iStreetwatch: Mapping and resisting street harassment

by Hanna Thomas

I watched Nigel Farage’s victory speech in the early hours of June 24th. When he claimed the result of the EU referendum as a victory for ‘real people’, it felt like my heart dropped into my stomach. ‘Am I not a real person?’ I thought. Who were these ‘real people’? Because of the racist and viciously anti-immigrant tone of the Leave campaign, I couldn’t help but think that by ‘real people’ he meant white, non-immigrant people.

Even if that was not Farage’s intended meaning, it appears I am not alone in my interpretation. Almost immediately, reports of racist and xenophobic hate crime spiked. Simmering resentments spilled forth over that following weekend, those with racist sentiments given some perceived permission to be more vocal and more bold. More entitled to treat their neighbours, colleagues, and service providers as less than human.

I have experienced my fair share of racism over my life, most of it in public spaces, so I know it has always been a problem, always there. But I heard one too many stories from my friends, and friends of friends, during that weekend after the referendum. I didn’t want to just hear these stories, or console. I didn’t want them to remain anecdotes, easily dismissed. I had an idea to map these stories, in real time, and demonstrate that racist and xenophobic street harassment is a real problem and likely to get worse in this new political climate.

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Inspired by reporting sites like iHollaback (that collects stories of sexist street harassment) I gathered a group of skilled friends together and in 5 days we built iStreetWatch.

iStreetWatch is an online mapping tool that tracks racist and xenophobic harassment in public spaces. By accepting reports from people who have either experienced or witnessed a racist or xenophobic incident, we aim to make these now everyday incidents visible to a wider community; help people at risk map which areas are safer to be in, and collect data over time to help monitor the correlation between these incidents and inflammatory speech from the media and politicians.

We have received 232 reports from all over the country, from Cornwall to Edinburgh. They range from the daily micro-aggression to the all out physical assault. They span people from all walks of life — Black, Polish, Muslim, Greek, South Asian, East Asian, Italian — and immigrants and non-immigrants alike. The “n” and “p” words are proving popular. The phrase “F**k off back to your country” is a common refrain. And this is all information gathered in just the last 10 days.

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The reports make for gut-wrenching reading. But there is some hope in all of this. iStreetWatch is also inviting people to take a pledge to commit to making our streets safer for everyone. Since we launched, 3,000 people have pledged to tackle racism and xenophobia on our streets — that is 13 people for every incident reported so far.

Many people feel unsure what to do when they witness abuse or harassment. But doing something is better than doing nothing at all. People who take the iStreetwatch pledge are committing to taking action whenever it is safe to do so, including documenting incidents of harassment and where possible reporting them to the police. We’re asking people not to look away if they see someone being harassed on the street, to speak up in situations where someone is being racist or xenophobic, and to offer support to people who have been harassed.

The rising tide of fascism will only be diminished by a united, persistent, and vocal movement of people who do not welcome racist or xenophobic attacks. It will only be diminished by the recognition that we are all real people, all deserving of a safe and peaceful life, all deserving to walk down the street free from fear.

Hanna Thomas is the co-founder of iStreetWatch and Campaign Manager at SumOfUs.org

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