Friday, April 6, 2018

[D.C. Untied 3.With Her] What happens in Columbus does not stay in Columbus...

NOTE: IF YOU HAVE EXPERIENCED ASSAULT OR HARASSMENT AT A GAME AND WANT TO TALK TO SOMEBODY ABOUT IT, PLEASE MESSAGE ME!!

The DU section at a game last season.

To understand what happened to me in Columbus, you have to understand what happened to me on my first road trip for D.C. United back in 2015. I was caught up in the excitement surrounding the playoffs and on spur of the moment decided to buy a ticket to the Screaming Eagles bus to Red Bull Arena for the second leg of the conference semifinals.

What’s important to understand is that I was still very new to the D.C. United supporter community at this point. I’d been attending games forever but it was always with my brother and his group of friends. He had buddies in the Barra Brava and from Big Soccer but when our little group came to games, we were always in our own bubble. This time, however, I wouldn’t only be attending a game alone for the first time but I’d be traveling with--and trusting my safety to--people I didn’t know.

By pure chance I ended up sitting by the Shaws on the ride up. Lori and Steven were extremely welcoming and kind to me and the ride passed pleasantly but when the buses let everybody off at the pre-game bar in Harrison, I was alone again. Completely at a loss at what to do with myself in the middle of the chaotic crowd.

I had enough cash with me for a single beer so I pushed my way into the pub and up to the bar and ordered a drink. That’s where I saw the familiar face--a couple of guys I’d met at the one Screaming Eagles watch party I’d attended. One of them couldn’t have cared less about me and made grudging conversation at the barest level of politeness. The other was in the Screaming Eagles field crew and had come up to me and my brother where we were leaning against the barrier in our section at halftime during a game to say hello and assure me that if I had seen him kissing some girl at the game the other day it didn’t mean anything. I don’t remember my response but I’m pretty sure it was something like, “Yeah, okay… well I’m here with my brother so see ya.”

So, yes, I knew he was a creep but desperate times call for desperate measures. I was overwhelmed at the sheer numbers of people and the unfamiliarity of what was happening. I didn’t care that I’d be making conversation with a jerk and a creep. I just needed to get back into my own head. I went over to say hello.

And it didn’t take me long to realize I’d made a huge mistake by engaging but what could I do? I didn’t know anybody else there.

An announcement that we would soon be marching to the stadium hit me like a pronouncement from heaven above. “I’ll see you guys later. I’m heading outside.”

Quick, quick, quick… walk outside to safety.

Milling around outside, I was approached by another woman who was also there alone. She’d come up with the Barra Brava and was currently drinking framboise out of the bottle. I almost cried with relief when she offered me some. I attached myself to her side and we stuck together for the rest of the evening.

(I make it point now to seek out other women who look like they’re alone at a tailgate or game and say hello. Pay it forward, sisters. Pay it forward.)

I managed to avoid my “friend” for the rest of the game. He was drunk and easy to see coming and duck out of the way. But as we were filing out of the section after the dispiriting loss, he grabbed me. “There’s a USA game coming up and I thought if you wanted to go---” I pretended I couldn’t hear him and walked away, quickly losing myself in the crowd. The anonymity was comforting after the unwanted attention.

Over the next couple of years I’d run into this guy at tailgates and games. I was always pleasant towards him. Women are socially conditioned to get along. To not make waves. To not make a big deal about calling out overly aggressive men or unwanted attention. After all, it’s not their fault, right? We must have done something to encourage it. Like existing.

Maybe this was all in my head. Maybe I misread the situation. But no matter what his intentions were, the fact is he made me extremely uncomfortable and I made it a point to never be caught alone with him again. At least until this game in Columbus.

Things are really tense between the Screaming Eagles and the other two supporters groups right now. That’s not a controversial statement, I think. So, it was always going to be awkward to have a group of Screaming Eagles members in the middle of the large group of District Ultras and Barra Brava ready to get rowdy and go 90 minutes at Mapfre Stadium. But I’d been messaging with one of the women coming up for the game--a friend, or at least somebody I like very much and am friendly with--and when I saw her group walking across the parking lot at Mapfre, I made a point of waving them over to say hello. I gave my friend a big hug and we chatted for a bit. I didn’t explicitly invite them to join our group but I thought I’d made it clear by my behavior they were more than welcome with us. Whatever the drama happening.

But the women went back to join their own group and I didn’t see them much after that. I assumed they were hanging towards the back of the crowd, not wanting to get in the middle of the drums and flags.

So, imagine my surprise when I’m coming back from the bathroom and into our section before the game starts and I’m grabbed by… that guy. My friends are all down on the opposite side of the bleachers and can’t see where I’ve been pushed into the row. I cannot move down and he’s blocking the exit to the aisle. My heart starts racing. Shit, shit, shit what do I do?

He starts angrily talking at me. “Why are you making this so bad for us? We just want to cheer with you!”

“What do you want me to do?” I say back. “I can’t control the fact that people are mad at the Screaming Eagles for disbanding our groups.”

I have tunnel vision. I don’t know how to get out of this situation. I can’t push forward. He’s not leaving. I don’t want to turn my back on him to try and push past the people behind me or to the sides. He’s bigger than me and agitated and has been drinking and I don’t know if he’ll try to grab me or push me or even hit me.

And then, out of the corner of my eye, I hear my name. One of the District Ultras members. “Check your phone,” he says. I take my phone out of my pocket. Two different DU members, same message: “IS THIS GUY BOTHERING YOU?” “YES HELP” I type back.

And they pull me out of the situation.

***

Even after all that, I was willing to let it go. Chalk it up to drunken misjudgement. But imagine my shock when I was looking at the comments section on Black & Red United and saw the narrative being pushed that the Screaming Eagles members had been the ones harrassed at the game in Columbus! My jaw dropped. Not only had I--and others--gone out of our way to be friendly and welcoming but I was the one who had had to be rescued from one of their members!

I was furious and grew more so as it became clear that the Screaming Eagles leadership was going to handle this situation not by issuing a public apology--like the Barra Brava did when one of their members said something inappropriate to a Screaming Eagle in Atlanta--but by trying to do an end run around me and trying to get the District Ultras to tell me to pipe down about it.

The final straw was when they issued yet another “statement” saying sexism and harassment were not to be tolerated in their section. The implication being always that it’s others doing the sexism and harassment. Never them.

***

Let me tell you another story. I got extremely drunk at the game after Parsons was given the ridiculous one year ban for popping smoke in the parking lot underpass at RFK. I hadn’t intended to but people kept putting booze in my hands at the tailgate and I reached the point where I should stop and just… didn’t. I have no excuses. I acted stupidly.

So, here’s when I knew I’d made the right decision to join the District Ultras. In the middle of the scrum in our section, I’m sure I looked wobbly and out of it. My memory of the game is hazy but I remember looking up at one point and seeing that somebody was keeping an eye on me.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yeah!” I replied.

He looked dubious but let me continue jumping around.

But that’s when I knew in my gut that these guys had my back. They may not have really known who I was or anything beyond that I was drunk and kind of (!) annoying but they would make sure I didn’t injure myself or otherwise come to harm.

I never got that drunk at a game again but I always remembered that feeling. That trust.

It can be hard for men to understand how vulnerable women can feel in a crowd. I’m 5’9” and fairly strong physically so I’m not easily intimidated. But even I can feel overwhelmed and scared. Boundaries can be easily crossed in the middle of the section. People have been drinking, people may be bouncing up and down the aisle, men may be ripping their shirts off, you may get hugged or have somebody drunkenly stumble into you. It’s a physical arena and that’s what I like about it. But we have to trust that our comrades are not going to use the closeness as an excuse to grab our asses or force their tongues in our mouths.

And once that trust is lost, it’s hard to earn back.

Nobody is perfect. No group is perfect. Creepy guys exist and things happen. What’s important for women’s trust is how these creepy guys are handled. What is leadership’s response when these creepy guys are brought to their attention? Do they try to handle it quietly and tell the woman that they’ll either have to put up with the guy’s presence or sit on the opposite side of the stadium? Do they remove the guy from field crew? Do they hand out a ban? Do they issue a public statement so women are aware that there has been an incident?

When I started kicking up a fuss about my incident. My inbox started collecting other stories. And now that I know that leadership of the Screaming Eagles knows that there is a repeat offender in their group--a different guy from the one bothering me--and has done nothing about it tells me that they value the illusion of “All Welcome All United” over the safety of the women in their group.

I think all of us women who attend games and stand in the supporters sections know that there is some element of risk involved. We’re very much a minority in the sea of bros and that comes with certain dangers. You may get hit on. You may have to listen to guys talk about women like objects. You may get shoved around a bit and have your personal space invaded. But as long as we know that our comrades, our brothers and sisters, have our backs, those things can be brushed off and forgotten.

But if leadership is brushing incidents under the rug…

Not confronting and banning men from the section for abusive and harassing behavior...

What good does waving a pink and rainbow flag and yelling “ALL WELCOME” do if there are no actions to back it up?

Empty words and empty promises.

***

Look, the bottom line is this. Almost every woman I’ve talked to about this has said the same thing: I just want to drink a few beers and watch soccer with my friends.

We don’t want or need you to be feminists or wear pink pins or whatever.

Just treat us like rational human beings--like friends.

Drink a beer with us and watch some soccer.

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