My Tote Bag, The Security Threat

It´s Sunday, I have slept well and I am heading to a brunch with wonderful people. I am drifting in and out of thoughts. I look up at the information board on the tram and see a frame stating: Katja wishes: Thank you for keeping your bag on your lap. I can sense myself getting annoyed. Why?

I am heading to a brunch with a heavy bag filled with groceries. This tram is half empty so my bag on the seat next to me won´t bother a single soul. I am not an idiot. Of course I move my bag if someone needs a seat. Why am I being “thanked” for something I have not done? Why this passive-aggressive sugarcoating over the message?

When I get home, I browse to the page of the campaign. The message is part of a Helsinki Region Transport Authority campaign called Travel Peace. On their site they state the following:

On behalf of all who use and work on public transport vehicles, we would like to state that everyone has the right to travel, liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment. Everyone is entitled to the above mentioned rights without distinction of color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. (read the rest here)

I agree fully on the message. The purpose of the campaign is great. I have been harrassed and called names in the metro. My partner got a ful beer can thrown to his head at Itäkeskus just for looking non-Finnish. Immigrants are more often harassed and called names – even at its worst shoved out of vehicles. Several bus drivers with an immigrant background have been beaten up during the last year. This is important stuff. Sense of safety is a crucial issue when people consider leaving their car home and taking the bus or metro.

But exactly for the importance of the matter, this particular frame irritates me. Human rights and a tote bag on a seat in an empty tram do not link in my thinking. I feel the message undermines the seriousness of the matter.

More importantly, I find it hard to believe that this changes anyone´s mindset. It might raise awareness but that´s about it. There´s a reason why. For those who would act in a considerate manner already, the message makes false and negative assumptions on their behavior. And for those who would not move their bag for a fellow passenger, it poses no social pressure or carries no authority.

So could this be done differently? Yes. The same way cardio-vascular diseases were dropped dramatically in North Karelia and how bullying was halved on 4th–6th grades in Finnish basic education.

By empowering people. By telling people how frequently harassment cases happen, what the city is doing to prevent them and – most importantly – advising people what they should do when witnessing an incident. By doing polls amongst passengers and showing on screens that a vast majority of the passengers recognises the problem and condemns the harassment. By emphasising the responsibility of the community. As in the beer incident of my partner, the worst thing was that at a crowded metro station no one did a thing and the attacker managed to walk away.

And afterwards reporting on whether the numbers have gone down and if so, thanking people that WE – the city and people together – managed to stop this.