Making the cause visible: Hollaback!

You’ve probably seen this already:

That’s what going viral means (15 million views!).

The video truncates a day’s worth of unwelcome comments on the street into a tight and disturbing two minutes.  Produced as a Public Service Announcement by Hollaback! in conjunction with a video producer, Rob Bliss, the video suggests the extent to which women encounter unwanted, unpleasant, and maybe threatening attention just from walking in the city.

For nearly a decade, Hollaback! has been working to fight street harassment, using the tools of our era.  Armed with cell phone cameras, women took pictures of men performing various lewd acts in public, posting those photos on blogs.  Unlike this video, the faces weren’t blurred.  The effort is to raise awareness of the issue, put would-be harassers on notice, and suggest to women that they can, uh, holler back.  An early picture circulated from Flickr to the front page of the New York Daily News, bringing attention to the issue–and to the emerging organization.

The campaign spread in New York City, and then beyond.  Women in other cities, sometimes other countries, started sending in photos and videos to post.  In 2010, New York’s City Council held hearings on street harassment, and gave Hollaback! just over $28,000 for its efforts to build an infrastructure to support the reporting of street harassment.  The organization scaled up, building a professional structure, and expanded internationally.  It now reports more than 70 cities across 24 countries, and clear ambitions to go further.

This video is a big step forward for the group: had you heard of Hollaback! before?  It raises attention and offers the chance to raise money.  Click around and you can find apps for your phone to report and monitor harassment.



Hollaback! isn’t the only group using cheap and ubiquitous cameras, along with the internet, to make public behavior that is often invisible to some of us.  Effective organizers use the technological tools of the moment to spread their cause: the printing press, then the mimeograph machine, the radio, and now the cell phone.

On this video:

There’s no question that the video has spurred conversations about appropriate conduct and attention to the group.  It’s also produced an awful backlash mostly directed at Shoshanna B. Roberts, the actress who volunteered to walk–and not respond–for ten hours, including threats of violence.  Another counter-current is about the racial politics of the video; although Bliss says there were plenty of harassers of all races, they wound up showing mostly blacks and Latinos by chance….it is only 2 minutes.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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