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Oppenheim: Words On The Street

It was the first night of Art Hop in Burlington. I had organized a group of college students to produce a live webcast on Pine Street. We had a bunch of TV equipment we had to assemble in the afternoon, and put away at night. I was nervous whether everything would go ok – and thankfully, it did.

But then, the unexpected happened. Five of us were pushing a mobile TV cart down the road, bringing it to a college building. Along with me, there were four students, two male, two female. Suddenly, blocking our path stood three guys. My students said: “Excuse me” and the guys moved off slowly. But as one stepped out of the way, he pointed at the two young women and said: “You’re hot – and you’re hot.”

Without thinking, I looked at him hard and uttered: “And you’re rude.” He responded with some choice words.

None of the students said anything; they just kept moving forward.

But though I was walking alongside, I was mentally stuck. Still affronted by the aggressive words, “You’re hot”, I kept thinking, “How dare you!”

Now, this guy was probably drunk – and I was probably stupid. To confront an intoxicated man on the street, considerably bigger and stronger than I am could have put us all in jeopardy. If he’d decided cussing wasn’t enough, we weren’t in a position to defend ourselves.

At the same time, my short-fuse reaction was something I felt I couldn’t stop. Mixed in with my guilt was the satisfaction I’d said something. To me, the rude drunk guy represented privileged men who think they can say and do what they want. I’ve told this story to others, and women in particular tell me they live with catcalls. It’s always a judgment, they say, whether to ignore them or not.

I don’t party much these days, so this kind of encounter may be all too common for many people, male and female. But the incident made me think particularly about guys who harass women.

Because in the end, women have to make a fast decision. They can either play it safe and be silent, or take a risk and say “stop”- even though neither action may work out well. Even worse, the perpetrator is unlikely to ever understand what he did and the terrible choice he gave his victims.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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