Harassment, and why I avoid the Lakefront Trail

I’d like to share a personal fun fact that is not fun: I get directly, personally harassed in Chicago multiple times per day, every single day. And not in the celebrity “I like you” sense but in the “I hate you and people like you” sense. Since I’m a man with long hair, among other distinct features, I become a friendlier target to harassment in Chicago than many others.

It’s usually basic harassment like this:

  • People in cars intentionally try to run me over when I cross streets, going as far as to sit idle as I approach and time it so that they make the attempt to hit me as I cross a crosswalk or intersection.
  • People approaching on the sidewalk, even though I always stay to the side and leave room to pass, try to drift into my path and attempt to bump or otherwise obstruct me.
  • Men suddenly powerwalk to approach behind me on an empty sidewalk, whether because a) due to my long hair they think I’m a woman and they’re predisposed to harassing women, or b) they know I’m a man, and just want to intimidate/harass me because they think it’s wrong I exist the way I do.

I offer the necessary caveat:

  • Outside I keep to myself, mostly stay to the right side on sidewalks/paths, and avoid unduly obstructing any pathways. I give way for others when useful.
  • I avoid areas prone to bad behavior, like River North or key parts of Wrigleyville on a Saturday night.
  • I’m not going out of my way to engage anybody unless engaged. All of this behavior is unsolicited and initiated by others.
  • And these are not vagrants or clear mental-illness cases. These are normal people, typically men, and of various races/backgrounds/ages.
  • This has happened pretty much daily (I’m kind of surprised when a day ends and it hasn’t happened at all) since the day I arrived in Chicago at the end of 2014.

All of this kind of misleads how much I worry about it: At this point I’m used to it and it’s just a regular, occasionally annoying part of life. I abhor bringing it up at all: It amounts to little more than complaining, and it’s something I have no real control over. It’s a city-wide phenomenon (one I don’t ever experience to this degree anywhere else, not even NYC or LA), it happens to a lot of people, the Chicago police do not address harassment unless someone has been directly assaulted or threatened (and even then they won’t bother doing anything half the time, or will make it a huge hassle for you to take any action).

Basically, there is nothing of use anyone will do about it. All I can do, and do, is exercise awareness when outside, know when/how to take evasive action when it’s approaching, and avoid it.

I bring it up because it also happens when I run, and it turns out harassment on the Lakefront Trail is a huge problem, an elephant in the room no one has ever shown any serious interest in directly addressing. This definitely affects many runners in Chicago, and probably a lot of people in general across the board.

It’s one thing to be a pedestrian or runner on a random city street. It’s easier for me and others to stick out like a sore thumb there, than it is as a runner in a space where other runners are expected. It’s another level when you’re getting harassed as a runner in a space where people are expected to run.

These consistently-present forms of harassment are a key reason I avoid the Lakefront Trail as much as possible during warmer months. I know the subsidiary paths and the Lincoln Park Trail corridor very well, as well as amenable portions of the Chicago Lakefront street grid, and thus I do most of my running in those areas.

Also, yes, I will freely speak to, judge and presuppose people’s intentions in the below topics. Intentions have been laid threadbare often enough when I call it out (while I keep to myself… once confronted, I confront and call out behavior) that I can comfortably speak to the intentions of most who do it. There is no benefit of the doubt, since most who do this hide their intentions behind the benefit of the doubt. You would be very surprised how many people let alone Chicagoans (whether well adjusted or mentally ill) hate runners and will act on it when they go on the trail.

On the Lakefront Trail I observe and experience the following patterns of harassment:

  • The most common form of harassment is intentionally dangerous behavior from cyclists, usually riders attempting to clip runners from behind as they ride by. A lot of them admittedly do it out of spite and amusement: They like “spooking” riders, many cyclists are generally malicious people (a lot of mentally ill men like to ride their bikes on the trail), and couldn’t care less if it’s a safety risk. They won’t attempt to clip every runner, but will target select runners in the moment depending on their prejudices or mood. I’m a common target because I’m a dude with long hair, and many believe people like me (for whatever reasons of prejudice) should not exist.
  • A similar mode of harassment is a faster (almost always male) runner coming up behind a runner and acting like they are “inadvertently” brushing by. This is more of a sexual harassment flirting tool, and more likely to come from guys who think from the rear that I’m a woman (though sometimes it can be a passive-aggressive act of intimitdation from a man who doesn’t care for a guy having long hair).
  • More common, though, is a pedestrian or group who sees a runner, and will attempt to time his/her/their walking, or walk slowly up ahead, so that they obstruct the runner as they approach and pass. While generally done in groups as a joke among friends, this is mainly an act of spite. When disruption is the person’s main goal, the intention is always spite or malice. This is also common off-trail, so it’s not exclusively a Trail issue. But because pedestrians flock to the trail in warm weather just like cyclists and runners, it is very common there.
  • One variation of this is the guy (it is always a man, usually a young douchebro, who does this) death-staring at his cell phone while veering into your path, seemingly by accident but too pronounced and direct to be anything but intentional (and let’s never mind that it’s bad to look at your phone while walking in public). The guys acts like he’s not paying attention… when in fact he’s watching peripherally and angling to get in your way. I generally break the mind-my-business code and yell and wave at these people. It’s very hard for them to maintain the facade when you do this.
  • The key to all of this: It’s passive aggressive. It’s all made to look like an accident, like they weren’t paying attention, when it’s deliberate and intentional. By being passive aggressive the belief is observers and the target cannot read their intentions, to hide it behind others’ benefit of the doubt or inattention. It’s simple-minded, and anyone with decent intuition who is paying attention should see right through it. But in Chicago, most lack intution and most aren’t paying attention. And people over-apply the benefit of the doubt. Many people here use this to their advantage in various ways, even if it’s merely out of spite on the Trail.

So, rather than go on any impotent crusades, I just proceed with caution when on the Trail, while avoiding the Trail in general outside of the colder months (when 98% of the problem is gone).

  • I run along the dirt fringe of the trail when available, and definitely off of the main painted lane. I let the cyclists, faster runners and any willing pedestrians have that pathway, so I’m not blocking it or in any way justifying contact.
  • I’ll go out of my way out of the right of way, as far as to run on the grass along the right of the trail, to pass others as needed. On occasion when safe I’ll pass on the main lane (after thoroughly checking to ensure it’s safe to pass).
  • I don’t run with headphones, to make sure I can hear signs of any approaching traffic from any direction, especially from behind.
  • I keep my head on a swivel. I regularly check behind and around me for approaching riders or runners (or in rare cases motor vehicles).
  • When someone is approaching directly behind me or close to my left side, I will maintain sightlines and eye contact as they approach, until they have sufficiently moved over and/or passed.
  • (A small but sizable portion of the time, those intending to harass you from behind get verbal and otherwise petulant when you stare at them and make sure they safely pass you. But that’s all they do: I have never had anyone lean in and clip me when I’m watching them, probably because it’s clearly intentional if they do so, breaking the facade of “I didn’t see you”. I’ve only had one (clearly-crazy) guy attempt to start a fight over it. After I yelled at him to go ahead, and that there were witnesses to what he was doing, he shut up and went away.)
  • And, basically, if there’s a suitable lesser-trafficked alternative to running on the main Lakefront Trail, I will run on that instead.

The City of Chicago’s efforts to split the Lakefront Trail into bike and ped lanes was itself (in part) a passive aggressive attempt to diffuse potential conflict and harassment between cyclists and pedestrians.

But, along with Chicago Police making no observed effort to enforce the separations (bikes ride on the technically ped-only portions along the entire Trail all the time), the conflict is about more than urban engineering. It’s intentional and driven by the same malice and spite that has fueled so many of Chicago’s other problems, not to mention its rampant crime. If the cultural problem of compulsive, motivated spite and malice among the locals cannot be addressed, then no amount of urbanist engineering is going to improve the situation on the Lakefront Trail.

I’m not even sure what the CPD can do, short of using resources to sting or cite/arrest offenders. Even then, they can only catch who they see. Others will get away with it out of CPD sight (and most douches know to make sure no cops are in view before attempting something malicious).

Until then, harassment is a daily part of life for me and other runners on the Lakefront Trail, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

All we can do is take preventative action, be vigilant, and make more of an effort to call it out when we see it in the moment. It happens because people get away with it.

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