The Occupy movement is an incredible opportunity to be a part of something bigger that confronts systemic gender inequality, but it can also be a space in which to examine and challenge the interpersonal inequalities that we see play out in our own space and relationships. We’ve come to Occupy to create a movement of change, but what of our physical and interacting space in which we coexist as we work to affect the changes we seek? We’re all here because we’re angry, not only about the economic exploitation of the 99% to benefit the wealthiest 1%, but in that we have no recourse for the injustices we see. In a country where money buys votes and a voice, Occupy is the response, the attempt at actually creating the democracy we were all told we live under. In this space, no amount of money or status can put one above the others. Everyone is heard.
But while this ideal has been put into action through alternative models of governance and decision-making, Occupy communities are hardly the Utopian space that we envision them to be. We all come in with years of conditioning that prepare us to coexist in a very individualistic world in which certain people are privileged based on race, gender, nationality, etc., and it takes acknowledgment and a lot of hard work to unpack that privilege and to unlearn the hard lessons of a capitalist, imperialist nation.
It is extremely distressing that we’re seeing incidences of rape and sexual assault occur at Occupy camps and that, as a result, many women of Occupy feel unsafe in their tents at night. Sexual harassment and the objectification of women is in full force outside of Occupy and has not ended with the movement, as we so discouragingly saw with the “Hot Chicks of OWS” tumblr. Some at Occupy have sought to ignore these issues, calling them divisive for the movement. The objectification inherent in this website and in the sexual harassment of women at Occupy promotes a view of women that does not take female activists’ voices seriously, and that perpetuates a view of women as less than human, which we then see manifest in incidences of sexual assault.
Many involved in Occupy seek to utilize the space of mass cooperation at Occupy camps to educate one another about rape culture and work to create alternatives and a community free of violence. Occupys around the nation are working to make their spaces safer. Rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and use of violent language that dehumanizes women are absolutely unacceptable and it is the hope of myself and many others that Occupy make it a priority to work to stop this from happening within our activist communities. But the women’s caucus of Occupy Philadelphia make an important point in a statement released Sunday following an attempted rape occurring in their camp, saying:
The recent demonizing and vilifying of the Occupy movement in the media is a scape-goating of the problems and violence that plague our communities and cities daily. Rape happens every day, murder happens every day and suicide happens every day. These tragedies are not symptoms or creations of the Occupy Movement, nor are they exclusive to the Occupy Movement; they are realities of our society and of our everyday lives. It is now more than ever that support is needed for the occupy movement, and the alternative responses to behavior fueled by systemic oppression.
These alternatives include enacting safe space tents, de-escalation and security teams to keep watch over each other during the night, restorative justice groups and safe space teams that respond to incidents like these.
Alternative models are not specific to responses to violence; they are also being set up as alternatives to our current decision-making system. Nearly all Occupy groups use the consensus model in their general assemblies to emphasize true democracy through collective decision-making. This decision-making process has allowed for often marginalized voices to be heard in new ways. Through the “progressive stack”, people are called on to speak during general assemblies, and conscious efforts are made to ensure that voices of non-dominant groups, such as women and people of color, are heard.
While the organization is set up to make sure that everyone has a voice, it’s clear that this isn’t enough and we’ve got a lot of challenges ahead of us. At times, my cynicism makes me want to give up; not on Occupy, but on the men who complain that they’re victims of reverse sexism and racism, who assume that women at Occupy are there for their own pursuit, who call women at Occupy “bitches” and “sluts” and make jokes about rape. Even something so simple as being told I was “cute” within my first hour of being at Occupy was enough to make my initial exhilaration of being in such a progressive space disappear into a dread that all female-bodied people are accustomed to feeling at one time or another; the feeling that you have suddenly been reduced to an object, and that no one really takes you seriously. This happens here, just as it does in the subway, on the street, at the store. The difference is that here, there’s an impetus for change. People listen and want to be better. There is potential here, because the overarching theme is cooperation and collective change. While there are certainly men who will continue to treat other women poorly, there are even more men and women that stand as your allies.
There is potential here to reach men and women who have never thought to confront rape culture, and who have never before examined their privilege or lack thereof. Teach-ins and working groups have been and continue to be established at Occupys around the country to break down the legacies of racism and sexism and maintain a dialogue of how to eradicate inequality in our own space. We have the momentum of a movement behind us. We saw it in Tahrir Square and we see it here. While we’re in the streets demanding change, why not challenge and work to radically transform the way we relate to one another? I believe in the power of the people at Occupy to work hard to confront the violent aspects of racial and gender inequality. And as energetic feminists and activists, we should jump right in..
What have been your experiences as feminist activists at Occupy?
Slider Image from Flickr user ctrouper under Creative Commons 2.0