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Harassment doesn't stop for a pandemic

  • 11 August 2020
US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently spoke out against the culture of harassment which pervades public spaces, from the steps of Congress, to the bars and streets of her city. Her message was a simple one — harassment is an issue of power, and it is as harmful as it is timeless — but it is also one that continues to resonate even as Melbourne enters its Stage Four lockdown.

To be clear, harassment is an issue of power, but it is only sometimes gendered. Though our streets have become emptier and emptier over the course of the pandemic, stories of racialised harassment have dotted our headlines throughout. Just last week, two women of colour who had travelled from Melbourne to Brisbane had their names and faces published across several News Corp newspapers and immediately faced racially charged criticism.

This continues a long trend of pathologising and blaming people of colour for COVID-19 which has seen many of them experience harassment over the past few months, often unprovoked. Schoolchildren have been called names on a soccer pitch, university students attacked at a market, and a Melbourne City Councillor harassed on his way to work, but these stories are far from unique.

In response to an ABC call out, ‘hundreds of people from across the country’ shared similar experiences of coronavirus-related racism. All these stories illustrate that a wide range of public spaces — indeed the few spaces we are allowed to frequent in lockdown like supermarkets, roads and parks — are not safe for everyone.

No matter the location or target though, it is the same, overarching dynamics which facilitate and perpetuate this culture of harassment. In a joint Facebook live hosted by Annelise Lecordier, co-founder of It’s Not A Compliment, and Tim Lo Surdo, founder of Democracy in Colour, Lo Surdo said, ‘With every aspect of COVID, it hasn’t necessarily created any problems — it’s exposed and exacerbated pre-existing injustices in society, and one of them has been racially-motivated street harassment.’ 

The power dynamics which facilitate harassment also contribute to policy choices made by the government. For example, even as Australians go back to the footy in droves, peaceful Black Lives Matter gatherings have been treated as far riskier and banned as a result. In addition, the hard lockdown of public housing towers in Flemington and North Melbourne has seen residents — many of them people of colour — subjected to restrictive and stigmatising