Sunday, December 20, 2015

Metro, the Culture of Dysfunction, and the Women Who Suffer

When I first entered feminist spaces, I encountered a huge supply of outrage and indignation regarding street harassment and other cases of men behaving badly. My immediate reaction was a compelling need to prove that I wasn’t that way. No one was debating that, but my male privilege was showing. I’m a large man who has rarely been propositioned inappropriately by complete strangers. It took me a while to realize that these stinging accusations had nothing really to do with me and everything to do with me.

Women, I have learned, can either shrug off these kinds of transgressions or get very angry. This situation reduced a friend of mine to tears, at which point she was strongly encouraged to formally report the crime. A security guard, aware of the situation, boarded the bus immediately following the verbal harassment. I should add that the driver had an outstanding warrant for rape, in addition. The man had been reported before, but I take it that many women would rather forget than prosecute or press charges. The security guard wanted to make sure this didn’t happen again.

It’s another black eye for Metro, whose shortcomings are profiled in the latest edition of Washingtonian magazine. The once revered public transportation system here in the nation’s capital has fallen on rough times in the past decade and a half. Filling openings for drivers has been difficult, meaning that problem employees are retained when they ought to be fired. This is not, as I said, an isolated incident. Women are subjected to such conduct on a regular basis, and that they soldier past it without growing bitter or angry is a testament to their own inner strength.

To quote from the aforementioned article, which focuses mostly on Metro’s command center,

It’s a self-reinforcing problem. Metro hasn’t been able to improve the ROCC [Rail-Operations Control Center] culture because it’s so beholden to the current personnel—yet the current personnel are a big part of the staff shortage. Despite a concerted effort to recruit and train new hires, Metro added just three controllers between 2011 and 2015, the FTA says.

As is often the case, a persistently dysfunctional culture shows itself plainly in ways that Metro tries to downplay. To return to the story of my friend, a security guard, aware of the driver’s indiscretions, almost forced her to press charges. It would be easy to assume that this reflects only a flawed system in one major US city, but it also shines light upon the plight of women. As is evidenced by the Bill Cosby allegations, women can be coerced to stay silent for years, well past the statute of limitations. And even within however many years the statue protects them, it takes a persistent number and severity of offense before successful prosecution can be all but ensured.

Meanwhile, management focused on making sure employees wore their uniforms correctly and used Metro-issued microwaves to cook food instead of their own. “Things are falling apart and you’re worried about a microwave oven,” Johnson says. “I mean, it was just dumb.” Accountability for day-to-day repairs had all but vanished:
“Consciously or subconsciously, everyone at Metro knows they’ve got a job for life,” he says, “unless they sit there and smoke crack in the middle of the platform.”

Critiques like these have been used to speak out boldly against unions. Metro’s employees have the right to bargain collectively, but it shouldn’t shield them from accountability, either. Color me disgusted at the whole sordid affair. My friend burst into tears at the brazenness of an indecent request that I will not justify by spelling out directly in this forum. It will take more than civic outrage and one story to change the lay of the land.

These days, I’ve come to terms with the kind of vulnerability women face, but I don’t want my sympathy to be confused or decried as insincere. When informed of the latest offense, I’ve recognized how jaded I’ve become, somewhere between the indignation of an activist and the fatalism of an old soul. This story is about the gaps in between these polar extremes and the problem that remains. It is everyone’s problem.

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