Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Why you shouldn't fear traveling solo (Or, last night I filed a police report)

Hi folks. First off, apologies to my mom, who I know subscribes to my posts and is probably alarmed at the title of this one. I'm okay! (Also, if you want to be like my mom, and frankly who doesn't, there's a little box over there to your right where you can put in an email address and get post notifications. I recommend it.)

Secondly, apologies to my dear Euan, who has written a great living like a local post on Edinburgh that I was going to put live today. Something came up.

So, the title of this post seems a bit weird, I know. It's been a while since I wrote about safety and street harrassment and all of that, because as we know I try not to write too many posts that make me angry - it sort of takes the fun out of this for me. But I want to talk about what happened to me last night, not because I want to scare anyone away from travel, and solo travel in particular - frankly, I want to talk about what happened last night because it happened in a city that I think of as my home, and that's what puts in stark relief that really, shit can go down wherever you are. The important thing is how to respond once you realise the level of constant fear in which many of us already live.

I was walking through London's financial district last night, to meet up for dinner with an old friend who was in town. Plans changed last minute, and we decided to meet at her hotel instead, so I plugged her address into my phone GPS and started on my merry way. I'm a city girl, and I know the "rules": hold your phone against your body so people can't see you're lost and using GPS, hold your jacket over your phone so people can't see it's a nice phone, walk quickly, look around you regularly to keep an eye out for followers, don't walk too close to either buildings or parked cars in case you're grabbed and pulled into them, etc. Okay, I broke one rule: I kept my headphones on. It was Janelle Monae, and I don't turn that glory off without a great reason - the posh streets of the City didn't seem to qualify.




Since it's a business district, at 7:30pm most folks aren't out and about; the streets were quiet and though I didn't like that, I had no real choice but to follow the route on my phone. I ended up walking down Basinghall Street, a side street surrounded by office buildings, when I saw a man trying to get my attention. Red flags went up, as they always do whenever I think I'm alone with one other person - whether it's a street, a shop, a parking garage, or someone comes to my door.

I took off my headphones and he launched into his spiel: "I'm trying to get home, I've locked my debit card in my office, my coworkers have gone home, I'm short £4, can you give me money?"

"I don't have any cash, sorry." A lie. But a useful lie. Also, since when does the tube cost even £4, never mind over £4?

"Can I ask you to go to an ATM? I'll get the money back to you."

"No." And I walked away. Manners be damned.

And he followed me.

And I sped up.

And he sped up.

And I broke into a run, not knowing the neighborhood where I was, and I stopped and turned to see if he had followed me across the street, and yelled, "DON'T CHASE ME."

Okay. I've had a pretty lucky life. I've never been robbed, mugged, assaulted, or scared for my suvival in any immediate way. I've never been involved in any crime at all, and yet, thinking back in the half-day since this happened, I've been astonished at the sheer quantity of thoughts I had in a very short time. I realised this guy might have a weapon and never stood very close to him, I thought it was weird he wasn't at the tube station where literally a dozen Jehovah's Witnesses would have given him cash, I noticed a man in a doorway around the corner who saw me run and heard me yell, I actually thought as I was running that he might have a gun - and once I calmed down I remembered how grateful I am to live in a country where we don't have guns all over our city streets. Once I realised he wouldn't follow me, I kept walking and found a guy skateboarding not 300 feet away, with his fucking headphones in - and I thought, nice life, bro.

I happened to come out on another street where police vans were parked, though I couldn't find anyone inside them. I was about to just walk away, get to my friend and chalk it up to a weird guy or maybe a conman but whatever, I was fine... when another guy came up to me. He was asking me if I was okay, and I guess I still had my animal brain on, because all I could think was, oh shit I have my back to this empty van. I can't be seen and this guy's bigger than me. 

He said he was a policeman, and he took out an ID card to prove it, and my brain wasn't processing because I'm American and expect police to have badges, and I didn't catch his name, just saw that the picture looked like him. He was asking me to walk to the station with him, which was apparently just behind and obscured by another van, and I didn't believe him, and I think he saw that I didn't believe him, because he took out his ID again, and then I asked to see it a third time so I could actually remember his name. And then I saw that the iron parking poles actually did have the City of London Police crest on them, and we walked into the station, and it was all fairly dull from there - gave my information, he went out to try and find the guy that scared me, and I was sent on my way in about five minutes.

I was fine. Procedure was followed.

This is sort of a weird post for a travel blog, a genre known for being fairly aspirational and light-hearted (don't hold your breath for a "Top 5 Ways to Maybe Get Mugged in London" post, kids). It's also weird, perhaps, given that this was a pretty minor incident in human history: Girl Gets Scared By Guy Who May Have Been Totally Innocent. It's especially weird when part of my goal here is to remind readers, and women in particular, that scary things can happen anywhere, and do happen everywhere, and that's not a reason to stay home and fear them.

I wanted to write this because I was so totally frightened, and in that fright, my brain did such amazingly analytical things, thinking about exit strategies and logical alternatives. It was awe inspiring, yes, but also immeasurably sad. My brain shouldn't have to have these terrifying survival schematics hiding out in the background and ready to spring forth the moment I'm out in my own city by myself. I'm fucking furious to realise the degree to which I am conditioned to live in fear, and expected to thrive with the insane number of restrictions placed on my freedom of movement as a young, female-bodied person.



I want to mention the folks in my life who have encouraged my general noisiness - one of the first things I said when I saw my friend at the hotel was to be thankful she's got a big voice, because the fact I was not only able to yell but also comfortable doing it is what got me help. Whenever I've seen people continuing to teach that little girls should be docile, seen and not heard, I've already wanted to throttle them - now I want to tell them that attitude could get them killed.

I want to thank Chief Inspector Hector McKoy - he was really kind and saw how freaked I was, and never came too close to me or tried to touch me, and just kept repeating things because I literally had too much adrenaline to understand who he was at first. That's good training, and a good professional.

And of course, because it's my website and my soapbox and if you've made it this far I think you know me well enough to anticipate I would do this, a little message for the dudelier members of the species: What. The hell.

If that guy was trying to jump me, then screw him and I hope he never hurts anyone.

If he wasn't, however, and was just a Nice Guy totally flabbergasted at my abject fear and fury, then that's even more astonishing. Women live in a constant heightened state of attention, and for you to approach a woman physically, in the dark, on a silent street, is a threat. It just is. For you to ask her for something, and push the point when she says no, is a huge threat. For you to follow her is a truly terrifying threat, and, infuriatingly, one I've experienced countless times before (really, I tried to count. I couldn't). To do all three, if you had no intention of doing her harm, shows a total lack of awareness, empathy, and intelligence regarding half the people on the planet.




So don't. Understand that women move through the world in an entirely different sphere from you - not because we want to, but because our very bodies can apparently operate as an invitation for harrassment and violence. We walk down nighttime streets with the constant feeling of a spotlight on us, and need your help to turn down the wattage. I'm not asking anyone to "join the feminist movement." I'm just saying that when I was threatened, I filed a report, and if some clueless dude is now wondering why a police officer is looking for him, well...

Whoops. But he did it to himself.


(image #3 via, under Creative Commons, edited to desaturate)

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