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HollaBack NYC: Sites of Resistance, Sousveillance, and Street Harassment

posted by:jennifer barrigar // 11:59 PM // May 16, 2006 // ID TRAIL MIX

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On the afternoon of 19 August 2005, Thao Nguyen was taking the New York City subway back to her office when a man sat down across from her and began fondling himself, extracted his penis from his pants and beginning to masturbate. Nervous and wanting to feel safer, she removed her camera-enabled cellphone and eventually took a picture of the masturbator. He left the train at the next stop. Ms. Nguyen immediately reported the incident to a police officer.

She went further than that, however – she also posted the photo and an account of the incident on Flickr and Craigslist. On 26 August 2005, the New York Daily News carried an article on their front page which reproduced a (cropped) version of the photo and asked readers to call the NY Daily News if they recognized the man. Three days later, the News reported that over 2 dozen people had identified the man in the photograph as Dan Hoyt, a local raw foods restaurateur. The next day they added that 6 more reports of being flashed by the man in the photo had been received. It was also noted that Mr. Hoyt had been arrested in 1994 for unzipping and flashing at a New York subway station, had pled guilty and was sentenced to two days of community service. Mr. Hoyt was eventually arrested and charged with public lewdness. He pled guilty and was sentenced to two years’ probation, with mandatory counselling.

Meanwhile, the blogging (and commuting) community had been energized by the effectiveness of Thao Nguyen’s actions. The HollaBack NYC site was created by the Artistic Evolucion collective "to expose and combat street harassment as well as provide an empowering forum in this struggle.”1 The FAQ was posted on 2 October 2005. The inaugural post to the site was on 3 October 2005 and read:

Here's the skinny--next time you're out and about and some cocky ass on a power trip whistles, hoots, or hollas--Just Holla back! Whip out your digicam, cameraphone, 35mm, (or sketchpad), and email us the photo. We'll post their ugly face for the whole world to see.
If you can't pull out a camera, or you don't have one on you, just send us a story and we'll post that too.2

HollaBack’s response to street harassment has received quick and global uptake. A European HollaBack site is expected to be up and running soon and in the meantime the HollaBack NYC site reports an average of 1,000 hits daily, including womyn from Spain, Italy and India.3

Since I became aware of this, I’ve been intrigued by it. I think it provides a fascinating lens through which to view some of the issues we deal with on this project. I’m particularly interested in where we situate our analysis of a site like HollaBack NYC or actions like Nguyen’s. Sadly, there’s nowhere near the time and space to address them all here, but I hope to sketch out at least some of my response and hope to generate deeper discussion(s).

In an article in New York Magazine, Hoyt critiques both Nguyen and the dissemination of the photo on the Internet:

In his account, the perpetrator is Nguyen, who misread his intentions (he claims he was already mid-masturbation when she stepped onto the train) and then humiliated him by posting his picture on the Web. He says he didn’t even realize he’d been photographed. “Even so, I wouldn’t imagine somebody throwing it up on the Internet for millions of people and destroying your life like that,” he says. “It’s one thing to take it to the police. But on the Internet, I read a lot of people saying,’“that was not too cool of her. That was really screwed up.’”
Hoyt believes that if he and Nguyen had only met under different circumstances, she might really like him. “You know, she’d go, ‘That guy’s pretty cool. He’s got this restaurant, and he’s fun,’” Hoyt says. “She’d probably want to go out with me.”

Hoyt seems almost to be suggesting that his behaviour should have been of no consequence to Nguyen – that his masturbation was a private affair which did not concern her. Looked at that way, her response was a “misreading” of his masturbation as somehow linked to her. The implication seems to be that the only right of response is by s/he who is personally attacked. By construing things this way, he sets himself up as the victim, unfairly exposed and exploited not just by womyn who “misunderstand” him but by the power of an increasingly technologized society.

James B. Rule has defined surveillance as “any systematic attention to a person’s life aimed at exerting influence over it.” Steve Mann speaks of it as meaning “to watch from above”.

The HollaBack NYC FAQ defines street harassment as:

…a form of sexual harassment that takes place in public spaces. At its core is a power dynamic that constantly reminds historically subordinated groups (women and LGBTQ folks, for example) of their vulnerability to assault in public spaces. Further, it reinforces the ubiquitous sexual objectification of these groups in everyday life.

It seems to me, putting these comments together, that street harassment may be read as a form of (or consistent with) surveillance – by being applied against the Other, it is hierarchical and aimed at those under; it exerts influence over womyn’s lives by reinforcing vulnerability and Otherness.

I’d like to suggest, then, that the HollaBack NYC project be understood as resistance to surveillance – a form of sousveillance if you will. That rather than being the victim of surveillance, Dan Hoyt was himself engaged in surveillance, part of a systemic surveillance directed at womyn and those perceived to be womyn.

As a tool of resistance, I think HollaBack NYC is exciting. I find myself returning to a quote from the August 29 New York Daily News article where another womyn who’d been flashed by Mr. Hoyt says “I just wanted to forget about the whole thing. I am glad someone had the wherewithal to do something about this.” I am pleased that HollaBack NYC is providing the wherewithal for womyn to name street harassment and begin to address it.

Steve Mann and Ian Kerr discussed equiveillance, the notion that the intersection of surveillance and sousveillance might create “some kind of equilibrium.” I question whether HollaBackNYC will (or can) create such a state. At the very least, I think there are some issues which must first be considered.

Steven Davis has expressed concern about the impact of sousveillance on third parties, as have others. It seems to me that the HollaBack NYC project mediates that concern as much as possible. Rather than a stream of ongoing surveillance, pictures (or stories, where pictures cannot safely be acquired) are of the harasser. Further, there has been a conscious decision by the HollaBack NYC moderators to retain the space as one of empowerment from, not power to. For example, the site has developed a strong anti-racism policy which mandates that the race of harassers or other racialized commentary not be part of the posted narrative. Where race is mentioned, it is expected that the necessity of doing so will be “clearly and constructively” explained.

While Cynthia Grant Bowman points out the universality of street harassment for womyn, she also recognizes that “women of different backgrounds may experience street harassment through the lens of different historical and personal experiences.”4 It strikes me that this is especially noteworthy on a site like HollaBack NYC because the womyn themselves are invisible – they are not in the photographs, they are taking the pictures, recounting the narrative rather than defined by it, turning the gaze back on men. This has strong potential for empowerment, allowing womyn the power to define their experience of harassment for themselves. At the same time, I am concerned that the anti-racism policy may have the effect of silencing these womyn and creating a homogenized “victim”, without any recognition of the particularities of race, class, sexual orientation, etc. which shape womyn’s experiences of street harassment.

I am also concerned about the safety of womyn who choose to “HollaBack” at their harassers. I was chilled by the entry for Friday 12 May 2006 where the man in the photo “ran after me and took a picture of the back of my head with his camera phone, wailing “now you can’t do anything!”

I wonder about the economic and class implications of this strategy. HollaBack NYC is a response predicated on access to technology – access to cellphones to take pictures, access to computers to upload them, access by others to computers in order to see the pictures etc. Ultimately, this increases the digital divide, simultaneously creating a site/voice of resistance and then denying it to some members of the marginalized population(s).

I worry about the unregulated nature of such sites. The HollaBack FAQ insists that “what specifically counts as street harassment is determined by those who experience it.” While my feminist self initially rejoices in this definition and in the act of resistance that is HollaBack itself, I begin to wonder what measures there might be to stop the posting of pictures of or allegations about individuals for other reasons. The anti-racism policy notwithstanding, what about issues of systemic racism that may fuel one’s perception of something as a “threat”? What about other power disparities which shape the interaction between photographer and subject? Can exposure on HollaBack NYC create stigma such that mistaken posting is an issue? Will there be way(s) for individuals who are mistakenly identified to have their photos removed? How can an individual without internet access be aware of the mistaken posting and/or negotiate its removal? Is the value of the HollaBack resistance lessened by the risk of malicious or mistaken posting(s)?

Finally, I find myself uncomfortable with what this response implies about the ubiquity of technology and surveillance, that rather than seek to dismantle the existing surveillance, we respond with the imposition of another layer of veillance.

As Linda Richman says: talk amongst yourselves….

1 http://www.hollabacknyc.blogspot.com/2005/10/hollafaq.html.
2 http://hollabacknyc.blogspot.com/2005_10_01_hollabacknyc_archive.html.
3 http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm?=aid=2734.
4 Cynthia Grant Bowman, “Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women” (1993) 106 Harv. L. Rev. 517 at 534.

jennifer barrigar is an LL.M. candidate at the University of Ottawa and Legal Counsel, Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. The opinions expressed in this article are personal and do not represent those of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner nor bind that Office in any way.

Comments

i share your concern about additional layers of veillance. as sting once sang, "too many cameras and not enough food..."

Posted by: ian kerr at May 16, 2006 03:51 PM

the pop culture junkie in me is also intrigued by the "holla back" tag here.

If i read Gwen Stefani properly, a "hollaback girl" is not a good thing to be -- it denotes passivity rather than agency, responding and repeating rather than creating. And yet it seems clear to me in their call to womyn to "holla back" that the collective here position "holla back" as a positive action.

so i'm wondering -- is this a reclamation of the notion of "hollaback girl"? just two divergent interpretations of the act/term? a subtle recognition that no matter how empowering this practice, it still consists in the main of mirroring back the male surveillant gaze?

Posted by: feisty_jenn at May 16, 2006 04:04 PM

this is a great piece jen! i too have been following this issue with great interest and i share many of your concerns. however, i am not sure that all of the concerns should detract from the legitimacy of the hollaback project itself. these concerns need to be addressed by society as a whole.

for example, in a perfect world, the ubiquitous surveillance of womyn by men would be curtailed, either by legislation (making it a REAL crime to harass womyn on the streets) and/or through wide-spread educational strategies in which men are taught that womyn are not objects to be surveilled. but without these kinds of wide ranging societal changes or even a committment to such changes how can we critique hollaback? to me, it seems like they are just using the tools that they have in order to raise consciousness to the issue...a kind of fighting fire with fire, if you will, which is typical of fledgling resistance movements.

i was thinking a lot about this balance between veillances during steve mann's presentation this weekend. of course, in a perfect world, we would want all veillances to be equal (or maybe even non-existent), but the point is that they are not. why should those subject to surveillance give up sousveillance (in any context) until there is a wider committment to change the very nature of surveillance itself? doing so only reinforces the status quo and reduces the impetus for change.

Posted by: angela at May 17, 2006 12:54 PM

hmm...well, i certainly hope i didn't come across as seeking to de-legitimize the impact of HollaBack NYC. I think it's an exciting project!

my sense is that the HollaBack project is a useful lens through which to explore/view the entire continuum of veillance. I agree that sousveillance may be a tool of power for those subject to surveillance...but i question whether the intersection of the two can (or should) lead to a state of equiveillance....in the end my hope is for that "commitment to change the very nature of surveillance itself" of which you speak...

Posted by: jenn barrigar at May 19, 2006 11:12 AM

no, i didn't think that you were de-legitimizing the HollaBack NYC project at all. thinking about it more, i think we both agree that it's the nature of surveilliance that must be questioned. of course, sousveilliance shares many of the same problems as surveilliance as it reacts directly to it. the focus should not, however, be upon a critique of sousveilliance divorced from a critique of the surveilliance that led to it in the first place. i think you may be right about questioning whether equiveilliance is the solution...something i hadn't really thought about before examining it from a feminist perspective!

Posted by: angela Long at May 19, 2006 02:16 PM

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