On a busy sidewalk in November, a short brunette in cuffed jeans and Doc Marten boots wrote a catcall on the sidewalk.
“You girls are hot, can I get your number?” she wrote in orange and yellow chalk.
The words filled up the downtown sidewalk. Underneath, it said “#STOPSTREETHARRASMENT.”
The words were written by Sophie Sandberg, the founder of Catcalls of NYC. She received an anonymous report of a cat call from a high school student. The report did not have a location listed. Sandberg usually chalks where the catcalling happened.
The organization, Catcalls of NYC, chalks catcalls in public spaces to raise awareness about street harassment and to advocate for an end to it. To chalk incidents of catcalling, they allow people to anonymously report their experiences of being catcalled on their website. Every quote is followed along with the #stopstreetharrasment hashtag to add context for pedestrians.
Sandberg started the organization six years ago, as a freshman at New York University, to respond to the street harassment that she and her friends experienced. The organization now has chapters in 150 cities from Berlin to Cape Town.
“There are so many (social media) platforms where you can share your story and talk about it and inspire other people to do the same,” said Sandberg.
In November, Catcalls of NYC posted a video on Tiktok of Sandberg chalking a quote from a young woman who was sexually harassed at the post office.
“Do you know what I’d do to you if I had my way?” she etched onto the busy street in neon colors. The 18-second video has received over 700,000 views and hundreds of comments, with viewers sharing their own experiences of harassment. Many commenters said they have a fear of wearing revealing clothes in public. Others recalled memories of being catcalled by adult men when they were underage.
One older man stopped and briefly asked about Sandberg’s project while she was writing on the sidewalk.
“I understand your mission, I have a young daughter,” he said.
A 2019 study by the Stop Street Harassment Coalition found that 71% of women in the United States experience harassment in public spaces.
Catcalls of NYC also seeks to address how street harassment impacts people from marginalized communities differently, by chalking racist and homophobic comments as well.
During the pandemic, there has been a rise in street harassment targeting Asian American Pacific Islander women. According to data gathered by the Stop AAPI Hate coalition in 2021, nearly 30% of reported hate crimes toward AAPI women happen on public streets and sidewalks.
Catcalls of NYC chalked a racist comment an Asian woman received who has mistaken for Mexican in which a man kept screaming, “Fuck Mexico, fuck you Mexico that’s right I said it” and violently threatened her.
Chalking in a busy area can be risky with the many onlookers and possible police presence.
“Never chalk outside a restaurant, a school, or a church,” said Bella Ramírez, a member of Catcalls of NYC.
Chalkers are told not to chalk outside these places because it may cause frustration and anger from the restaurant owner or school official. Chalkers are also trained on how to interact with the police at ideal locations to chalk, like outside an empty storefront.
Activists are trained on how to handle the public but chalk is not illegal in NYC, as it is not specified by name in City and State Anti-Graffiti Legislation. According to Sandberg, however, police arrested one chalker for graffiti and trespassing while she was chalking on a public sidewalk. The charges were ultimately dropped and this is a rare occurrence.
Sandberg said chalk is a powerful tool of activism because it lives on the streets and draws the public in.
“I always tell people just because you feel silenced at that moment or you feel like you can’t respond or you feel any form of powerlessness doesn’t mean you are powerless,” Sandberg said.
“I know it feels horrible at that moment, but there are lots of ways to respond after the fact.”