Prop 8 fallout: quite a few of us were so quick to disprove that Blacks were more homophobic than other racial groups—again with the need to prove we weren’t inherently homophobic due to our race and “culture”—that far too many of us get quiet on the fact that the dysfunction of homophobia *does* exists within Black communities and is fucking up people’s lives on the daily, somewhere. Much in the same way, the dysfunction of misogyny and one of its manifestations, street harassment, *does* exist in Black communities, full stop. And misogyny and street harassment are fucking up people’s lives. Somewhere.

    • Val

      Okay I hear you but at no point in my comment did I say that Black men do not harass women on the street. Nor did I try to compare the harassment by Black men with men of other groups.

      As a Black woman I have been experiencing street harassment since I was 12 years old mostly by Black men. So I’m not making any excuses for that behavior by Black men. My point was simply that I think it would be most productive to see this as something that many men do from many different ethnic backgrounds so that we don’t get mired by the racial aspect.

      If we, women of all backgrounds, fight this together then I think that would have more impact then splintered battles waged within ethnic communities.

      • AndreaPlaid

        Fighting sexual violence can start at home, Val. The first people we need to speak with regarding this are those, according to stats and quite a few anecdotes, who more than likely commit sexual violence against us Black women most often: Black men.

        • Anonymous

          Context matters. You can’t address sexual assault and cat calling in black communities without acknowledging that our set of circumstances and cultural expectations are on average different than that of other groups. So we can’t just gather unless we understand how these issues impact us specifically. It’d be like trying to address rape and sexual assault om reservations without also addressing spiritual voids and historical trauma. You can’t just universalize these things because there are various meanings, contexts and experiences.

  • Chased

    I really enjoyed this post and as uncomfortable as you felt about it, I probably would’ve said something similar– although I’m from Long Island, so I don’t think that gives me any clout lol. Im a lot tougher than i look though. It baffles me how people don’t understand how exasperating it is to fear for your life as a woman taking public transportation or walking down the street, especially when there area million other things going on in your life. I’m glad you brought the Charlie Sheen issue tonight swell. It seems that I’m the only one amongst my peers who doesn’t find him funny or follow him on Twiiter.

  • Anonymous

    well if you are from the East than you’ve been through enough street harassment to last a lifetime. I can’t even count the number of nasty, disgusting, insulting statements that have been hurled my way walking around, minding my own business over there. Street harassment makes my blood boil, I’m so tired of fearing being by myself, of feeling like I need a male companion just to keep me from being humilated by some asshole. To me, its so not about “them trying to get your number,” and 100% about keeping women in their place. Its a form of violence, a mental violence, against women who dare to leave the confines of our homes and be independent.

    In my experience, what you did was the right thing to do, cause if these cowards think that you will put up a fight they will be more likely to leave you alone. Like all bullies, they prey on those who seem most unable to defend themselves. Good thinking on that shit…I am so tired of hearing these stories, watching this happen, and going through it myself. We need to organize to make streets a safe place for women!

  • Sara

    Great post. Something else we should be talking about is how this impacts girls. I remember the very first time I realized I could be seen sexually – when a man leered at me very threateningly and said obscene things to me while I was walking home in my bathing suit and shorts. I was 11 and I actually remember thinking, “But… I’m only 11!”. Yes, thank god, I’m getting harassed less as I get older. I’m sure we all have plenty of disgusting and frightening experiences to share – for me many of those street harassment/assault experiences happened as a preteen and teenager when I was vulnerable, less confident, less trusting of my instincts, and ill-equipped to deal with it. Obviously I don’t think the onus should be on girls to learn how to deal, but I do wish someone had acknowledged this phenomenon and given me some support about it. Just talking about it helps though, I went through a time when for a year I would educate every man I came across about what the sidewalks are like for women. Until I got to that point though, I felt totally silenced by subtle shame at more obscene incidents, or not wanting to seem like a “complainer”.

  • Anonymous

    A few days ago I saw a black man staring at a young girl (she was in a school uniform). I’m 51 and I said to him. “You ought to be fucking ashamed of yourself, you’re old enough to be my daddy!” He got all embarrassed and said, “I didn’t mean nothing,” and then he had to say, “you got some pretty eyes.” I told him, “If I had a dollar for every time some guy said that I me I’d never have to work again.”

    Sometimes I wonder what is wrong with men. Street harassment went on when I was a teenager but today it’s gotten worse. How would these men feel if a group of MEN started to harass them?

    • Ladyguerita

      Believe or not I was walking in neighborhood (I was 14) and I had a FIVE YEAR OLD boy cat call me and a teenager my own age! That is a shame . This is the behavior we are teaching our youth. EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW that it’s NOT OK to do harass people!

  • lynn

    Having grown up in NYC I can remember those days well. One time some guy grabbed me, I pulled away from him and told a white male police officer, who laughed and made some remark which I since can’t remember. I can remember many times when I was cursed out by black men for not responding to their vulgarities when they catcalled me on the street.

    Well, if it’s any consolation, just know that the older you get the less attention you get on the street. At 46, I am practically invisible now. And I like that.

    • AndreaPlaid

      I’m not sure about that, lynn. At 42 and currently living in NYC, I still get harassed on the streets, especially by some Black men. In fact, the majority of men who do that to me are Black men.

      Of course, if we start a talking about Black male privilege in context of Black women and street harassment, folks wanna holler and moan. What I want to holler back is, “Just because we’re both Black doesn’t mean you’re entitled to my Black body. I let *you* know if and when I want to be bothered. Until then, zip it and focus on whatever the hell it was you’re doing before I walked by. And if you weren’t focused on anything, I suggest getting a focus besides me. Dig?”

      ::scribbles that down for future reference::

  • Big Man

    I appreciated this piece, as I do all of the pieces about “street harassment” because it’s an issue that makes me think. In fact, my initial reaction to the piece, which was similar to my reaction to others like it, made me do some serious thinking on why I felt the way I felt. I wrote it up over at my blog. It’s good to think about things that make us uncomfortable. It makes us better people most of the time.

  • Kristin Craiglai

    This is what so many people don’t understand. It’s not just that men hit on you or make comments on your body, that’s bad enough. But the way some of them respond to being either ignored or told off or really any reaction that makes sense, is frightening and sometimes violent. My neighbour, a black woman, was walking down the street when some guy, a black man, tried to talk to her, when she ignored him he punched her in the face. She fought back but he beat her into unconsciousness and broke her leg, fortunately she was quickly found and a very responsive cop quickly found her attacker.

    So yes, street harassment is a public health issue, and I’m so glad you said it, and you shouldn’t be driven from the city because of this crap.

    • Noelle

      Yes. It’s extremely frustrating, devastating, and power-robbing to realize that some men experience their own sexual desire for someone else as an act of aggression from that other person against him.

      What’s a woman to do, if not eventually snap?

  • Anonymous

    Great post. Street harrassment, sexual assault, and the way violence is gendered are NOT public health issues. The framing of these problems as a public health problem rather than a systematic form of social oppression tends to place the burden for preventing them onto health professionals and social workers, tending to focus on the health problems of VICTIMS of this type of violence, instead of actually stopping the violence or questioning it. Even in the event that the problems a perpetrator may have are dealt with through public health initiatives, this tends to portray the perpetrators of that violence as having some kind of abnormality, they are “crazy” men who can’t control themselves, when in fact we normalize and encourage this type of violence everyday. We need solutions that address the oppressive system, not solutions that individualize the problem. The framing of violence as a public health issue which should therefore be addressed by the government has led to victims being forced to seek help from government funded programs which individualize the problem, blame them, and define “success” in terms of success in the capitalist system, meanwhile the oppression is perpetuated by the attitude which the public health system betrays in the solutions it provides to the problem.