It Happened To Me: Harassment at a New York Street Festival

| 02 Mar 2015 | 05:02

While attending a street fair, the worst feeling you expect to come home with is a stomachache from consuming too many zeppoles and fried snickers bars. You don't expect to leave a crowded, family-friendly street fair with a sense of shame and disgust. But it happened to me.

The day before a popular New York City festival was set to kick off this year, I was navigating the already-closed streets, trying to get to an interview for a story I was working on. The streets were packed with workers and vendors setting up their booths for the throng of tourists and locals that would descend upon the festival in just 24 hours. As I was hurriedly trying to find my next interview subject, I suddenly heard a peal of hearty laughter.

"Wow, look at that one, what I wouldn't do to that one!" More laughter. I whipped my head around. It was obvious that the workers at the nearest corner were talking to me. Or rather, talking at me.

"Damn, honey, are you coming home to me?" At this point, all I could do was keep my head down, and while my face flushed, I pretended I didn't hear, and walked away. The comments continued on for another half a minute, but I tried to tune them out.

Unfortunately, this is not the first or last time that, as a woman, I will experience street harassment. But curiously enough, this type of incident has happened numerous times to me at street fairs. Last year, at the same festival, a male worker running one of the carnival games not only tried to get me to play his game of chance but also tried to get my phone number, even after numerous attempts to ignore him.

Surprised? Emily May, the executive director of Hollaback!, a group that aims to end street harassment, is not. Hollaback! just launched an app this year that allows women to report incidents like this.

"The employees of this street fair are the same as anyone else because they've grown up in this country where this behavior is okay," said May. "But no, this is not okay or acceptable. It makes me feel scared and crappy, it makes me not want to go to this fun, friend dough-filled part of my day."

The day after the incident, I contacted the board of directors who run the fair. They apologized profusely for my experience, and said that an anti-harassing reminder will be put into the guidelines for vendors next year. I also contacted the production company that runs the festival, as well as other famous street fairs throughout New York. The owner told me that in all his 30 years of business, there have only been 3 "incidents" with his vendors- and none of them came close to incidents of sexual harassment.

"That's comical," May said. "Maybe because there's no clear authority at these street fairs. And sexual harassment on the street is underreported anyway. Verbal harassment isn't even illegal."

This weekend, despite my negative experience, I am nevertheless planning on attending a street fair. Veronica Cassidy, a Hunter College professor who experienced a terrifying sexual assault last year while on vacation, gave me a few tips for this weekend and beyond. Never engage with your verbal assailant, and keep walking. Talk to someone, walk into a store, call the police. Even if the police cannot respond quickly enough, you can still write about your experience, or send it in to Hollaback!

"The line is clear and it isn't blurred," said Professor Cassidy. "People love to say it is, but that's a way of forgiving the action."

Joanna Fantozzi is a reporter for Our Town Downtown

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