Neighborhoods seek to stop street harassment

Anne Lehman and Aria Campbell are part of a new task force looking for ways to change a culture of street harassment. Photo by Michelle Bruch

Stevens Square and Whittier are placing a spotlight on street harassment.

The two neighborhood groups recently organized a community forum dedicated to the issue. A student interning with the Whittier Alliance is starting a new task force focused on street harassment. And Council Member Abdi Warsame said he’s spoken to Mayor Betsy Hodges about the possibility of a pilot project in Stevens Square and Elliot Park that would partner mental health workers with police officers.

At the Oct. 24 community forum, one woman who moved to Stevens Square in July told of waiting for the bus at 18th & Nicollet when a man stopped to comment on her appearance and her legs.

“I felt very alone on the street, even though it was a weekday morning,” she said.

She jumped on the next bus, not knowing where it would take her, and ended up 20 minutes late to work.

Community members in Stevens Square say groups of men are congregating and wandering the neighborhood throughout the day and harassing residents. At a September safety committee meeting, Warsame said Elliot Park is experiencing a similar issue, where about 20 men, often intoxicated, have harassed people in the park, according to meeting minutes. Similar complaints surround Peavey Park, he said.

MCAD student Jen Hancock said she was waiting for the bus at Hennepin & 4th when a man started telling her he would knock her down and give her what she needed. She said it was unclear to her when to call 911.

“As you can imagine, you don’t think straight in these situations. Do I respond, do I not respond. What can I do to get this guy to just leave me alone? I took [his] photo, I did mention the police,” she said.

She said the 911 dispatcher told her to call the moment she felt uncomfortable.

“I take my car a lot more now,” she said.

The Minneapolis-based Sexual Violence Center facilitated the recent forum. Executive Director Kristen Houlton Sukura said street harassment can happen to anyone, regardless of their age or what they’re wearing, and she emphasized that it’s never the victim’s fault. She said the single largest risk factor is being a woman; the second is being out in public.

“There is nothing that you can do to encourage street harassment,” Houlton Sukura said. “…It’s a myth that it happens to pretty girls in short skirts, it’s just not true.”

She said there is nothing generally unique about Stevens Square or Whittier that makes the neighborhoods hot spots for street harassment.

“There is just more street traffic,” she said. “There is nothing that’s bad or wrong about this neighborhood. It’s just a neighborhood where people are more vulnerable to this specific form of sexual violence because they’re on foot, they’re walking or maybe waiting for a bus.”

5th Precinct Insp. Kathy Waite said she’s experienced harassment even while in uniform.

“I support all of you, and I’m here for you. I know that my officers have seen it, and we intervene when we can. … Just because you’re not committing a crime doesn’t mean it’s okay,” she said. “…When in doubt, I always say call 911.”

She said much of the problem seems to be associated with alcohol, some of it stemming from groups of men drinking heavily.

The experience in Stevens Square

According to minutes of a September Stevens Square neighborhood meeting: Problem areas have included Stevens Square Park, Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge, LaSalle Community Garden, the 17th Street overlook garden, Loring Nicollet Alternative School, Plymouth Congregational Church and Nicollet Avenue businesses and bus stops.

Stevens Square has worked with police and the community attorney on trespassing enforcement at LaSalle Community Garden, according to meeting minutes. Waite said police are also meeting with social service agencies to address people who wander neighborhoods after shelters close under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Sgt. Eric Dison said a neighborhood liquor store refuses to serve people who cause trouble, but offenders are usually able to find a stand-in buyer.

Teen Challenge staff said harassment out their door became so bad early this year that residents were not allowed to go outside unless they were being transported, according to meeting minutes. Staff told the neighborhood group the problem subsided through a police department security audit, along with No Trespassing signs and increased patrols.

Ideas for tackling street harassment

Whittier Alliance intern Anne Lehman is brainstorming ideas to help empower people who face street harassment. One idea is a partnership with local businesses to offer safe places for people to escape harassment. Lehman is also interested in reaching school groups so kids can learn basic guidelines about personal space and when it’s not appropriate to make a personal comment.

“It’s hard to change the current atmosphere immediately, but you can teach kids better manners,” she said.

Houlton Sukura said harassment is a challenge to prosecute because the crime is often committed in motion, with witnesses and suspects gone when police arrive.

5th Precinct Community Attorney Matt Wilcox said it’s difficult to prosecute harassment unless the incident is reported.* Options for charges include disorderly conduct or indecent conduct, depending on the facts of the case, he said.

One Whittier resident, Kenya Weathers, said he’s interested in drawing more male attention to the issue.

“If you want a long-term solution to it, I really suggest you talk to young men in your lives and see what they have to say about it,” said another man who attended the recent forum. “I’d be willing to bet that anybody out there who does commit these acts probably grew up surrounded by that culture and it never left them.”

Another idea involves creating new public service announcements on the issue. Forum attendees referenced a 2014 Hollaback PSA in which a woman was videotaped walking New York City for 10 hours wearing jeans and a T-shirt. She documented more than 100 instances of verbal street harassment.

“We can set cultural norms in our little piece of the world,” Houlton Sukura said. “Culture is bigger than us, but the good news is it’s also constantly changing. … If you see something, say something.”


Ideas for interrupting street harassment

— Pretend you know the victim, start a conversation and steer them away from the harasser.

— Approach the harasser and say what they are doing is not okay, speaking on behalf of yourself and not the victim.

— Ask the victim if they are okay, while away from the harasser. Tell them you are concerned and that you support them.

— When dealing with a dangerous situation, you always have the option of calling 911.

Source: Sexual Violence Center

Block patrol

The Stevens Square Community Organization organizes a block patrol with residents who are trained in ways to address local crime in progress. The group patrols the neighborhood on a regular basis.

For more information, contact Dave Delvoye at 874-2840 or

Task force

To join the street harassment task force, contact the Whittier Alliance at


*Comment updated to say reported, rather than recorded.