Dear PoP – Sexual Harassment on the Bus, Encouraged by the Driver

Photo by PoPville flickr user dcienne

“Dear PoP,

I got on the 96 bus heading West at U Street NW and 11 Street NW on Saturday, June 4, just before midnight. It was bus number 4299. I didn’t get the driver’s name, but she was a black woman.

As I got on, I noticed the bus driver and a few other passengers yelling insults at a woman getting off the bus, who was visibly upset. I’ve seen a lot of confrontations on DC buses, so I wasn’t paying too much attention at first and don’t remember exactly what was said. It was clear, however, that the bus driver and two or three passengers sitting at the front of the bus (two men and a woman) were ganging up on her in their insults.

When the bus started moving, very slowly given the U Street traffic, I soon realized that the two men who had been yelling at the woman were continuously sticking their heads out the window and yelling remarks at women who were walking by on U Street and comment about their clothing and body types. Some of the women ignored them, while at least one yelled back and told them to stop.

The worst part was that the bus driver was actively encouraging the men and laughing at the remarks. The situation made me extremely uncomfortable and I didn’t know what to do. After 2-3 minutes, I yelled at one of the men to show some respect, immediately signaled to get off, got off at 14th street and walked the rest of the way to my destination. While I was walking, the bus passed and I observed the men continue to yell remarks at passing women.

It is one thing to observe this kind of harassment–it is another to have a Metro employee encourage the behavior while on the job. It was extremely unprofessional and I demand that Metro identify the employee and take disciplinary action against her. Washington DC’s women deserve better while riding on public transit.”

At the very least, it certainly sounds like some sort of sensitivity training would be beneficial. Obviously encouraging these remarks is reprehensible but what do you think should be the actions/obligations of the driver in situations like this? What would you do as a passenger in a situation like this?

84 Comment

  • I would have joined the two guys and yell at women walking by and crack jokes with the driver. Sounds like a fun ride to me.

  • I always try to speak up when I see a man harassing a woman on public transit. I’ve been at the receiving end of this, and it sucks. I usually ask the woman, “Are you okay?” rather than acknowledge the harasser.

    In a situation like this, I think I would have done exactly what this passenger did: told the men to stop and gotten off the bus. Street harassment won’t stop if people don’t speak up against it.

  • saf

    Did you report it?

    Seriously, report it, copy the WMATA board members from DC, and unsuckdcmetro.

    • Yeah, then the driver will be disciplined (meaning a free paid vacation, courtesy of her union.)

    • +1. I hope some action gets taken; it was totally unacceptable for the driver to have not just allowed this behavior, but also to have encouraged it.

  • Hey OP, make sure you email this to HollaBackDC and UnsuckDCMetro as well. Sorry, that would have sucked.

  • I’ve seen this a million times, it’s truly apalling. I’ve seen this kind of thing with postal workers in Petworth, too. Tried to call to report it and got nowhere. Sad. Seems there are so many times that one has no recourse in DC.

  • what’s the driver’s obligation? At the very least, not to join in. Possibly to tell them they can’t stick their heads out the window because it’s unsafe and to stop the bus if they don’t comply. It would be great if they’d actively encourage people to stop yelling but I think that needs to be balanced against the driver’s own safety and everyone’s desire to just get where they’re going.

    Unfortunately, WMATA definitely won’t do anything if you just give them the route and time–you need the bus number. Insane but true. The only way they’ll identify someone by route and time is if they’re sued and it comes out in discovery. Even with the bus number, I don’t think they’d do much. It still doesn’t hurt to report it.

    • I just re-read and realized the bus # was included. Go ahead and report–and be sure to tell us what the (non) response from WMATA is!

      • Report it to WMATA… but also try cc’ing a WMATA board member or something. (I’d recommend cc’ing Jim Graham, except he’s no longer on the board.) Copying the e-mail to someone “important” will likely get a better/more prompt response than contacting WMATA alone.

        And the more of a ruckus that can be raised about it, the better. Here, UnsuckDCMetro, an e-mail to or live chat with the Washington Post’s Dr. Gridlock, etc. That might embarrass WMATA into taking action.

        • Things like this get reported often on UnsuckDC metro and despite having the time and the bus #, Metro will state that without the driver name or driver number they can’t be sure who was driving.

    • Re: first paragraph. You’re right about safety and the need to get people where they’re going, but I swear I would happily offload and wait for the next bus if that’s what it took for drivers to enforce some of the rules. (I don’t expect most others feel the same, but there it is.) And in fairness the drivers should not have to play cop or babysitter in the first place, but that’s where we are I guess.

      • No, that’s not where we are, because that is why we have cops. The driver should have called her metro supervisors to get metro police (or MPD) to come to her bus and remove the passengers.

        Sexual harassment is a crime.

        And the driver should be fired.

        • OK then, I’m sorry my point wasn’t clear enough for you. Bus drivers should be driving the bus, and not having to worry about the behavior of passengers because people should be capable of riding the bus without being disruptive or breaking laws. This is obviously not the case; and that is where we are.

          I was speaking generally and not referring to this specific incident by the way.

  • Sensitivity training? Really? That actually makes me angrier than the incident report. People don’t need to be sensitive. They need to stop harassing women.

    • As an immigrant, I take issue with this. We need to stop the harassment of immigrants. Because we are harassed all the time. And after we stop the harassment of women and immigrants, we must stop the harassment of the ugly. And then the old. And then the young. And then the nerds. And then the stupid. And then the short. And then the left-handed. And then the fashion-challenged. And then the cyclists. And then the motorists. And then the pedestrians. And then and then then…….

    • Right? Like if you tell these assholes it’s mean to harass women because it makes them uncomfortable and scared, they’d stop doing it? News flash – that’s EXACTLY why they do it. It’s about power and making someone else feel like crap so you can feel a little better. Sensitivity has nothing to do with it. I think a firm punch in the junk would accomplish a lot more.

    • Amen to that.

      We don’t need “sensitivity training.”

      We need “don’t harass people or we’ll fire your ass and replace you with someone with basic decency” training.

      • plus 10000000

      • Really, they should just fire the driver involved and then consider company wide sensitivity training, depending on the frequency of complaints Metro receives. Investigate the culture at WMATA — is this incident evidence of larger problems or a black swan?

        Firing the driver would go a long way to squelching future bad driver behavior, and it’s not like there isn’t a line of unemployed (including some with applicable job skills) sitting in the wings.

    • oh people, c’mon. “sensitivity training” is somewhat effective because it lets the perpetrators know that it’s not acceptable. that it doesn’t belong in society. and believe it or not these people probably don’t stop to think about how it makes people feel so it can’t hurt to have a forced reminder.

  • 1) gather information. I know your instinct was to get away, but if you don’t get a name, a bus number, a photo or a video (use your phone!) then there’s very little anyone can or will do to follow up no matter how much you demand.

    2) report it. Write to metro, your councilman, your neighbors, blogs, whatever. Be serious but not indignant – no matter how shocked you were, it’s not about you, it’s about all of us and our city.

    • The video was the first thing I thought of. Recording what was happening on your phone and then sending that to Metro (along with a few dozen bloggers) is likely the only way that anything would happen, and that driver should be disciplined.

    • Really great. Yes, you really are a little heroic here. Let more people know. It’s good for everyone. I totally appreciate your letter.

  • What ever happened to “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me”?

    • saf

      Let me guess – you’re a large, healthy, white, young man?

      • My wife is tiny and brown, and she deals with the occasional stray comment on the street just fine. She doesn’t like it, but neither does she make it into a big issue. What really upsets her is the office gossip, alliances, backstabbing, etc…..

        • The occasional stray comment is quite different than constant, daily harassment. Of course, the majority of people “deal with it just fine,” but that doesn’t mean we should have to just deal with it.

        • saf

          What Kim said – the occasional stray comment is a PITA, but not horrible all the time.

          But the catalling, and the “hey baby” and the “fatass like you ought to be grateful” and the threats to rape you when you ignore the comments, and…

          It all gets to be too much.

          There is nothing wrong with expecting civility.

        • Just because one individual isn’t bothered by harassment doesn’t mean that the reaction of others (i.e., being bothered by it) isn’t legitimate.

        • Just so you know, “tiny and brown” is not the nicest way to refer to your wife.

          • Maybe not the nicest, but is it really worth speaking out about? My gf fits the same description and I’ve heard her describe herself numerous in similar terms (“short and brown”). I have a hunch caballero’s wife is ok with him stating the obvious.

          • saf

            You know, she’s his wife. One would think he would know what is and is not ok with her.

    • We don’t live in a bubble. A woman’s body is always under public scrutiny, and comments made by strangers on the street, either positive or negative, can make her feel violated, offended, and disgusted. And these are all valid reactions.

    • That was always a lie anyway. Your words absolutely matter.

  • I’d like to know if this was reported to WMATA. If not, and if writing to PoP is the OP’s knee jerk response, then something else is askew here.

    • My thought exactly. I would like to think that the first priority was writing down or memorizing the bus number (not the route number), which is displayed prominently inside the bus in order to send it to WMATA with a report of the incident, as opposed to trying to formulate a story for a neighborhood blog. I’m not saying this should not be reported here, just that it should have been reported first to people who might be able to do something about it.

    • Prince Of Petworth

      The incident and bus number and license plate were sent to WMATA.

  • 🙁 this is typical of the 96 bus route. The G2 always has nicer drivers and newer buses in comparison.

    • Maybe this is because the G2 runs on WMATA’s whim and adheres to no schedule whatsoever so the drivers are less stressed. NextBus can’t even track the G2 down.

    • +1 for (the majority of) G2 drivers. Many of them are pleasant and professional, but extra props to the young guy with the long dreads – he always waits for the poor suckers lugging groceries around and is super friendly, on top of being a safe driver.

      They really do need to do a better job of maintaining NextBus for the G2 though, cause I’ve been late to work many a time due to phantom buses and irregular adherence to the timetables. (Don’t attack, hysterical commenters, I reported phantom buses to WMATA.)

  • This could also be a safety concern if the driver is distracted.

  • My friend and I were crossing the road in front of a bus in a crosswalk. The bus driver opened his window and started cat calling at us and saying lewd remarks. It was disgusting. Then he went around the block so he could meet us at another crosswalk and continue harassing us. I didn’t get his number, but I wish there was something we could have done about it. I’m sure that wont be the last time it happens

    • me

      ” I didn’t get his number, but I wish there was something we could have done about it. ”

      There WAS something you could have done about it. It’s in the first half of your sentence. Write the info down and report it.

  • The OP can send affadavits, videos, tape recordings, license plate numbers, and blood samples to WMATA. Maybe the driver will get a talking to, and that couldn’t hurt. But expecting our friendly, super-qualified, always-pleasant bus drivers to police their buses is going to end in disappointment.

    The acceptance of this sort of behavior is a cultural problem among large swaths of our city. The metro people aren’t going to root it out, especially since so many have grown up where it’s acceptable. Improving our schools and encouraging development and emergence from poverty will.

    I don’t condone this behavior, but I think reporting it to the Prince of Petworth as a WMATA matter portrays a real naivete about what the problem is.

  • Next time, record it on your cell phone and post it to YouTube. That’s about the only way WMATA management will pull their collective head out of their ass to do something about it. Once it’s public, it will hopefully be embarrassing enough that even the union will be unable to defend the driver.

  • I’m not sure what the bus driver was supposed to do, except be a professional and not join in.

    We cant expect bus drivers to be civility police. If the men were not being overtly threatening, then probably the only thing illegal was disturbing the peace???

    If the bus driver had kicked them off for street harassment, she would have opened herself up to censure from WMATA and possibly civil action.

    Just because you dont like what someone is saying on your bus doesnt give you the ability to take action to try to get them to stop saying it.

    • me

      “If the bus driver had kicked them off for street harassment, she would have opened herself up to censure from WMATA and possibly civil action.”

      Really? Honest question. Aren’t there basic rules that you have to follow to be on the bus, and the driver can kick you off? I wouldn’t imagine that she’d be subject to any sort of discipline…

    • What the men were doing could possibly constitute workplace harassment toward the driver (if the driver weren’t involved), if WMATA didn’t allow her some way to defend against the men’s actions. Maybe someone with a legal background knows more, but the outcomes you mentioned don’t really seem to jibe with what would actually happen.

      • IF the driver used the premise that she was being harassed or was unable to execute her duties and protect the safety of her riders, then yes. However, for harassing others, which is legal as long as it stays within a narrow range, I dont know if she could get away with kicking them off the bus.

        I dont know what bus drivers can enforce and what actions they can take, but if the situation had been different, an the men were yelling out the window, its unclear to me whether she would have been able to do anything at all.

        Obviously joining in and encouraging it was unprofessional and inappropriate.

        • Surely anything that disrupts a bus driver’s ability to perform his/her job (people yelling on the bus, whether at one another or out the window, whether in a harassing way or not, etc.) is something that the bus driver could warn riders about, and then call Metro Transit Police to have them kicked off if they don’t comply?

          • I suppose so. I just dont want to see people expecting bus drivers to police their buses. They’re not ship captains. They have much different legal authority. I think it has to be directly related to safety. Its not so cut and dry that one can say “this is wrong, therefore, the bus driver should do something”. People already give bus drivers a hard time, no reason to needlessly pile it on.

          • Yelling doesn’t disrupt with driving a bus. Especially if you are not yelling at the bus driver.

            She is paid to drive the bus, not be a babysitter. While what they did is rude and tactless, it is not illegal.

          • “Yelling doesn’t disrupt [. . .] driving a bus”? Really??

            The whole premise behind the signs saying you’re not supposed to _talk_ to the bus driver while the bus is in motion is that the bus driver isn’t supposed to be distracted.

            I don’t see how yelling doesn’t count as a distraction.

        • The rules that govern a workplace are different re harassment than on the street. I was attempting to apply workplace rules to the actions of the men.

          I was thinking that 1) overhearing harassment is harassment itself. 2) If harassment was perpetrated by an outside party, but taking place at the workplace, and the employer offered no way for the driver to avoid the harassment, then I think you could make a case that the employer was a participant in the harassment. A waitress can walk away from fresh customers or have them bounced out. A driver is stuck in place — but that doesn’t mean WMATA has a lesser obligation to provide a safe and unhostile workplace. Meaning, she would be free to take any actions necessary to promote her safety in the workplace, whether that’s calling authorities, stopping the bus, or whatever needs to be done.

          • That very well be true. Clearly what she did was wrong, no matter what she could have or was supposed to do.

  • If you believe in sensitivity training you obviously believe in slavery.

  • Many Metrobus drivers make about 90 – 100K+. They are some of the best paid workers in the city, making much more than many, many other categories of civic workers — some who have equally demanding jobs or are required to have higher educations. (Their union is incredibly strong.) Be swift and frank. Document your experience and send it to WMATA. Constructive criticism is called for here.

    They may have stressful jobs and they may earn a lot, but there needs to be some administration here. Glad you posted! Thank you.

  • The bus driver’s behavior was foolish, unprofessional, and childish. If she was working in an office environment her behavior wouldn’t be accepted, so I can’t make any excuses for her. I reported a male metro employee a while ago. He got upset because I wouldn’t give him the attention her wanted and yelled at me in front of other customers ‘you will be treated how you attitude is’. Metro took no action.

  • @ caballero: Your wife is soooo right. People who make rude remarks on the street are usually loopy, and most people don’t pay attention to them. But nasty backstabbing folks in the office that you have to work with every day are another story. They can cause real pain and suffering.

  • Alakazaam—information found, problem solved, thknas!

  • Wow! That’s a really neat asnwer!

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