The Complicated Sexual Politics Of Occupy Protests

Last week, Occupy Baltimore drew fire for a sexual assault policy that seemed to discourage reporting crimes to the police. Now they've revised the policy — and their efforts are a microcosm of gender issues in the movement as a whole.

The prior "security statement" drew criticism for the line "though we do not encourage the involvement of the police in our community, the survivor has every right, and the support of Occupy Baltimore, to report the abuse to the appropriate authorities," as well as for offering counseling to abusers and failing to list any professional resources for victims of sexual assault. Now the Occupy Baltimore General Assembly has released an official response to that statement. It says "the document in question was written, and distributed in leaflet form, by a now-replaced security team. It was never approved by the General Assembly or endorsed by #occupybaltimore." It also includes a new sexual offense policy, which states, in part,

Instances of sexual abuse and assault will be handled according to the expressed desires of the victim. The Security and Medical teams are equipped with a list of resources, including contact information for the police, hospitals, sexual assault hotlines, and women's shelters. In these instances, #occupybaltimore welcomes the involvement of the Baltimore City Police and encourages victims to report crimes. We also recognize that the U.S. Justice System is flawed, especially when it comes to cases of sexual assault. If for any reason the victim feels uncomfortable with police involvement, their wishes will be respected.

Anyone reporting sexual assault, with or without police involvement, will have the support of the #occupybaltimore community. This includes but is not limited to medical assistance, transportation, protection, investigation, mediation and conflict resolution, and emotional support and counseling.

The policy also lists contact info for the aforementioned resources. The policy directly remedies many of the issues we and other media outlets pointed out last week. It's unclear whether it will address some of protesters' more general concerns. Jenny Gaeng, media contact for the revised policy, listed some of these in an editorial at 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.

And in an email to us, another Occupy Baltimore protester wrote,

I had a really bad experience after my first week, in which I tried to stop police/OB violence and the angry crowd (mostly young white men) turned on me. It was not sexual in nature but was out of the "calling the police is a violent act" sentiment. As a rape survivor I have PTSD. This action kicked that into gear. [...] I very much want the OB movement to make a difference in this city and the nation but the physical space is not very safe — especially for women.

These issues aren't unique to Occupy Baltimore. In an excellent piece for Global Comment, Sady Doyle writes that the "leaderless" nature of Occupy protests can put people in danger, especially if they're already members of marginalized groups. A case study:

[A]t Occupy Cleveland, one 19-year-old girl alleged that she was raped. She said that she'd been assigned to share a tent with a man who raped her, named Leland; organizers denied any potential responsibility, pointing to the "leaderless" nature of the movement. "Your assignment would be your own choice of what you want to do," said organizer Rebecca Walker. Whether a girl that young — a girl who attends a school for students with ADD and autism, and may not process social interactions in a neurotypical way — would assume "leaderlessness" to work like this, or whether she might not naturally interpret an organizer's saying "why don't you share a tent with Leland" as an "assignment" given how power works elsewhere, is not addressed. In New York, protesters have worked with police to kick out men who groped women. But the boundaries of anarchy and leaderlessness, as they concern sexual assault, continue to trouble many women who are involved — or who would like to be involved — with Occupy.

While leaderlessness was supposed to ensure that "everyone had a voice," Doyle writes that "'everyone' tended to sound like the people who were already in charge — white people, men, straight people." It's also true that people who aren't in charge can be asked to subsume their interests to those of the group as a whole — or even demonized if they speak up in ways perceived to discredit the group. That happened to the Cleveland victim when one protester (prominently featured on the local news) accused her of being a plant. It also happened when Swedish women accused Julian Assange (who, as Doyle notes, spoke at Occupy LSW) of rape. In both cases, the assumption has been that any allegation of inappropriate behavior forever tarnishes a radical movement, and thus should be avoided at all costs. Gaeng, though, offers an alternate view:

As much as most of us wish it wasn't so, Occupy Baltimore is a microcosm of the social strata that comprise our messed-up society. If someone here touches me inappropriately or doesn't care about the lack of female voices at the [General Assembly], it's not because he's a poster boy for What's Wrong With the Revolution. He's the depressing norm.

Sexual abuse or harassment at Occupy protests don't mean the protests are worthless, anymore than Julian Assange's sexual history said anything about WikiLeaks. As Gaeng says, it's depressing but true that people commit sex crimes outside the context of protests all the time. Radical movements won't set themselves apart by keeping those crimes under wraps — sadly, that's what regular society does all too often. Instead, they can become models of prevention, protection, and awareness. Writes Gaeng,

I'm going to be fighting rape culture and other forms of oppression for the rest of my life — that's a given. But the difference is that at Occupy Baltimore, I get to stand up and speak out about it. And because we're building a community of respect, because we're modeling direct democracy and practicing free speech, everybody has to listen.

Rather than asking marginalized people to shut up, Occupy should be encouraging them to talk. Occupy Baltimore's revised policy is a step in that direction.

Occupy Baltimore: One Protester's Take On The Sexual Assault Memo [Baltimore Sun]
How Occupy's (Non) Power Structure Enables Sexism [Global Comment]