I just got back from having dinner with a friend of mine who spent many nights at OccupyLA. This is a person who I think has a good understanding of gender politics and of what happened at OccupyLA. I was shocked to hear him tell me that there were probably over 10 or over 20 or more cases of sexual assault at OccupyLA. As someone who has been following the tweets, articles, blog posts and when I can the live feed for OccupyLA very closely since it began, I was incredibly disheartened to hear these numbers. My understanding was that there was one case. This says to me that people have been keeping these incidents out of public discussion to protect the movement, which is incredibly upsetting because if the Occupy movement thinks that sexual assault is tolerable in any way than I will be so ashamed that I ever supported them in any way. Clearly, a movement that is so multiplicitous and with such fuzzy boundaries as the Occupy movement can’t be said to hold many or possibly any opinions or priorities, but I would say that it seems like there may have been an effort by many Occupy organizers to keep the number of sexual assaults a secret.
Why is this such a problem? Don’t the people experiencing assault have the right to their privacy? Yes, of course they do, but as a woman and a trans person, I feel like I would have not been safe sleeping at OccupyLA and I wouldn’t have known it until I was there, possibly until it was too late because the issue was kept so well under wraps that someone following the news every day and talking to everyone they knew, including participants, organizers and scholars following the occupations didn’t know at all how prevalent the issue was.
I felt unsafe from my first time at Occupy LA, the first march to City Hall. That day, I was with my girlfriend and two men tried to hit on us and one even grabbed her arm with no invitation at all to do so. I knew from that first moment in the bright daylight that this was not a safe place for me to sleep.
I was so sad to hear these words come from my friend’s mouth, he said that every night you could hear someone yelling “get out! get the fuck out of my tent!” and that there was so much booze and drugs. He also said that the claim that there were many assaults was being used as a right wing “troll” tactic, but that is no excuse for hiding the problem if it exists. He also said that even at the General Assembly, where the issue of assault was discussed two nights, that while many people came to the mic to say that the issue should be discussed (for 10 minutes) that still many others came to the mic to say that the camp is about wall street and not about this issue. Additionally, my friend said that very few women were staying in the camp towards the end near the eviction.
I have also had numerous people ask me, when I bring up the issue of sexual assault at occupations, if this is above the usual number of assaults that happen. As if it mattered? That response is clearly a way of minimalizing and normalizing the issue of sexual assault instead of taking responsibility for the fact that as people who support this movement, even by writing and tweeting about it, we may be supporting the creation of a space where people are sexually assaulted. Now we have to certainly distinguish between different occupations, but if organizers are keeping this issue a secret how can people even know?
I am so incredibly disheartened by this news and I think that as participants in this movement, which I consider myself having been to many rallies and events, and as supporters, we need to understand the extent of this problem. Perhaps this is something that the #OccupyData hackers can try to find, a number of cases of sexual assault at different occupations? How can people accept this? I refuse to participate in a movement which would attempt to create intentional space to envision a new world in which sexual assault is acceptable and should be kept quiet.
To those who would say this is a peripheral issue, I absolutely disagree. I propose that the question as to whether we can create spaces which challenging existing institutions of violence, such as economic inequality, without reproducing and even worsening other institutions of violence, such as a patriarchal rape culture, must be central to the occupation movement. Whose liberation and equality is this movement about?
UPDATE: 1:49pm: I want to add, to be clear, that I am fully in support of prison abolitionist and community based strategies for responding to and preventing sexual violence which increase community autonomy and do not depend on police. That is precisely why the handling of this issue in these autonomous spaces is so important to me, because we need to develop strategies collectively that do not cause more harm. Additionally, I want to add that I am in no way trying to reproduce a gender binary, white centered, class privileged analysis, I fully acknowledge that people of all genders are affected by sexual violence and the most affected groups are transgender women of color and sex workers.