CTA rolls out new anti- harassment campaign


Lou Foglia

A CTA ad promoting awareness for harassment.

By Metro Reporter

Josey Omokheyeke, a senior music major, experienced verbal harassment from an older, “unstable” man while riding the CTA late at night. The man was friendly so Omokheyeke and her friend decided to be friendly in return, but it backfired.

“He asked me to come home with him, and I respectfully declined, and he was like, ‘Well, I don’t want to go out with your slut ass anyway,’” Omokheyeke said. “He got really mad and went on a tangent, saying I needed him while I was riding the train. I had five stops to go and I’m like, ‘Lord, why now?’”

The man did not touch her, she said, but the situation made her uncomfortable. She said she considers herself a thick-skinned person and she brushed off the comment—as well as the incident, it being late at night—and because it was only a verbal form of harassment, she did not feel like she needed to report it. But in a new program meant to combat such unpleasant and sometimes dangerous behavior, the Chicago Transit Authority is encouraging riders to speak up if they experience or witness any harassment on CTA buses and trains. The new slogan for the campaign is “If it’s unwanted, it’s harassment.”

In an Oct. 9 annoucement the CTA said the agency will enforce a no-tolerance policy toward such behavior on CTA property. Common forms of harassment—such as physical and verbal abuse or unwanted solicitation—will not be accepted. According to the announcement, the campaign will serve three purposes—encourage riders to report incidents they experience or witness, to educate them on what to do if they believe they are victims of harassment and to create awareness by putting would-be offenders on notice that harassment of CTA passengers will not be tolerated. CTA spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski said the campaign was originally launched in 2009 under the “See Something, Say Something” initiative. Throughout the last couple years, CTA employees have been revitalizing the campaign to more effectively prevent unwanted behavior on the CTA.

“We can’t predict what will come out of this, but our goal is to promote dialogue among our riders,” Hosinski said. “We want to educate them and make them aware that even if the incident isn’t criminal, but it is making you uncomfortable, you have the right to speak up.”

A CTA press release said the campaign includes posters featuring messages such as, “Speak up!,” “It’s not OK,” “It’s not nothing” and “We are all watching.” Hosinski also mentioned there will be a designated web page on the Transit Chicago website, as well as a new flyer for distribution at rail stations and through social service agencies. These flyers will help provide information to riders on how to report incidents to CTA personnel. There will also be social media messages on Facebook and Twitter that promote awareness and education about unwanted harassment. As for CTA employees, they are required to go through a comprehensive training program to understand and put into practice the anti-harassment policy., according to the release.

According to an Oct. 9 Chicago Tribune report, the CTA received 36 reports of harassment last year, attributing the account to agency spokeswoman Tammy Chase. Twenty-four reports were received through May 2015 she said.

In addition, there were two criminal sexual assaults on CTA property last year, according to the Chicago Police Department. Harassment is a serious problem that many CTA riders experience, according to Jaime Schmitz, youth development specialist at Alternatives, Incorporated at 4730 N. Sheridan Road. Schmitz collaborated with the CTA in July 2015 on the CTA’s Courage Campaign, which promotes awareness against harassment on the CTA through advertisements. She said at a CTA board meeting that she once read stories from participants of Girl World—a service that provides gender-specific and age-appropriate programming for girls and young women—about their personal experiences with harassment while riders on the CTA. Schmitz, who said harassment is a major issue commonly faced by girls aged 10–18, shared stories of those who had been followed home after a CTA ride, been photographed without permission and physically grabbed.

“We as a society are more aware of this being an issue,” Schmitz said. “I’m hoping [the campaign] generates further conversation if nothing else.”

Shira Stonehill, a freshman design major, said she experienced verbal and sexual harassment from an older man while riding the CTA with friends on the way to a concert. The man consistently stared at Stonehilll and her friends, then proceeded to masturbate. After [exiting the train], he approached the girls and spoke to them in a demeaning way.

“I wish I would’ve reported it,” Stonehill said. “I didn’t even think to do it because I was just so surprised it happened.”

Stonehill said she thinks the new campaign will encourage others to report incidents of harassment, like she wishes she could have done, by increasing their awareness.

“You don’t think of it as an actual crime or issue,” Stonehill said. “You think of it as something creepy that happened, as opposed to being something that needs to be reported. He didn’t touch us or hurt us, but I still felt like it was an act of public indecency.”

Sarah Smith, a senior theatre major, said she was sexually harassed Sept. 2 riding the #22 CTA bus. When she was on the nearly empty bus, an older man sat down next to her and began asking her intimate questions about her personal life, then continued to touch her arm and graze her breast throughout the conversation. Smith tried to end the conversation, but the man grabbed her hand and put it in his lap. Another woman on the bus intervened, asking Smith if she was okay and if she would walk with her off the bus, even though it was not Smith’s stop. She said she had to walk several blocks to the nearest Brown Line stop and transfer to another route, which extended her trip by 30 minutes. Smith said she hopes this campaign will prevent others from being harassed.

“Explicitly defining what harassment is is going to be important for this to work,” Smith said. “A lot of people would say he was just being friendly or I was just overreacting, but if he put his hand down my shirt, that would be obvious [harassment]. But it’s that sort of under the table [harassment] that’s seen as romantic occasionally.”

Naheige Lewis, a freshman journalism major, said he experiences harassment so frequently on the CTA, he has grown accustomed to it. Lewis, who rides the Pink Line commuting to work, said he is frequently the target of homophobic slurs based on his style.

“I have a pair of boots I wear, and some guy will make an off hand comment saying, ‘Oh, nice boots,’” Lewis said. “I’ve been called f—-t and been stared down—I’ve been stared down, then winked at and then smirked and laughed at because it’s supposed to be funny. There’s a lot of hatred toward homosexuals [on] public transportation.”

Lewis is only one of thousands of public transit riders who have been verbally or otherwise harassed on buses and trains. Within the first two weeks of being in Chicago during her freshman year, senior design major Natalie Jordan was a victim of CTA harassment that has caused her significant paranoia and heightened awareness whenever she rides the CTA. Coming from Ann Arbor, Michigan, she was not familiar with public transit. She said three men surrounded her and one of them touched her stomach, saying, “You got a big belly, good for kids.”

“It was so uncomfortable for this freshman,” Jordan said. “It disturbed me so much. First, because I have some huge self-esteem problems, but I ended up jumping on the southbound train when I was supposed to be going north because it was so scary.”