I became a volunteer for Hollaback! Brussels after I went to the second of their two sessions with the students in my program, sessions organized by our fabulously thoughtful and sensitive coördinator Chloé. Several students in the fall had approached her about incidents of harassment they’d experienced in Brussels and how to cope with it, and she, having heard of Hollaback, went to the four Hollaback organizers — Julie, Anna, Ingrid, and Angelika — and asked them if they’d be willing to do informational outreach sessions with our group.
If you read my “Femanifest #1,” I mentioned that I had happened across a particular article concerning violence against women (link to Rebecca Solnit) not long before the second session. I’d researched organizations in Brussels which offer women who have suffered violence various forms of aid, but I was looking in particular for volunteer opportunities, which seemed few and far between. I know what I’m doing when I get back to Burlington — the HOPE Works organization downtown is always in need of volunteers — but I didn’t want to wait another seven months before I could take action. It’s not like Brussels is clean of these same kinds of violences. Far from it.
I approached Anna after the second session and asked her what I could do, be it for Hollaback or anywhere else in the city. She took my e-mail and a few e-mails, odd jobs, translations, and virtual hollahugs later, and I was at my first Hollaback offline meeting with the organizers and the other volunteers. I can’t emphasize enough the aura of enthusiastic, all-inclusive optimism that envelopes the Hollaback! Brussels crew. They are resolute and fired up about their goals to point out the wrongness of street harassment and to end it in Brussels’ eighteen communes, but they are not fueled by anger. They’re my favorite example as to how a certain dose of anger is helpful, but too much is counterproductive, is poisonous, is actually destructive. It is from this mélange of good feelings but firm desires and plans of action that the “#ShareTheStreets” idea was derived.
“#ShareTheStreets” built on Hollaback! Brussels’ goal last year of “reclaiming” the streets. There is the sensation, now, that we are more aware of the streets; we are more sensitive to the fact that they belong as much to us as to any harassers who would like to make us feel otherwise; we are more determined not to allow harassment push us to take a much longer route to work or to prevent us from going to a certain event because it’s in a neighborhood where we’ve been harassed. Here, we want to pass that knowledge on to everyone — the streets and public space belong to everyone. Everyone has the right to pass through or to stop and enjoy it as much as they’d like, without any fear of being harassed or assaulted. No matter what time. No matter who they’re with. No matter what they’re doing. No matter what they’re wearing. No matter their gender, sexuality, race or ethnicity. Hollabackers decided that some of the best ways to emphasize these facts were to focus on empowering bystanders to be active, brave, and empathetic; to share stories of positive experiences in Brussels and prove that street harassers do not define the city; and to leave small presents and encouraging or informational messages in public places in the center for passersby to find, to read, and to pass on.
As they say succinctly on their site, “Because only together can we make this city harassment-, discrimination- and violence-free.”
My contribution to the #ShareTheStreets walk was a handful of mix CDs and ten poems, five in English and five in French. I tagged them all with the message cards we made together at the Hollaback offline meeting. Each message card read “#ShareTheStreets” on the front in Brussels’ three languages and proclaimed a different message on the flip side. Some simply said, “See harassment? Hollaback!” while others detailed a different bystander tip. I threw everything in my backpack and headed to the Mont des Arts to meet up with the rest of the Hollaback crew.
They were very visible, having spread out different craft and project materials over some square meters of gravel and a bench. They were tying notecards, putting poems and messages in plastic bags, unwinding feather mobiles — they were chalking on the whitewashed trees and the benches, talking, laughing, aww-ing at the happy factor present in each gift. One box overflowed with small flowers and plants potted in cups, probably our most noticeable and popular gift of the day. Every bench in the park was full of people sunning themselves, enjoying their lunch, reading books, meeting friends, sharing pictures on cameras, relishing the light touch of spring present in the air. One of the volunteers was playing guitar and singing softly in Spanish. Another was a young girl, couldn’t have been older than ten, who was solemnly focused on her task of tying cards to presents.
We began by looping yarn around trees, tying mobiles in their branches. We stuck notecards attached to bobby pins in the bushes and placed the plants on empty benches. We taped the poetry to flat surfaces. Out of the Mont des Arts, we created a veritable, living, breathing mountain of simple, creative, positive art. And even while we were decorating the park, people were touching the mobiles, reading the cards, taking pictures. I videotaped a few of their reactions, when I was sure it wouldn’t be too creepy. They would read the front of the card, flip it over to read the longer message, then nod their heads in agreement. I overheard one guy say to his girlfriend, “That’s so cool. That’s a really good idea.” They seemed a little hesitant to take the more elaborate pieces down. That was part of our whole point — what’s out there in public space is for all of us. These are for you. Take them, love them, pass them on.
Once we decided we’d sufficiently arted the park, we moved to the square in front of the clock and began to chalk. A chalk walk, for those who don’t know, is a simple concept: it involves grabbing a piece of chalk and scrawling a message on a surface to reclaim a part of public space and both make it your own and open it up to others. The concept originally started as a means of reclaiming the spaces where someone was harassed. It’s part of an element of cognitive behavioral therapy, Ingrid explained to us later, to have the patient confront exactly what it is that traumatizes him or her. It’s a major part of the healing, possibly the most difficult part. Having been a patient to this kind of therapy myself, I could tell you, in detail, how hard it is. And I can also tell you how much it heals. The person harassed writes whatever will help them — a message to the harasser, a message to harassers in general, a message alerting people to the realities of street harassment — whatever will best help them reclaim the space. It’s moving, Ingrid was saying, it’s an incredible emotional experience, both to feel and to witness.
On Saturday, we stuck with chalking “Share the Streets” in Dutch, English, and French. Elsewhere, we chalked pictures, links to Hollaback! Brussels’ site, and positive messages to passersby. But it was, indeed, a cool thing to both do and to witness, to see a group of people getting down on hands and knees to do this light-hearted children’s activity with a more serious purpose, to debate over what color should be used for which letter and how to spell “street” in Dutch, to write the same message, a message in which all of them believe with their core. Share the streets.
From there, we moved down le Boulevard de l’Empereur, tying notes to lamp posts and banisters and window wipers, putting gifts in the baskets of the city’s Villo bicycles, leaving plants and small pieces of beaded jewelry on windowsills. After a quick pick-me-up in Al Jannah on Rue Blaes, we continued through la Place du Jeu de Balle and reached la Porte de Hal as our final destination. We drew long chalked messages down the sloping sidewalks of the park, decorated all the fences, and took a few minutes to appreciate both the work we’d done in the park and the work we’d done throughout the whole day.
While I was tying a few message cards to a fence, a couple with their three small dogs strolled up behind me. One of the men was watching what I was doing as he slowly passed and he said under his breath in English to his partner, “I wonder what they’re doing?” The other man shrugged.
I turned and grinned. “Do you want me to tell you?”
He laughed. “Yes!”
I explained that it was International Anti-Street Harassment Week, that our concept was sharing the streets with everyone, and if they should happen to see one of our gifts, they should pick it up. The two nodded and carried on walking their dogs. They moved slowly through the park, reading all the note cards, picking up the flowers, touching the mobiles. As they came to the end of a full loop, nearly meeting back up with us, the first man decided to pick up a tulip bulb planted in a pot. Ingrid clapped, so excited someone had taken the initiative to claim a present. Beaming, he asked if he could take a picture with a few of us. His partner held the three leashes and snapped a shot of the two of us with the triumphant present finder. He turned to us afterwards and, clutching his plant, said, “I’m so glad you all are doing this. The city needs something like this. We,” he said, gesturing to his partner, “are kind of known in the neighborhood. Here in St. Gilles, you know, ‘cause we’re always walking the dogs. We just got harassed pretty badly last week… we get spit on and stuff.” He paused. “So thank you, really.”
I wanted to hug the shit out of him. “That’s why we’re doing this. We absolutely do need this. That shouldn’t happen.” I didn’t need to tell him that, of course. We waved an amical goodbye.
We finished up our long afternoon and evening with a quick drink in Potemkine, just across the street. It’s a special group of people, the Brussels Hollabackers. We talked forever, about all sorts of things ranging from feminism and harassment to films we remembered from childhood. The conversation on the more difficult, often heated issues–rape culture, street harassment, Femen’s actions–took place in the way these conversations always should: without anger, without hate, without judgment. Only open ears and an effort to understand what someone is saying and why. The space between those in the group and between others is so open, so free, so fluid. You never feel ill at ease, or like an outsider–you feel like you are one of them. I don’t mean that in a clique way. I think it comes from the fact that they are working to foster that kind of communication on a large scale in Brussels–that openness and that freedom–and they start with themselves, in their daily lives, with their friends, family, and acquaintances. It’s not a sensation of a conscious effort on their part to try to include everyone and make everyone feel good–it’s just what ends up happening because it is coming from such a positive place. That is Hollaback! Brussels. That is the principle of #ShareTheStreets.
And because of this positivity, I experienced a feeling in the streets of Brussels that I’d never felt before, or if I have, it hasn’t been for any longer than a few minutes. I felt… I mean, I felt like myself. I felt like I could walk where I wanted, do what I wanted, whistle what I wanted (I was whistling a lot of indie folk hits), skip up and down the pavé however I wanted. I didn’t worry about whether my skirt was riding up or not, or whether my shirt was slouching down too low. I didn’t spare two seconds’ thought to what male passersby might do to me. It wasn’t particularly because we were all in a group–as we walked, we spread out over large areas to scatter our presents as widely as possible. It wasn’t because I was taking a defensive, it’s my right to be here too, kind of attitude. It was, plain and simple, that hopefulness, that belief in the citizens of Brussels that we are mostly good, we are inherently good, and we just need a little nudge to show it. Maybe a girl with a navy knapsack and floral sunglasses whistling Boy & Bear’s “Feeding Line” was a nudge for someone. Maybe finding a potted plant in the basket of a Villo was another. Maybe seeing a group of teenagers clustered around one of our longer messages, reading it out loud, was yet one other.
The streets belong to all of us. Owning the streets, reclaiming them, it doesn’t mean guarding them jealously to ourselves. Then we’re back to square one. It meant what I felt that Saturday that we walked from the Mont des Arts to les Marolles, making each other and other smile, getting strangers to walk away with an extra bit of reflection and of kindness. Even getting one person to think differently about street harassment, or making a victim’s day a little brighter–that’s still one person whose day you affected, and positively.
We didn’t take Brussels by storm. We took it by cups of plant and petites pensées du jour.