In the spring of 2016, during my first month as a full-time staff member of Citizen Action of New York, I traveled up to Albany for a lobby day. Before I shifted to politics, I was the team’s Communications Associate. On that day, my job was to amplify member stories on social media and introduce myself to the Legislative Correspondents Association (LCA). The people at the LCA were friendly but not very interested in getting to know a temp communications associate when budget negotiations were taking place. With nothing to do there, I ended up spending most of the day with Citizen Action and Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) members.
I followed them to their lobby visits, lunch breaks, and then a rally that took place on the million-dollar staircase. When the rally was over, a few of us stayed back to catch our breath and recap the events. The energy was calm but optimistic, as community members and leaders recalled their favorite moments and talked about the next steps. Our easy conversation was halted, when one of our younger members started to raise her voice. It’s been a couple of years, so I don’t remember the sister’s name, but she couldn’t have been any older than 19 years old, and according to her a random guy in a suit had walked up to her and squeezed her butt. When she confronted him, he dismissed her and walked away. By the time we realized what was going on, the assaulter was gone.
I was the only staff person present and didn’t really know how to handle the situation. After she told me what happened, we told a capital police officer, but since we didn’t know the assaulter’s name, and the description of “a guy in a suit” wasn’t enough, they weren’t able to help much. I remember two things very clearly from that day. First was the feeling of violation and anger that was on the young lady’s face. The next was my lack of interest in doing anything else to assist this young woman. In my mind, the capital was a known cesspool of creeps and sexual harassers. While I felt bad that she had been violated, I dismissed it as the price for entry into New York State Politics.
Whenever a story comes out about harassment, abuse, or assault against women taking place in Albany that memory and my horrible judgment/attitude rise to the top of my mind. I spend so much of my social media time shouting about “protecting Black women” and I didn’t do a damn thing for someone who was harassed in the “people’s building.” The embarrassment and shame behind that story have influenced my interest, and ability to speak out about harassment, because how could I? I’m a hypocrite.
In hindsight, I can think of a million things I could have done better at that moment. But believe it or not, that’s not what this post is about. My actions were wrong, but they reflect the choices that a lot of men in Albany make, and I want to unpack that. Our silence or inaction when harassment, abuse, and harm happens to people at the capitol, especially women, is unacceptable. Maybe I couldn’t have done anything to find the person who touched the sister inappropriately, but by refusing to do more, or say more, I helped to uphold an environment that allows harassers and abusers to feel safe. When we allow men or other abusers to feel like their behavior will be unchecked, they start to think that they are safe. That sense of security makes them bolder, and before you know it, they are empowered and everyone else suffers.
As we speak, there are a lot of men who work in or around Albany politics and are not doing their part. More than likely, they have overheard an inappropriate comment, or seen someone cross the line at a fundraiser/gathering and but they didn’t step up. I get it, maybe they were afraid it would cost their job, maybe froze and panicked, or maybe like me, they thought it was the “cost of doing business in Albany.” Whatever it was, we were wrong.
The New York State capitol has a serious harassment/abuse problem, and it is perpetrated by men. If you disagree or have never seen a man act or speak inappropriately, you’re ignoring it like I did, or too afraid to acknowledge the truth because it might reveal something about you. We can’t allow space for abusers to feel safe and we can’t continue relying on victims/survivors of harassment and assault, to hold people accountable.
It doesn’t matter how vocal you are about what Governor Cuomo does if you’re turning a blind eye to the abuse being perpetrated by others, or even you.