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It all began with a car horn.
Around 7pm on a weeknight in June, I was stopped on my bike in the left turn lane at a red light. From Huntington Avenue, I would cross the T tracks to take a left onto Parker before picking up the Southwest Corridor off of Ruggles Street.
The light was red. The left turn signal was red. The cars in front of me were also stopped at the red. And yet, impossible to mistake despite never turning around, the car behind me was laying on the horn, creeping closer to my rear tire.
I ignored it, as I so often do; my preference is to wait until the bumper has made contact with my bike before turning around to acknowledge the aggression. Sometimes, people don’t realize just how cognizant a cyclist is of their unconscious forward drift. Sometimes, it’s not an act of aggression.
Sometimes, though, it is.
The left turn signal switched to green. The cars in front of me began moving. I began moving. I took the full lane, giving myself room to cross perpendicular to the T tracks so as to stay upright. As I came out of the turn, I glanced to my right – an unconscious habit to check for approaching
danger traffic – and I saw the Lexus, its bumper aimed squarely at me.
I swerved. I yelled. I avoided contact. I had the attention of pedestrians. As the Lexus straightened its course to approach me again, I realized that its proximity to me had not been a mistake, mere carelessness. As I do when my life is threatened by a vehicle cutting it too close, I took the lane on Parker.
Traffic was heavy in this stretch, and passing me would be difficult, I knew. Usually, this is enough to keep me safe. I held the lane, moving with the flow of traffic ahead of me. I heard the rev of the engine before I saw the car swerve out to my left, into oncoming traffic, cutting an arc back toward me.
“What is your PROBLEM?!”
I wasn’t surprised by the response:
“You’re my fucking problem!”
And then, the spit. It arced wide, splattering in the spokes of my back wheel.
“You do realize this is assault with a deadly weapon?”
Again, the swerve, trying to cut ahead of me in stopped traffic, blocking oncoming traffic, taking aim with another wad of saliva.
I’ll confess, at this point I resorted to some unsavory name calling – adrenaline in close calls like these reduces my vocabulary to one of rage, rather than of angry reason. Apparently, the choice words I chose crossed some line that I thought we had left behind on Huntington.
“Now THAT you do NOT do!”
The car stopped. Traffic was stopped. The doors were ajar as the driver and passenger made moves to exit the car. I, on bicycle, dipped around the rear bumper where they had cut in front of me, ducked briefly into oncoming traffic and hopped onto the sidewalk. I hopped back into traffic to take my next left, and back on the sidewalk to cut to the Southwest Corridor.
The Lexus did give chase, as far as they could. Oncoming traffic and my disappearance into the park slowed their progress. I stopped behind BPD headquarters to be sure I had some distance between us. By the time I arrived home, I was still a shaky, rage-filled mess. The departure of adrenaline from my bloodstream left me with a pounding headache, and the effort of the entire encounter and chase had me exhausted.
My harassers in this situation were all women – this is not my usual story of being harassed by men, and it’s not technically the focus of Hollaback! either. But it is relevant.
The relationships between cyclists and drivers are notoriously strained in Boston – cars don’t follow the rules, bikes don’t follow the rules, everyone is a Masshole and everyone feels slighted – but there’s more to it than that, and the power dynamic at play is strikingly similar to that which fuels street harassment.
What causes strangers in a motor vehicle to go out of their way to verbally harass, physically assault and spit on a cyclist who is following the rules? What causes strangers to belittle someone more vulnerable than themselves? A belief that they don’t belong. A belief that they are lesser. A belief that they are there for the amusement of those in the position of power. Acts of violence like running a cyclist off the road, yelling and honking as you pass, “buzzing” and spitting are all reminders to the cyclist that You Are Less. A driver can kill you at any time, literally without lifting a finger.
And what is it that causes strangers, often men, on the street to approach passers by, often women – to touch them, harangue them, comment on their bodies and call them diminutive names like “baby”? What causes those same strangers to belittle someone who doesn’t respond favorably, who asserts any power or right to the public space? A belief that they don’t belong. A belief that they are lesser. A belief that they are there for the sake of amusement.
Street harassment is not about the sex.
You might be thinking that this seems a stretch – can the clash of cyclists and drivers really have anything to do with the harassment of women in public?
Consider the Blame Game:
“She wasn’t even wearing…
…a helmet!” Though I am personally a believer in helmets, there is not actually any data demonstrating that helmets reduce bike casualties in the case of car on bike collisions. A cyclist’s personal choice not to wear a helmet does not mean that they are “asking for” injury or death.
…tights with that skirt!” It almost feels silly to even use this example, but clearly it’s not obvious to everyone – what a person chooses to wear does not, EVER, justify harassment.
“Anyway, why was she out…
…in the road?!” In business districts in the city of Boston, it is illegal for cyclists to ride on the sidewalk. Bikes are legally obligated to ride in the road, with vehicular traffic, and may take a full lane at any time (as I do when it is safer for me to do so). Cyclists may legally ride two-abreast, though often groups will choose to fall in line and stay to the right as a courtesy. Cyclists, if making left or right turns, are legally obligated to move into designated lanes just as a car would.
…by herself?!” Women should not be expected to plan their lives around a schedule through which they can be escorted, just to avoid unwanted attention. A woman out by herself, on foot, on a bike, on the T or wherever, should not blamed for asking for harassment – and yet, so often, we are told it’s our fault.
“But it was red!”
Running of red lights is the most common complaint against cyclists as a group – not everyone runs them, contrary to popular belief, while plenty of cars do. Nonetheless: a cyclist who has run a red light is no more interested in bodily harm than me, stopped while you aggressively tap my tire with your bumper because I’m “in your way”.
Red dresses, red lipstick, red shoes – I’ve heard all three used as reasons that harassers knew a victim “wanted” their commentary. In short, false; a particular color does not qualify as a green light for harassment.
Let’s also consider the progression of the average encounter, on two feet or two wheels:
1. Harasser commentary or action (catcall or honk, grope or swerve).
2. Victim a) ignores the action, or b) responds negatively. (I will not address the option of the victim being thrilled and flattered. No, you’re wrong, she wasn’t.)
3. Harasser becomes angry at being ignored, rebuffed or corrected. Name-calling often follows. (Dyke, bitch, whore and combinations thereof are favorites.)
4. Victim feels the threat of this anger. (Will the harasser give chase? Cause physical harm? Find out where I live?)
5. The experience of this threat raises questions in the victim’s mind – how can I avoid these interactions? Should I not be where I am? Can I behave differently? What if I responded some other way?
Just as women all too often feel that they are to blame for their harassment, cyclists can do nothing right. I stop at red lights, I get nudged or honked at. Don’t stop at red lights, invoke ire. Take a lane and signal for a left, expect close calls and honks. Stay to the right, risk dooring from the right, buzzing on the left. Leave the house in a cocktail dress, get harassed. Running clothing = harassed. Sweatpants and galoshes = harassed. Ladybits hidden somewhere under that snowsuit? Harassed.
Some days, I drive. Some, I take the T. I walk. I bike. If I’m lucky, I’ll go for a run. I try to follow the rules doing all of these things. My aim, like most inhabitants of this city I would imagine, is to get to and from my job, my home, the grocery store – alive and unmolested. I’d rather not have to be on my guard for aggressive assaults from motor vehicles, and I’d prefer to avoid uncomfortable, unsolicited commentary about my body. I’m not a reckless daredevil taking my life into my own hands – I’m also never, ever TRYING to collect catcalls on my commute.
In an additional, unfortunate twist, I prefer to bike and face angry motorists on a daily basis precisely because on my bicycle, I avoid harassment of a sexual nature.
A cat-caller is eating my dust before his utterances reach my ears as I pass, and heckling, whistling and ogling from cars is far less frequent when I’m on two wheels. On my bike, I can avoid the walk to the train, the train itself, the walk from the train; on my bike, though I face angry, distracted and dangerous motorists every day, the harassment takes a different tone. On my bike, I’m being harassed for my choice of transportation, which is a choice and which is in my control; on foot, I’m being harassed for being a woman in public, and I am made to feel helpless and vulnerable.
It’s not about the sex; it’s all about the power.
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