A woman waits to board a bus along Long Beach Boulevard. Photo: Michael Lozano
Story by Stephanie Perez.
Speaking with the riders of the Long Beach Transit system, you will find common stories. John Muller, 23-year-old bus rider, saw a rider across from him masturbating on the bus.
Tyler Joscelyn, 22, confronted two men who were harassing a girl “because she was pretty” to only end up in a physical fight.
And then there’s the downright weird. Rebecca Macareno, for instance, felt unsafe during a recent afternoon bus ride from her apartment to Cerritos Mall when a man chose to sit directly next to her.
“He stared at me the entire bus ride even when I looked away,” she said. “He never spoke to me or touched me, but his eyes were red, and it felt like he never blinked. He could have sat anywhere on the bus, but he sat by me.”
City locals, including high school and college students, rely heavily on public transportation to get around each year but many also feel uneasy and unsafe, especially when they witness or experience various forms of harassment while riding the bus.
The problem is so ubiquitous that local, female-led band Bootleg Orchestra wrote a song about the constant harassment along the transit’s routes.
Long Beach Transit does not keep any statistics on general harassment because there is no California Penal Code against it, according to Paul Gonzales, Long Beach Transit external affairs manager, but inappropriate language can violate the Transit’s code of conduct.
State law does prohibit, however, bus riders from annoying a child, exposing themselves, or committing battery (a form of assault), Gonzales said.
Along with other Los Angeles County public transportation operations, the Long Beach Transit is part of a multi-faceted campaign to stop harassment on Metro buses and trains called Off Limits. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) has also partnered with the advocacy organization Peace over Violence to create a 24-hour rape crisis hotline with specially trained counselors.
The hotline, 1-844-Off-Limits (633-5464), is the longest continuing operating hotline in the country since it was first established in April 2015, according to Gonzales.
The Long Beach Transit system provides cameras on all busses and some also began carrying live monitoring screens last year to deter would-be harassers.
“It sends the message home that you’re being monitored by surveillance,” Gonzales said.
However, all the surveillance in the world isn’t likely to fix one last remaining problem that assailants thrive off — victim silence.
Though Long Beach Transit doesn’t document assault incidents –leaving it up to the police department– he noticed huge discrepancies between the frequency of filed reports and actual incidents during his tenure at LA Metro.
In 2015, a Metro survey found that 3,760 riders experienced some form of sexual harassment over a period of six months. That contrasts sharply to the 99 reports of unwanted sexual conduct filed with the Sheriff’s Department in 2014, Gonzales said.
Gonzalez suggested the same discrepancy in reporting is likely true in Long Beach.
“If people don’t tell us then we can’t help them… We need all the tools we can get to get harassers off the system,” he said.
Muller, who saw a fellow rider expose himself on the bus, said he felt uncomfortable and he ignored the man during the rest of his commute. Some Long Beach bus riders, however, say they take initiative in stopping harassments when they see it.
“It is always something different [that happens on the bus],” saidTyler Joscelyn, a Long Beach Transit rider. “One time I personally got into a big fight with two guys, who were harassing a girl. They felt like they could harass her because she was pretty.”
However, after the fight ended up getting physical, Joscelyn decided to get off the bus and the two men stayed on the bus.
For harassment against women, sexual harassment specifically, some blame bus overcrowding as a cause.
“On very overcrowded buses, some men do, you know, they use their hands wrong,” said Eric Mann, director of the Strategy Center which oversees the Bus Riders Union, an advocacy organization. “ I’m not saying it solves the problem, but dramatically reducing the overcrowding [could help].”
However, harassment occurs whether the bus is empty or filled with people.
Long Beach resident Alexander Nguyen witnessed a bus rider verbally harassing a homeless man, who was waiting at a downtown bus stop.
“He started to mock and walk toward the homeless man,” said Nguyen. “I noticed and told him to leave him [the homeless man] alone because he wasn’t bothering anyone.” He then threatened to tell the police nearby.
The man stopped mocking the homeless person and did not end up boarding the bus, he said. When Nguyen got on the bus, two women who saw to the whole incident thanked him for standing up to the harasser.
“For me, it was just like I don’t accept that,” he said.
Nguyen’s attitude is the kind of community action Mann wants to see more of. “The community needs to take a more aggressive position,” Mann said. He said what Nguyen did was “on the spot.”
He recalled how one of his staff members had been feeling unsafe riding the bus until a man volunteered to ride with her for a month.
“We’re trying to do education work … We would develop teams to support people,” he said.
Other metropolitan cities see that harassment on public transportation is an issue and want to take it a step forward in educating passengers.
In New York, an anti-harassment group aims to change “bystanders” into “upstanders,” by showing passengers how to intervene if they see harassment. Elsewhere, activists in Mexico City created a single, 3-D, male torso and genitalia seat labeled only for men in hopes to raise awareness of violence against women on buses and trains.
The current bus code of conduct in Long Beach “promotes the safety, security and comfort of its customers” by setting out expected behaviors for everyone who utilize transit property, according to the Long Beach Transit website.
If a bus rider faces harassment, he or she is advised to contact the transit operators or in a serious case, the Long Beach Police Department, Gonzales said.
Victims can make reports immediately or after the incident, noting the date, time, and bus route to help transit officials track the video. They can tell the bus driver, call 9-1-1, or even call the customer service department.
“Safety is the number one concern for our passengers and our employees,” Gonzales said. “If a person is feeling sexually harassed we want to know about it.”
Michael Lozano and Crystal Niebla contributed to this report.