Testimony by Ben Merrion

Joint Public Roundtable on Street Harassment in the District of Columbia
Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Housing & Community Development
1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., 20004
John A. Wilson Building, Room 500
December 3, 2015 at 10:00 AM


Good morning, members of the Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Housing & Community Development. My name is Ben Merrion; I am on the board of Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS) and I would like to present testimony, mainly concerning a bystander’s experience in regard to public sexual harassment.

Since moving to the DC area in 1997, I have heard and even witnessed many stories about sexual harassment in various public spaces, including in grocery stores, bars and clubs, on the sidewalk, and on the metro transit system.

Occasionally I’ve seen people stand up for others. One day, a few months ago, I witnessed someone intervene against a harasser on metro. This witness saw a man come up to a seated woman and started yelling at him to back away from her. The man at first seemed reluctant and then quickly fled the metro car. Afterwards the woman thanked him. Someone also told me a story of a very similar event occurring on metro where bystander intervention helped chase away a harasser.

Bystander intervention is important because it can help folks get away from harassers and it can send a message that this kind of behavior is unacceptable. Many bystanders don’t know what to do when street harassment happens. Perhaps they feel that the only thing to do to intervene is to be confrontational, and if they don’t want to be confrontational, then they do nothing.

When I attended a workshop given by the CASS staff on how to respond to harassment, we did role play in which we were either being harassed, being the harasser or being a bystander. This was very helpful because it was a safe place where we could learn what to do and practice techniques and get feedback on them so we became more comfortable with how to respond.

I, myself, am not a confrontational person, and my natural inclination would be to do nothing for that reason. But through CASS’s workshops, I have learned techniques which I have used to stop harassment, such as acting like I’m lost and asking the harasser for directions, which helps the victim get away.

What training and education about techniques and strategies does is it gives us options and lets us decide how we want to intervene. Without education and training, we are very limited and have few, if any, choices. Bystander intervention training can also easily be adjusted for others who are uniquely positioned to address sexual harassment – such as bar staff and police officers.

Almost four years ago I and five others attended an oversight hearing on metro where we told the city council and metro about the problems we were seeing on its system and asked them to undertake several measures including training of its employees, running a PSA campaign, and to establish a reporting system specifically to track sexual harassment and assault.

Metro has been doing a good job and it seems that more people feel safe and what they have done can serve as a model for this city. To make people feel safe in the District, I would like to offer two suggestions:

First: Metro should Continue Their Work to Prevent Sexual Harassment and Assault on Their System. Metro has rolled out two campaigns against sexual harassment on its system and planning to address bystander intervention and involvement in its next ads. I hope that this campaign comes to fruition and that they continue to keep up the good work of collecting data, training their employees, and creating PSA campaigns with the involvement of community based organizations including CASS and Stop Street Harassment.

Second: Develop a City Wide Plan to Collect Data On Sexual Harassment and Assault that is similar to Metro’s efforts to collect data about the problem specifically on the transit system. These data can help us understand the problem across the city, which will, in turn, help us with developing solutions.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak at this roundtable.