'Ayo, shorty!'

Brooklyn girls are fighting back against the boys who harass them

Even a poster declaring "Street Harassment is a Crime!" in bold letters didn't deter a group of guys standing on a Brooklyn corner from ogling 17-year-old LaTosha Belton. She was wearing knee-length shorts, a tank top, a short-sleeved sweater and she was carrying a stack of anti–sexual harassment posters.

"Read this!" she challenged, responding to their hisses and come-ons.

"What? I can't tell you, you look nice?" one man asked puzzled.

"What does this say?" she asked while pointing to the poster. "You are harassing me and I don't like it."

Nearby, five girls, interns from Girls for Gender Equity, like Latosha, positioned a poster on the wall of a bodega. The owner agreed to let them tape it up, but not too high because he didn't want it blocking his ads for malt liquor and Newport cigarettes. Nonetheless, the girls were happy with the space. Anything to get the word out about street harassment. The men standing eight feet away were proof that they were pretty much on to something.

The posters are just one part of the girls campaign.

Inspired after watching War Zone, a documentary made almost a decade ago on aggressive male behavior toward women in public places, Latosha and her peers decided to create their own documentary short.

Hey...Shorty takes a look at the men who initiate street harassment and the young women who are preyed upon. With help from the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the girls, who range in age from 15 to 18, shot and directed the 18-minute clip. Confronting men who confront them was hard for some of the teens. "Most of men we interviewed were 25 and older," said Fendi Hope, 16. "They didn't have good enough reason to say the things they said. It's just a sport for them."

The film features two particularly earnest fellows who break down their curbside manner. As an unsuspecting woman walks toward them they try to decipher her body language. "She has her arms crossed and headsets in her ear," one observes. "She gonna act like she don't hear us, watch." They shower her with their best lines: "Excuse me, Miss. Miss? Can I talk to you for a second? Oh you don't hear me? OK, you have a nice day." They turn back to the camera: "They think they are too good for us," one says. The other says that their caveman approach to romance is needed because, "women today don't want men, they want women." He believes broadsiding them with unwanted compliments will bring them around. It's this mentality that inspired the campaign.

The girls say that besides words, the men sometimes throw whatever they can get their hands on: cans, glass bottles, garbage cans. In Latosha's case, it was a brick. "I was walking with some friends and this guy tired to talk to us," said Belton, 17. "We didn't respond and just when we got a few feet away, a brick comes flying over our heads."

All of them agree that they get the worst treatment on Brooklyn's busiest streets, like Fulton Street, where their offices are located.

Joanne Smith is the founder of the volunteer-run youth development organization, Girls for Gender Equity. Their main goal is to provide young girls and women with skills and self-esteem to succeed. "The reality of street harassment has to be a conversation," Smith says. "I'm Haitian and where we are based there is a large West Indian community. In this culture there are no words to explain what sexual harassment is and why it's wrong."

In early May, to accompany a screening of the film, they organized a one-day summit that was attended by 200 teenage girls (and a sprinkling of boys) that offered self-defense classes, workshops that taught the kids how to handle street harassment and understand their legal rights when the verbal insults turn physical.

The final installment of their campaign—and the reason the group was walking down Fulton Street on a sunny June weekday—is a poster, whose bold letters were failing to catch the attention of men too busy checking out the girls' figures. The poster features a young woman standing in front of the shadows of men and a checklist: "I am followed by older men every day after school," "I am afraid to walk with my sisters or friends at night," and "Men think my name is 'Psst . . . ma!' or 'Ayo, shorty!' " Under the line "Street Harassment Is a Crime!" reads: "New York law prohibits street harassment (Article 120 and Article 240). You are not alone."

 
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