What CASS Means To Me Part 1: RightRides DC

Sometimes people ask me why I’m on the board of CASS, or they want to know why I got involved in this work. I usually tell them it’s because I donate to RightRides and then go on to explain that the program gives free, safe, late night rides to women and LGBTQ folks to help prevent sexual assault and harassment. I usually leave it at that.

But that, of course, begs the question of why I donate to RightRides. I haven’t shared this story with more than a handful of people. I haven’t told some people for concern of being shamed or worrying friends.

However, I think it’s time I told this story so that people know why I am compelled to invest in a program that doesn’t necessarily serve a straight male who would otherwise use it.

In the summer of 2008, two weeks after I had closed on my new condo unit, I was involved in an attempted robbery. It was attempted because I successfully resisted. A van had followed me into the parking lot of my building and a young man jumped out with a shotgun. He told me to give him my money and the bags I was carrying. I first attempted to run, but he pulled back on my backpack and prevented me from doing that. I next started yelling “fire!” as loudly as I could. The driver of the van panicked and shouted to the man with the shotgun to get back in the van. (Shouting “fire” instead of “help” is potentially more likely to get people to come out of their homes and thus produce many potential witnesses).

Later, after I called the police, they canvassed the area and found a woman who had heard what happened, wrote the license plate down on her hand, and gave it to them. Apparently, later on, there was a high speed car chase with the police and they caught them. I testified at a preliminary trial and the man with the shotgun was sent to jail.

So, I was in a rough situation and ended up with the best possible outcome. But for a long time, I had to deal with some emotional and psychological fallout from this experience. Even though the incident happened in the late afternoon while the sun was still out, I became fearful of walking alone at night. I avoided taking the bus to that bus stop and took another one that came closer to my building. I became triggered whenever I heard a car slowing down next to me when walking.

I found that when I told this story to some men, I was shamed. They said I was stupid for not handing over my stuff when I saw a shotgun. Didn’t I know I could have been killed? I was also careless for not paying attention to my surroundings. I should have been looking around more carefully. Also, what was I doing carrying around a bunch of bags in my neighborhood acting like I was in Northern Virginia? Some pressured me to move. Well, I had just closed and bought a new home, so I wasn’t going to do that. The shaming got so bad I cut off contact with many of them. I decided they weren’t my friends if they were going to treat me that way. Interestingly, I got quite a different response from women. None of them shamed me and some even wanted to know more details of how I resisted.

In 2009, I learned more about the impact of street harassment and started following anti-harassment advocates like Holly Kearl on Twitter until I met CASS’s co-founders, Chai Shenoy and Shannon Lynberg. I wanted to find out more information about what this organization did, and I learned about their plans for RightRidesDC. After reading stories on the Holla Back DC! blog and researching RightRides, I started asking myself several questions:

  1. What if I was raped or otherwise sexually assaulted? How would I feel about walking around the city and taking public transportation?
  2. What if I was sexually harassed on a regular basis? How safe would I feel? Again, would I feel safe walking around the city and taking public transportation?
  3. What if, after I was raped or otherwise sexually assaulted, I was catcalled or otherwise publicly sexually harassed on a regular basis? How safe would I feel?
  4. What if, after any one of the above, I was shamed? What if I was told I shouldn’t have been wearing what I was wearing? What if I was told I should have been more careful? What if I was told I should have paid more attention to my surroundings? What if many people made me feel like it was my fault that this terrible stuff happened to me? How would I feel?

I realized that I would have to completely change my life. I would probably have to get a car. I’d probably have to really think about how I would get home if I wasn’t driving. I’d have to plan out how I would be safe walking and/or taking public transportation. I know quite a few people get harassed everyday. I know some of them don’t have a car. I can’t imagine how they deal with it. Do they somehow get used to it? Based on the stories we heard at DC’s roundtable on street harassment, it seems like feeling unsafe just becomes a fact of their lives.

Because, here’s the thing: whenever I am fearful about walking around, I can talk myself down and say to myself that the likelihood of being robbed again is very low. I can feel safe most of the time because there are pretty much no potential threats coming at me on a regular basis.

I don’t think I could say the same if I’m a woman or a member of the LGBTQ community who faces regular sexual harassment and the constant threat of sexual assault.

I realized that it is only due to straight cis male privilege that I can talk myself down when I am afraid. It is only due to straight cis male privilege that I am able to feel as safe as I do.

So that is why a straight male has given lots of money to a program that gives free rides home to women and LGBTQ folks.

I joined the board in 2010 and have poured many of my resources into launching RightRides DC, which we finally did on Halloween of 2014—giving 67 people safe rides home in the pilot year. We are currently in the midst of a transition period for RightRides DC, working to make sure we can serve the most people and serve the greatest need. I have contributed thousands of dollars to CASS’s work over the years, and I think of it this way: Is it worth thousands of dollars if we prevented just one of those people from being raped? Is it worth thousands of dollars if those folks felt safer?

Absolutely. It’s worth every penny.