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Why Safety Is Essential In Order For Women To Fully Participate In The Occupy Movement

November 1, 2011

If I had my druthers, I would be writing about the importance of feminist principles in the developing Occupy movement, about how comprehensively addressing economic injustice necessitates addressing issues like unequal pay, childcare access, unpaid work, etc.  And I could write that piece sitting as I am right now in the reasonably safe environment of my suburban home.  But what has become all too clear from a number of reports since the Occupy movement began and from the many people we have heard from since starting Occupy Patriarchy last week is that before we can address those issues, we need to feel that we can safely participate in Occupy.

As I said, I am writing this sitting in a place that feels safe to me.  I’ve been to Occupy DC several times.  People were mostly friendly and it was empowering to be there.  But I’ve only gone during broad daylight.  I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of spending the night or even staying for evening assemblies that would mean walking back to the subway by myself on darkened, mostly empty downtown streets.  For weeks now, a voice in my head has been screaming, “WIMP!”.  But as I talk with other women, I realize that I am far from alone and that there is good reason for concern.  We have heard from women across the globe who have reported feeling intimidated and uneasy, who have experienced harassment.  There have been multiple reports of groping, other forms of sexual assault and harassment and at least four reports of rape.

Writers like Mickey Z however dismiss these incidents as “isolated”  instead of recognizing the connections between sexual power over and economic power over,

Maybe 1% of the 1% who have heard the call are opting to discount its urgency for reasons ranging from isolated incidents of sexism-racism-classism to word usage to (possibly) being bitter and jealous that their hard work never captured the public’s attention as OWS has.

“Bitter and jealous”?  As if feminists haven’t been accused of that every time we dare to challenge male privilege.   As Women Occupy says so eloquently on their Facebook page,

Women deserve to start the conversations about the impact of economic inequality, to participate in the conversations, to change the conversations, and to end the conversations—and they deserve to do those things while not facing police brutality, while not experiencing sexist attacks, and while not being sexually objectified. All those things work in tandem to further take away power from women, and we need women in this fight.

We support the Occupy Together movement while acknowledging that it needs to work to make spaces safe for women, and to fight sexism and misogyny when it creeps in.

Yet as Sady Doyle reminds us,

Even in movements that are formally leaderless, those with privilege tend to bring pre-existing power to the table, and that power can be dangerous. This is part of any communal space, no matter how well-intended;

It’s also important to note that women are not the only ones confronting safety issues, as this piece from People Of Color Organize points out,

A lot of women, queers, and trans people—along with many people of color and undocumented immigrants—do not feel comfortable sleeping in an open space with a lot of men, surrounded by police. Police presence ensures that protestors could, at any time, be risking arrest; and a racist police system ensures that people of color will be targeted. Unrestricted male presence in all sleeping areas ensures that protestors could, at any time, be exposing themselves to molestation and/or rape; and patriarchy ensures that women, queers, and trans people will be targeted.

So far there have been four reports of rape–in Cleveland, Dallas, Baltimore and in Glasgow, Scotland.  The response to those allegations are instructive.

In  Cleveland, an NBC report all but dismisses the charges as a case of political sabotage,

According to (NBC) reporter Tom Beres, the big question is: “how much damage this will do to all the work that has been done and the future of the occupation.” Really? Is that the big question or is it “Was this woman raped and if so by whom? The report gets worse from there…

…After a recitation of the charges and what amounts to a denial by organizers, i.e. we don’t make sleeping assingments (sic), the report goes completely off the rails. We get a reaction from someone who isn’t named and reportedly isn’t part of the protest but is “familiar” with it:

I don’t believe any of these guys would do anything like that there. So I think someone probably brought her here, set her here and to spend the night and hang out with them for one day just to say she was raped.

In Dallas, one protester responded to hearing that a teenager had been raped by suggesting the solution was to keep young girls out of the Occupy location rather than addressing the need to insure that they could safely participate:

One Occupy Dallas protestor said if the allegations are true measures should be taken to ensure everyone’s safety.

“We’ll find out what the truth is and if that’s her story, that she was having sex with older men in the park, I guess we really need to watch the age group that’s coming in here and get control of that,” protestor Rich Coffman said.

Occupy Dallas organizers said they’ll implement a 10 p.m. curfew and check the identification of anyone seen walking the grounds after that time.

The girl remained in custody as police continued to investigate the allegations Monday evening.

(Note:  The last line in the passage above is also disturbing–why was the alleged victim in custody?)

In Glasgow, a statement was issued in the aftermath of the rape being reported that said,

“Since October 15, Occupy Glasgow have provided free food, shelter and clothing to some individuals who had none of their own and we immensely regret any harm that may have befallen one of these individuals.

“We are fully committed to working with Strathclyde Police in their current investigation, and in continued improvements to the provision of safety to occupiers, the homeless and the general public that use George Square.

As Mhairi observes,

The distancing from this woman, referred to without reference to gender coupled with the implicit benevolence of the camp and lack of responsibility for what has happened is stunning without even mentioning that what later transpired to be a gang rape is referred to as an “alleged sexual assault”…

… When sexist people are allowed to join and define a movement this drives women away; but, when women stay away, men, including sexist men, become the defining voices within the movement…

… A woman’s place is in the movement and not just as a fucktoy for the menz.

It should be notes that a far more responsible statement was later issued by Organize Glasgow which read:

On the evening of Wednesday 26th October 2011, a general assembly was held of people participating and supporting the Occupy Glasgow movement, concerning the tragic event that occurred the previous evening. A young woman supporter was raped while staying at the occupation camp in George Square. There was lengthy discussion about this abhorrent and intolerable crime and its repercussions.

We unequivocally condemn the rape that took place against one of our supporters. This is totally unacceptable. We believe it beyond question that our society should neither tolerate or allow violence against women, in any place, at any time.

The sad fact stands that the human right to safety and security is a goal not currently attained in our society which frequently falls far too short of this aim.

We take camper’s security extremely seriously and have had a Safer Spaces Policy for the site since day one, and are continually addressing how best to carry it out.

To further highlight these issues, we are calling for a solidarity vigil this Friday 28th October, at George Square, in place of the regularly scheduled general assembly. We urge everyone to attend this vigil to show that Glasgow does not tolerate violence against women or any form of hate crime.

We invite women’s & LGBT organisations and all those campaigning against violent hate crimes, to help us raise awareness of this issue and stand in solidarity with the victims of them.

The initial response by Occupy Baltimore to a rape report was also problematic, drawing an outcry for what many perceived as intimidating language suggesting victims should not report sexual assault or rape to law enforcement.  The statement was later replaced with one that strongly supported victims’ rights because as Jenny Gaeng, media contact for the revised policy, told the Baltimore Sun,

Dominant, mostly male voices are calling constantly for an end to discussion of “gender-specific issues” in order to focus on the nebulous call for economic reform, which has defined the Occupy protests across the nation. Complaints of sexual harassment at the site are belittled as “personal problems,” as though it’s somehow possible to affect change as a divided and internally oppressive community.

These are not isolated incidents as Mickey Z suggests.  Rape, sexual assault and harassment are power tools of patriarchy, used to control and silence, whether these incidents occur at home behind closed doors, in a war zone, on the street or in an Occupy community.  Far too many incidents have been reported already and it is likely, as is always the case with these kinds of crimes, that other incidents have not been reported.

If the Occupy movement is going to be a place where all of the 99% have a voice, then the issue of safety needs to be substantively addressed.  Many Occupy locations have issued safety statements, that is a good start but as we go forward, there is still much work to be done in order to create safe supportive, empowering space for all.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. ever_hopeful permalink
    November 1, 2011 6:32 pm

    Thank you for also posting the only statement that was agreed upon by Occupy Glasgow, 9 hours after the previous one came out. It has been upsetting to a lot of good people in the camp that Mhairi has only referred to a statement written and released autonomously by two people earlier in the day (who had been up all night dealing with the crisis and for one of whom English is their second language, while the other has currently stepped back from OG) – but not the official one agreed on by over 40 people. In leaderless movements mistakes will be made, which is why it’s good to not focus solely on them!

    But more importantly, thank you thank you for creating this site. This is such an important issue and I hope you can find ways of sharing knowledge between camps and Occupy supporters concerned about this and trying to deal with it. It also seems like a big opportunity for mass-education about privilege, patriarchy and misogyny. I hope the dialogue can continue with minimal confrontation and factionalism because everyone involved with Occupy needs to take these issues seriously, but for some (as in all of society) there may be prejudice, misunderstanding and ignorance to overcome first, and for others this will be the first time their views have been challenged.

    • November 1, 2011 6:45 pm

      Thank you for your kind note–we also hope to find ways to connect things in an constructive way, ideas are always welcome as is info that should be shared!

  2. kmiriam permalink
    November 1, 2011 7:13 pm

    Thanks Lucinda for pulling these facts and articles together into a coherent and rousing piece. Thanks to all the brave women who are speaking out and fighting back. May the struggle continue!!

  3. Nona Sarah permalink
    November 1, 2011 7:40 pm

    i also was calling myself a wimp in my head for not wanting to camp out anymore, it really meant something to read your words and realize i’m not alone. i spent one weekend camping at zucotti and participated in organizing the boston camp. i have witnessed and experienced, in person and online, an overwhelming amount of unchecked, ingrained sexism in the occupy movement and a stubborn refusal by way too many to acknowledge it. i too do not feel safe showing up as a single woman by herself to camp out. i feel like i lost faith and confidence in those around me at these events before i was even able to build any. i dont trust that enough of the people there will act, care, or believe me if i am a victim of assault while camping and i certainly cant count on the police.

  4. November 1, 2011 9:05 pm

    Lucinda, This is a great piece, not only because you point out the underlying (even economic) reasons for women’s oppression, but because you state that safety is a prerequisite to liberation, even though this should be a “duh?!” for any thinking person.

  5. November 2, 2011 12:40 am

    Thanks Lucinda – as usual you talk so much sense. Glasow Women’s Activist Forum have been so concerned about safety as Occupy Glasgow that we have also written this open letter:

    We, the undersigned, are writing to those involved in the Occupy Glasgow protest because our voices have hitherto been marginalised and our concerns systematically ignored in the days following the rape that occurred at the protest on Tuesday.

    Our decision to write this letter is not based on political or ideological rejections of the Occupy movement, but is motivated by a very real concern for the physical and emotional well-being of all those involved in Occupy Glasgow, with specific concern for women and vulnerable people.

    We believe that those involved in the protest failed to ensure the safety of its participants. The safety of the most vulnerable amongst us must be paramount in any organisation or movement, and a failure to construct and implement a system which ensures the safety of all its participants constitutes a failure of the movement as a whole.

    In light of the gang rape that took place on Tuesday, we condemn the decision to continue with the occupation. Not only does the rape itself constitute reason enough to end the protest, but the reaction in the days which have followed has only convinced us further.

    Allowing rape apology, victim blaming, and accusations of ‘fabrication’ or ‘conspiracy to bring the occupation to and end’ to be voiced in statements both on the official Occupy Glasgow facebook page and at General Assemblies without question demonstrates a complete failure of those involved to grasp the severity of the incident.

    There has been insufficient effort to make necessary changes to the physical space or the safer spaces policy following the attack.

    Women remain at high risk at Occupy Glasgow, and openly voiced this at the women’s meeting on Friday 28th October. Prior to Tuesday, verbal and physical intimidation had been reported by occupiers to the group, yet these issues were not addressed.

    It is extremely alarming that women at the occupation confirmed that the group only reported the rape after a group decision was taken to do so. Even after members of the occupation took this decision – which, we cannot stress enough, was not theirs to take – the occupation continued to refer to the rape as ‘alleged’.

    Our decision to write an open letter followed attempts to reach out to Occupy Glasgow by attending General Assemblies. However, women who have attended meetings and facilitated workshops have experienced verbal and physical intimidation from occupiers, leaving us no option but to make this official appeal to the women of Occupy Glasgow to take our concerns seriously.

    We consider this matter urgent, and cannot stress enough that this appeal is motivated purely by our desire to create safe spaces for women not just within activist movements, but everywhere in society.

    Glasgow Women’s Activist Forum

    • November 2, 2011 12:49 am

      Hopefully an alternative solution to shutting down Occupy can be worked out.

      • Lola-at-Large permalink
        November 2, 2011 1:12 am

        Yeah, like maybe young liberal dudez will stop being sexist, raping jerks and start policing themselves. There is nothing women can do to stop rape. It’s all on the dudez.

    • ever_hopeful permalink
      November 2, 2011 2:42 am

      While there’s some fair points here – can I just make it clear there is a significant and hurtful untruth in this letter – that the rape was only reported to the police after a group meeting. I’d already been told by two women on site that they called police as soon as they heard what happened. After reading this letter I double checked with two more people key to the camp who said the same.

      Despite having contacted the authors – who are nameless – they are still publishing this letter as widely as they can and haven’t attempted to explain where they got such information or what they seek to achieve by spreading such a falsehood widely. It’s particularly sad when there are so many in Glasgow still devastated by what happened last week, and wanting to deal with the surrounding issues. It’s exhausting and heartbreaking.

  6. Carolyn Dixon permalink
    November 2, 2011 12:57 am

    The existence of sexism in the movement is glaringly obvious to anyone who looks at the photos or reads the interviews – 9 people interviewed, 5 white men, 2 men of color, 2 women. Are 8o% of the participants men? I doubt it.

    The best thing I’ve seen so far was Ketchup on “Stephen Colbert”, facilitating the conversation with competence and ease, with her male companion supporting her leadership. Their calm insistence on the principles of the movement was a delight to watch.

    It is very regrettable that in a movement seeking justice and equality for all people, there are some participants who discount another’s pain as insignificant, and who don’t see the importance of men taking responsibility for the behavior of other men by dealing with the perpetrators and working to ensure the safety of everyone. Don’t they know that “the personal is political” and that there can be no justice unless there is justice for all?

    EVERYONE matters and everyone’s pain matters. I’ve heard that one reason for the start of the women’s movement was that women in the Civil Rights movement got tired of being discounted and relegated to supporting the work of the IMPORTANT people who were doing the REAL work.

    To change an oppressive culture, ALL oppression must end.

  7. Kathy permalink
    November 2, 2011 2:27 am

    Thanks for writing this article, Lucinda. I hope it makes a difference.

    I was not surprised that Occupy Dallas was mentioned in your article. I haven’t visited that group yet, but I’ve read the articles on the website and they’re very male-centric. All the quotes are from men, a writer who who goes by the name, ‘John’ says it’s a good generic name, the writers talk about ‘their fellow occupiers’ without realizing that fellow is male . . .

    The Occupy Dallas groups seems so naieve about male privilege and white privilege. Most of the people in the pictures are white.

    All I can say is, “Keep on keeping on.” You do have supporters out there.

  8. November 2, 2011 4:23 pm

    this is a very interesting article and am glad your wrote it.

    I’m shocked and dismayed at the behaviour of the occupiers who are involved in these incidents however i would not go as far as to say occupy should stop because of them.

    for me the occupy movement is about not waiting to be disappointed but getting out there
    and making your voice heard because our strength is our diversity and we need all the voices we have. I felt , when reading your article , that you where playing a passive role
    of complaining about problems but without supplying a solution or the beginning of a solution.

    the occupy movement faces much scrutiny from an unforgiving press and the constant spectre of police brutality/manipulation , this creates an intense pressure on everyone
    involved , combined with learning to be open and changing our whole way of life there
    will be mistakes , there will be people arriving at all different levels of the personal and political development. For this reason we have to be very careful about saying no or
    condemning people in our movement.

    when we raise issues of personal safety we are playing into the hands of the police and media who are itching to discredit us , i believe its for that reason and probably a large amount of shock that people in glasgow occupy remained cautious about the police.
    I’m not saying sweep it under the carpet but be aware of its value as ammunition.

    in my local occupy there are far less women , the reason for this was discussed and
    personal security was raised as a factor and we attempted to find ways to mitigate it.
    having recognised how vital it is that everyone is involved and from my personal experiences of campaigning with women , they are excellent protesters who have unique skills . we resolved to reach out to women but ultimately if someone is afraid its very hard to aussage their fear if you don’t know them yet.

    could i therefore ask for a positive message of outreach to help men in the group to ensure
    they are as supportive and non opressive as possible and to ensure that there is a positive message for women wanting to get involved , speaking as a man i recognise
    and would defend womens rights to discuss and document the failings of men in public but i would also like to point out that lableing men as potential rapists and oppressors is as offensive as the stereotypes of sluts asking for it , a vast majority of men at occupy gatherings (and indeed the world) are respectful humans who don’t want to hurt or opress anyone .

    There are just as many feminists who are wrong as there are patriarchs , we must connect on the positives as our strength is unity against greed. We should act by taking responsibilities and making things happen instead of condemning without solutions.

    in solidarity

    • Feminista permalink
      November 3, 2011 5:27 am

      “There are just as many feminists who are wrong as there are patriarchs”.

      No, there are NOT. What a load of BS.

      Unity against PATRIARCHY!

  9. November 6, 2011 4:59 pm

    The first day of the Occupy Wall Street protest in my city, it was scheduled as a 4 hour deal. Then discussion began about going 24hrs a day. Immediately, I started thinking safety issues. I was discussing these concerns with another protester when a man overhearing started listening in. Turned out he was one of the organizers. I would describe his response to my suggestions for security as patient and somewhat confused.

    It’s three weeks later, and no safety measures have been implemented by the leadership.


  1. Why Safety Is Essential In Order For Women To Fully Participate In The Occupy Movement « Occupy Patriarchy « METHINKS SHE DOTH PROTEST

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