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Bed-Stuy Organizers Kick Off Anti-Street Harassment Week

BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — On a recent morning, on her way to work in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Marly Pierre-Louis was approached and followed by two separate cars.

The occupants didn't explicitly threaten her, or get out of the car to attack her, she said. Instead, they offered unsolicited critiques of her appearance as she attempted to ignore them.

"Hey, you're pretty. Why aren't you talking to me? Why are you ignoring me?," Pierre-Louis recounted.

"They think it's all good and it's fun," Pierre-Louis said. "But you as a woman, who are smaller and more likely to be attacked, you think, what are these people going to do to me?"

Now Pierre-Louis and her coworkers at the Brooklyn Movement Center in Bedford-Stuyvesant are hoping to raise awareness as part of International Anti-Street Harassment Week, from April 7 through April 13.

Street harassment is loosely defined as "any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing and is motivated by gender," according to stopstreetharassment.org.

On Sunday, the Brooklyn Movement Center is hosting an open dialogue for women to share their experiences with street harassment, at an undisclosed location in Bedford-Stuyvesant. (The organizers want to keep the location a secret to all except those who RSVP to the event's Facebook page.)

"Are you tired of men in the streets blowing kisses at you or following you to get your phone number?" the event's invitation reads. "Do you feel unsafe walking home at night? Do you wish there was a better way to interact with men in your neighborhood?"

On Monday, the group is holding a "chalk party" in Fulton Park, which the group said was a hub of harassment. Women who attend will write anti-street harassment messages in chalk on the ground.

The hope is that through sharing their stories and being vocal about harassment, they can come up with ways to make their own neighborhood safer and raise awareness about what they see as a widespread problem.

"It's an issue in central Brooklyn, it's an issue in New York," Pierre-Louis said. "Street harassment is an issue all around the world. Wherever there are women, there's street harassment."

Solid research on street harassment is hard to come by, mostly because in many cases the actions are not against the law.

"It's always been a problem, it's just that no one's addressed it before," said Debjani Roy, deputy director at anti-street harassment group Hollaback!, which is holding a "chalk walk" of its own on Saturday, April 13 in Washington Square Park.

Complicating the issue is the fact that many men consider the harassment to be complimentary or "harmless," Roy said. Organizations like Hollaback! are working to dispel that notion. 

"You're not asking for that sort of feedback," Roy said. "Most people I know don't take it as a compliment. It's seen as a nuisance and potentially threatening."

"And it's something experienced by almost every woman that walks down the street," Roy added.

But one 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control tried to put a number on the problem, estimating that more than 33 percent of women in the country have experienced "some type of non-contact unwanted sexual experience in their lifetime," according to Cornell University.

Pierre-Louis and her coworker Anthonine Pierre said that criminalizing street harassment is not necessarily the answer. Instead, they're hoping they can change the culture around street harassment.

"There are a lot of issues wrapped up in street harassment— power, over-sexualization of women," Pierre said. "We live in a culture that is male dominated, and I think a lot of men can feel that because they have more 'power,' they feel like it's OK to overstep boundaries."

Part of what the group hopes to do going forward is engage "male allies" to help spread awareness of the issue and combat the problem. There are also steps urban planners can take to address the issue, like making sure areas are well-lit and making sure there are as few blind spots as possible, Pierre-Louis said.

The upcoming meetings are the first steps toward making women feel safer in their own community, the organizers said.

"We want to feel part of our community, we want to talk to our neighbors," Pierre-Louis said. "But we want to feel safe at the same time."