More people experience sexual assault on Metro trains and buses than you might think, and the victims are often women, trans people, and people of color. Metro just launched a new campaign to combat that, and it’s a great first step (but is just a step) toward a safer ride for everyone.

A sign from Metro’s new campaign to curb sexual violence. All images from WMATA.

On April 12, a woman was sexually assaulted at knifepoint on the Red Line. It was morning rush hour.

This violent attack shocked local news outlets and the general public. “I don’t know many people who would have thought this would have happened in such a public arena — and that somebody would have the audacity to do that, particularly at 10 am,” Assistant State’s Attorney Elizabeth Haynos told the Washington Post.

But for those of us who have been tracking similar incidents of harassment and assault on DC’s public transit system, this incident fit a pattern. Metro Transit Police data showed that most incidents of public sexual harassment and assault occurred on the busier Red and Orange lines, most frequently during rush hour, just like the April 12th attack.

One in five Metro or Metrobus riders have experienced sexual harassment on the system. That’s according to WMATA’s first comprehensive study of sexual harassment on a city’s public transit system, which the agency partnered with Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS) and Stop Street Harassment to conduct in January 2016.

Of the people who were harassed, 75% experienced verbal harassment, 26% had been touched in a sexual way, and 2% had been raped.

Metro has worked on this issue in the past, but it’s beefing up its efforts

CASS and Stop Street Harassment have worked with WMATA to address the problem of sexual harassment since 2012. The two agencies have helped WMATA train its staff and track verbal and physical harassment through an online reporting portal, as well as run an awareness campaign with anti-harassment messaging across the system and annual outreach days at Metro stations to let riders know how to report.

One of the signs from Metro’s 2012 campaign.

Now, WMATA is working with CASS and Stop Street Harassment on a new awareness campaign to demonstrate its commitment to serving those who are most marginalized and most likely to be targeted by sexual and gender-based harassment. This is because women of color, and especially trans women of color, experience street harassment differently, often by the people meant to protect them; this happened in a recent incident in which Metro Transit Police arrested and assaulted a young black woman at the Columbia Heights station.

On November 4th, an awareness campaign launched with ads featuring the faces of trans women of color and Muslim women. The ads, which appear on trains, at Metro stops, and on buses, come on the heels of incidents where these identities were targeted at DC’s Shaw Library and Banneker Pool.

Some versions of the ads are directed toward people who experience harassment, with a simple message of support: “You deserve to be treated with respect.” The remaining ads encourage bystanders to speak out and report harassment.

The new campaign has three goals:

  1. Support people who experience harassment with messages letting riders know they deserve to be treated with respect.
  2. Promote a culture of bystander intervention, where everyone is responsible for speaking out against harassment and making public transit safer.
  3. Elevate our city’s most marginalized identities by featuring the faces of people who are part of marginalized groups, such as trans women of color and Muslim women, who face harassment most severely and most frequently.

This is a great start, but there’s a lot more work to do

Learning to stop harassment on its own is not enough if WMATA does not take steps to ensure that its staff and police force are applying their anti-harassment training to communities of color, and especially trans women of color, who are most likely to be targeted.

CASS, in partnership with Stop Street Harassment, continues to keep pressure on WMATA to step up its efforts to address violence against DC’s most vulnerable communities. Here are the latest recommendations from local advocates to make public transit safe and welcoming for everyone:

  1. Expand anti-harassment training currently required for frontline staff to include supervisors, who are responsible for building a culture of safety and respect.
  2. Disarm Metro Transit Police to reduce violence and remove barriers for bystanders who want to intervene to stop police harassment. There’s a case to be made that disarming Metro Transit Police will reduce violence against riders, foster an environment where police can build relationships with community members based in mutual respect rather than fear and the threat of violence, and that it would make officers safer, too.
  3. Expand trans cultural competency training to all frontline staff. Recently, training to better understand and serve trans communities was piloted for Metro Transit Police. Local advocates still receive many reports of harassment by WMATA employees and station managers who are hostile toward trans riders. Trans cultural competency training can help WMATA better understand and serve DC’s trans communities.
  4. Train all frontline staff, supervisors, and Metro Transit Police to address implicit biases, and specifically to address officers’ hidden prejudices that may cause police to disproportionately stop and harass communities of color. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has recommended this training for many police departments and already implemented it for its own law enforcement agents and lawyers.
  5. Make anti-harassment materials available in DC’s eight most common non-English languages: Spanish, Amharic, French, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Arabic and Bengali.

WMATA has taken an excellent first step with the new awareness campaign to demonstrate its commitment to marginalized communities. Now, it needs to back the campaign with action steps to ensure that anti-harassment advocacy serves everyone.