Please, Talk to Strangers

On Wednesday morning I got forwarded the following alert:

“Albany police are investigating a report of a male exposing himself on Delaware Avenue. Staff from Myers Middle School notified police that on Tuesday September 24, 2013 at approximately 7:30 a.m., two female students were approached by a man on Delaware Avenue. The students told police that while they were walking to school, they observed a male exposing himself in the area of Delaware Avenue and Morton Avenue. They stated the male then followed them for approximately one block and attempted to engage them in conversation. The students were able to get away from him and reported the incident to school officials.”

After some details about the investigation, the alert followed up with these tips:

“The Albany Police and the Albany City School District would like to remind the members of our community about the following safety tips.

  • NEVER WALK ALONE – Walk with an adult family member, an older student or with a group of students.
  • DO NOT TALK TO STRANGERS – If approached by a stranger RUN immediately to the nearest store or crossing guard and tell an adult about it.
  • COME TO SCHOOL ON TIME – Sometimes being late is unavoidable.  Parents and guardians, on those occasions please escort your children into the school building and be certain of their safe arrival.
  • WALK AGAINST TRAFFIC SO YOU CANNOT BE FOLLOWED – It takes time for a driver to turn around and it will give you a head start.
  • TELL SOMEONE IMMEDIATELY – If you have had something happen to you, have had an experience that made you feel uncomfortable or scared, or if you have information, tell school officials or your parents immediately.”

Now, first, I would like to point out first that as described, this incident, as creepy as it is, has a basically happy ending—someone did something totally unacceptable, and the girls (who appear from this short description to have been roughly following all the relevant tips already) didn’t stand for it and alerted the proper authorities. Good for them, and I hope they are able to focus on that part of the experience and not what was surely a scary and unpleasant block walk.

I am strongly concerned about sexual assault and harassment. However, I am also strongly concerned about both the importance of freedom and independence for our children and the importance of placing responsibility where it belongs (i.e. not on “likely victims”). Therefore, the tips list as constructed bugs me, and not only because one of the items is “don’t talk to strangers, but if someone bugs you, run and talk to a stranger.”

I would like to suggest a slightly different list of reminders to all the members of our community:

  • THESE ARE YOUR STREETS – Everyone, of any gender or age, has a right to walk anywhere in this city at any time of day, in groups of any size, without being harassed. Any deviation from that is entirely the responsibility of the harasser, not the harassed.
  • ONLY YES MEANS YES – Unwanted sexual advances, persistent attempts at conversation, or following someone down the street is never acceptable. Keep your dick in your pants, duh. But also, no one owes you an answer, even to a “compliment.” If someone does not want to talk to you, leave them alone, even if you believe you only mean well. If someone you are with is pestering someone else in this fashion, tell them their behavior is unacceptable and needs to stop.
  • TRUST YOUR GUT ­– If someone is making you uncomfortable but hasn’t officially “done anything wrong,” you still don’t have to interact with them. In fact, don’t. If you do not want to talk to someone, make that clear, do not feel any need to be polite about it, and keep moving until they leave you alone or you find a place you feel safe. If someone you are with feels that way about someone else, or is recounting an experience where they felt that way, respect their reaction.
  • DO TELL SOMEONE, AS SOON AS YOU CAN – Sharing information about people who are behaving badly can help keep everyone safer, as well as help you get support if you need it.
  • DO TALK TO STRANGERS – Community is built when we know each other. Having friendly, respectful conversations with shopkeepers, neighbors, fellow bus riders, school staff etc. not only builds community, but it makes you safer: you will have more people who know you looking out for you, and more people whom you feel comfortable turning to for help if someone is behaving inappropriately.

So remember: Whose streets? Our streets. And our children’s.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Sept. 26, 2013.)

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