Harassment doesn't stop for a pandemic



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.

Woman on street (Kanawa_Studio/Getty Images)

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 policing.


'Because as much as we need to stop COVID-19, there is no doubt that our response has also highlighted an existing culture of power and inequity — a culture that normalises the harms faced by people who already experience marginalisation.'


As Dr Cristy Clark wrote recently, there are important human rights implications to these government choices — most notably, it is our rights to freedom of movement, assembly and expression, as well as the right to non-discrimination, that are the most impacted.

And it is these same human rights which are concerned whether we are dealing with decisions made at the highest levels of government, or a casual racist remark on the streets. The same human rights when we are dealing with harassment of any kind.

Now, in light of the pandemic, this has all led to previously unquestioned assumptions about public safety now being challenged. Can we go outside without being harassed or accosted? Who is afforded freedom of movement, surely a privilege in these times, rather than the right that it should be? Who is able to leave their home, their suburb, and be rewarded with ‘viral fame’ rather than be punished with criminalisation?

Because as much as we need to stop COVID-19, there is no doubt that our response has also highlighted an existing culture of power and inequity — a culture that normalises the harms faced by people who already experience marginalisation.  

During the pandemic, with streets emptier than ever before, you would think that public spaces might become safer from harassment. However, what the pandemic has shown us is that harassment is as pervasive as the cultural dynamics that facilitate it. Even as our public spaces empty out, there are still stark differences in how freely each of us is able to navigate those spaces. This is indeed not new, and it bears reflecting on how safe and fair our streets really are.  



Mark YinMark Yin is the media officer at It's Not A Compliment and a student at the University of Melbourne. It's Not A Compliment are currently running a research survey on the prevalence and impact of street harassment in Victoria. If you have anything you'd like to share, please click here.

Main image: (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Mark Yin, racism, harrassment, COVID-19, AOC



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Existing comments

The recommendations for a hard lockdown of the towers were made by medical experts. The government was simply following advice. The decision saved many lives. Similarly, recommendations regarding demonstrations etc were made by medical authorities. This was not some pattern of discrimination as suggested by the writer. Similarly, attendance at football games, mostly in Queensland and states with low Covid infections, is under direction of medical experts.
John | 13 August 2020

If all of us made a point of smiling and greeting everyone, including people from different races and cultures, in our daily lives would we help to make progress in becoming an inclusive society?
Joe | 13 August 2020

Exclusion is also as demeaning as harassment. Is in not? Like I posted under "Our neighbour Sam" by Brian Matthews 04 August 2020... "ABC staff should make way for young Indigenous Australian reporters and journalists...."And what do you know? News today on the ABC and online: "Australian television a whitewash as Anglo-Celtic presents dominate newsrooms. Media Diversity report finds 76% of presenters, commentators and reporters are Anglo- Celtic despite making only 58% of the Australian population." Please get with the times Australia. And consider a juxtaposition between the exclusion of Indigenous Australians and Anglo- Celtic Australian reporters and the fate of the Celt in the British Empire bade fair to resemble that of the Greeks among the Romans.
AO | 17 August 2020

Ms AOC recently wanted the statue of St Damien of Moloka’i removed from a Government Building in the US Capitol. Her reason: He is white and therefore a part of “white supremacy and colonialism” so please be a little more informed about her before you put her as an icon of anything!!! I am a priest from the Diocese of Hawaii and St Damien is very dear to us as he worked for the poor ethnic Hawaiians banished to the island of Moloka’i because of leprosy.
Sebastian | 18 August 2020


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