When Shaming Survivors is Not Enough: Police-State Motives Behind Sexual Assault Transit Ads


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Photo credit @the_noush. Permission to use granted.
Photo credit Instagram: @the_noush. Permission to use granted.

By Emily Griffiths

The Transit Police got burned in the media recently, when rad feminist transit riders called them out publicly for their summer-line of sexual assault ads. These ads use language that shames the survivors of sexual assault, stating, “the real shame of sexual assault is that it goes unreported.” It turns out that the transit police were the ones doing something that “doesn’t feel right” and making riders “uncomfortable.”

The whole thing was a PR blunder for the transit cops, who realized it right away and are now busily placating the public, regrouping, and working toward Version 2.0. This time, they’ll be sure to “include representatives from women’s rights groups” so as to remain in public favour. Great! Problem solved, right?

Maybe. If the ignorant and hurtful language of the original ad was its only flaw, the only reason to be concerned, and if there wasn’t another, equally repulsive message lurking underneath, then, yes, the problem would be solved. Sadly, that’s not the case.

The sinister implications of this transit ad not only shame survivors of sexual assault, but they also work to bring us all deeper into the police-state that Canada is quickly becoming (and perhaps, for those who are marginalized, always has been). An important piece of information appears at the bottom of the ad, in the second biggest font, urging readers to TEXT 87.77.77.

I’m sorry, what? We’re texting the cops now?

Yeah, what’s wrong with that?

Well, don’t you think it’s a little weird, like, ratting on random people to the authorities? It’s a little sci-fi. …a little Soviet Russia…a little Nazi Germany…

You’re so negative! Besides, it’s to stop sexual assault! You don’t like sexual assault do you?

The theme of sexual assault serves as the catalyst for gaining public acceptance for the practice of text messaging the police, for promoting and normalizing a tattletale behaviour in the populace. It functions much the same was as the issue of child pornography functions online. Child Pornography serves as the excuse for police-state surveillance tactics in the digital realm. Everybody hates Child Pornography. Everybody hates Sexual Assault. These issues serve as PR strategies to introduce the public to a new tool for surveillance and to further limit our freedoms. The report-your-neighbour text-message campaign goes nicely with the transit police smart phone app, OnDuty, which enables users to report “crimes”, view “Crime Maps”, and check out who is “Most Wanted!” It also gives the transit cops opportunity to gain access to your call logs, photos, locations, and more.

But what kind of ‘crimes’ can be reported on a smart phone?  Is it just sexual assault? This question is asked in the comments of the Transit police reddit article:

shabadoo111
Can I report someone on transit for being drunk and loud?

TransitPoliceBC
You can definitely report those situations. It’s an offense in the criminal code … We are very accountable, and are legally required to act to protect the public and preserve the peace.

So, perhaps it’s not only crimes that are being reported. After all, both the text service and the OnDuty app are for “non-emergent” reports only. And what kind of sexual assault is “non-emergent”?  Traditional 911 works just find in summoning urgent police presence, so why these new social tools? It seems like they exist for reporting suspicion, rather than dangerous ‘crimes.’ In this arrangement, every person with a smartphone is a potential cop, a potential punisher, and people learn to suspect each other.”

“See something. Say something,” the transit ad reads. This isn’t entirely a bad idea. But to whom do we “say something?” It’s assumed that the answer is the police. They will swoop in and save the day and no one has to feel guilty for staring passively at their phone while someone is being assaulted, In Real Life, right in front of them. It’s understandable that even bystanders feel unsafe in these situations and may not be able to intervene, but we do have a collective responsibility. We need to decide whether we want to create a community in which a bus full of people band together and say “No!” to abusive behaviour, or to create a ‘safe’ community in which people are picked off the bus, one by one, by big men with guns?

We know which world the police are envisioning. There seems to be a real emphasis on punishment over prevention, in the language used by transit police. The Transit Police ad tells riders that not reporting sexual assaults is the real shame, rather than the fact that these assaults occur in the first place.

Spokesperson, Anne Drennan is quoted in the Metro as having never intended to “lay blame on victims in any way, but rather to suggest that it’s a real shame that these people get away scott free when these incidences are not reported.” It sounds as if the goal is not to stop potential abusers, but to punish perpetrators.  Rather than prevention, the ad itself, supported by Drennan’s comments to the media, implicitly promote eye-for-an-eye, revenge-style ‘justice’ which serves as reinforcement for role of police in our communities.

The language of the transit police also includes a heavy use of the word “victim”, to describe those folks who have experienced sexual assault, despite the fact that the chosen identifier for these folks is “Survivors.” A survivor is strong and empowered, while a victim is weak and in need of protection, presumably by the police.

It’s clear from their language that neither preventing assault, nor empowering women and the community, are top priorities of the transit police. Instead, they actively present the world as a scary place and the police as our only protectors. If we need the police, if they are keeping us safe, then we won’t have a problem with them invading every aspect of our public and private lives, cracking down on every transgression and injecting our community with suspicion and fear.

Emily Griffiths is a writer, performer, and child care worker, living on unceded Coast Salish Territories.

 

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