Why Occupy Should Be An Inherently Safe Space

I’ve been wrestling with the intersection of gender and the Occupy movement since I saw a picture of topless women dancing in Zuccotti Park during week two of Occupy Wall Street. The prominent display of this photograph on one of the Occupy websites angered me, as did the shallowness of equating activism to the hippie period of free love and nakedness. I see the Occupy movement as one calling for social transformation.

A declaration from Occupy Wall Street states, “In solidarity with those who are already working on the ground to make safer spaces, we call on all General Assemblies of the Occupy movement to adopt anti-harassment and anti-assault as core principles of solidarity.” I am floored that our movement had to put out this call. This is a social movement for the 99%, not a Big Ten football team. At our core, this movement is nonviolent. Harassment and assault are inherently violent actions. Why, then, must we have to double down to create safe spaces?

We must go beyond calling for policies. If we as a movement enforced nonviolence guidelines, we wouldn’t have to create safe spaces. Why does our movement allow men or women who harass or assault to feel welcome in the movement? Why aren’t they immediately asked to go do some soul searching far away from the places being occupied? Why does it come down to women calling for safe spaces instead of men stopping abusive men and demanding that men treat women with respect?

The women’s movement is currently stuck between iterations of feminism. This has left us ill prepared for a long-term form of social change like an occupation. And damn it, as a woman, I do not want to be to told that women should go to a special safe space. I demand to feel safe wherever I am occupying. I demand that men at protests know that when they are aggressive toward police their actions can affect everyone and women are more likely to get hurt or feel unsafe.

I demand that men be the first to notice when meetings are dominated by men. I demand men ask what is causing women to self-select out of participating. The Occupy movement needs to do some soul searching so we can unlearn the acts of oppression we have been conditioned to accept. We need to occupy ideas that tell oppressed people they should settle for physically separate safe spaces. We need to occupy meetings that skew male so that men and women can work together as equals. This doesn’t mean that people who are oppressed should never meet to caucus or learn from each other. Instead, this means we should expect to be safe wherever we choose to meet and we should not have to create a separate, labeled “safe space.”

The tragedy at Penn State shows us that we need a culture of loudly calling attention to and intervening against harassment and assault. If Mike McQueary had yelled at Jerry Sandusky when he physically saw Sandusky raping a young boy McQueary could have saved a child and transformed a university. Instead he passed the buck to someone who passed the buck to someone who passed the buck. For the occupation to be successful, we need to transform into a culture that never passes the buck.

So no, I don’t want an anti-harassment/assault policy. Instead, I demand a culture where people actively intervene to prevent harassment and assault. I demand a culture where people shame those who harass and assault and where people know they are not welcome if they commit acts of harassment and assault. I demand a culture where people are truly interested in battling oppression, not just throwing around the words to win friends or fit in.

I demand better from all the Occupiers. We are the 99%. We are better than simple policies against harassment and assault.

Melissa Byrne likes gardening, posting too much on Facebook, and experimenting with quinoa. She has been a long-time organizer and first noticed gender discrimination as a first grader when the boys had twice as much playground area as the girls. Right now, she is working on ending the jobs crisis and loves all things about Social Security.

Photo credit AFSC Photos/Flickr

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