Pascale Leone testifies to the DC Council about harassment.

Unwanted sexual comments, indecent exposure, groping, and public masturbation: sexual harassment happens often on transit in DC. Local grassroots activist group Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS)/

Holla Back DC! has been tracking and speaking out on this issue for 3 years.

Of the hundreds of stories of public sexual harassment submitted to their blog, 30% take place on the transit system or at Metro platforms or bus stops.

After unsuccessfully trying to meet with WMATA and not receiving responses to inquiries about statistics of sexual harassment, CASS board members, including myself, decided to organize a group of people to testify at yesterday’s WMATA oversight hearing at the DC Council, chaired by Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser.

Six of us testified and we were the only members of the public who testified about anything relating to WMATA, so we had their attention and the attention of the media. After laying out the facts, sharing stories of harassment, and informing them about what transit systems in Boston, New York City and Chicago are doing to address sexual harassment that WMATA is not, we gave our recommendations.

  1. Better tracking and reporting of incidents
  2. A public service awareness campaign so people know what their rights are and how to report incidents
  3. Better training of Metro employees so they don’t harass passengers and so they respond to reports of harassment more appropriately.

Councilmember Bowser was very receptive to these suggestions, especially the PSA campaign. WMATA CEO Richard Sarles said he would talk with his counterparts in the three cities that have PSA campaigns, to get advice on how to bring one to DC. Their responses were very encouraging, but of course we won’t call it a success until we actually have a campaign.

Anti-harassment PSA in Chicago.

And there is still work to do around WMATA’s responses to and treatment of harassment.

While WMATA keeps painting harassment as flirting in their statements to the press, we’re not talking about flirting, and the testimonies illustrated what’s really going on. Here are two examples.

Ami Lynch testified about a Metro bus driver who harassed her. After small talk about how tall she was, he launched into inappropriate territory by saying, “Hey baby, it doesn’t matter that I’m not tall, because when we’re lying down it’s all the same anyway,” and as he laughed he gestured from his crotch to her crotch. She said she was stunned, stepped off the bus, crossed the street, and began to cry. After she reported it, the Customer Relations Manager told her how the bus driver would never have said that and didn’t have time to talk to customers on his route. The case was closed.

She said she no longer takes that bus and it has cost her nearly $1,000 in cab fares to commute to her weekly appointment for which she previously used the 10B bus.

Pascale Leone shared how the following happened to her when she left a Metro station: “In a flash, the young male in the white T-shirt came onto me saying derogatory things about my body and proceeded to — in what felt like the longest seconds of my life — fondle my chest and buttocks unremittingly and then walked away as if nothing had happened. My shock wore off and anger quickly set in. I was pissed. I turned around with clenched fists and caught my assailants vacant eyes as he muttered, “You f—-ing b-tch” and calmly turned around and continued to walk away.”

When she reported him to a nearby Metro employee, he said, “Oh him. He just grabbed that girl’s butt” pointing at a woman going up the escalators. Then he laughed. She said the next day she read in the DCist and the Examiner that minutes before her assault, he had punched a woman in the back of her head and after he groped her, he grabbed a woman on K Street and tried to rape her until a group of passerby’s heard her scream and held the suspect until the police arrived..

Metro says they are doing a good job addressing sexual crimes since there were only 84 reported “sexual offenses” last year. We disagree. We know that sexual crimes are vastly under-reported to begin with and then, when people do try to report it, how many of them are like Ami and Pascale? Instead of having their incident handled and recorded, they’re met with laughter or disbelief and their incident is left off the record.

Additionally, after our testimonies, we were told by someone in from the transit police office, that unless verbal harassment is directly threatening, it is not recorded at all and is a matter of free speech. So none of the verbal sexual harassment that we know is so prevalent is tracked.

It’s funny how unwanted sexual comments constitute sexual harassment in the workplace and schools, but, according to the police officer, they are free speech on the Metro system.

Clearly, our work is just beginning. We plan to bring a larger group to testify at the WMATA budget hearing in April and we likely will launch a petition or advocacy campaign in March, so stay tuned.