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Making Safer Spaces: Occupy Wall Street Addresses Questions of Security at Zuccotti Park

The question of how safe Liberty Plaza is – and for whom – has consumed occupiers and critics for weeks.

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Even in cases where Security and Safer Spaces have turned attackers over to the police, the police can't guarantee an attacker won't return. Last Friday, a few posters with photos of a man captioned “This man has been arrested for a sexual assault” appeared in the park. “This an individual who has already been arrested,” said Sean, “but he was charged with only a minor sexual offense. He pled guilty, paid a fine and came right back to the park. We've tried to explain to the police that this person should not be here, but they say there's nothing they can do.”  

Strengthening the Movement

It is within this pressure-cooker  that  the New York Daily News reported on an apparent physical and cultural rift at Liberty, dividing dedicated protestors from people they termed “lawbreakers and lowlifes.” In particular, the homeless population at the park have been targeted for contributing to the rift, and they have been charged by press and occupiers alike for committing thefts and violence. Some occupiers say that in the last two weeks, more and more homeless people are arriving at Liberty, directed by the New York Police Department to take up residence there.  

In truth, homeless people have been part of the occupation for several weeks, and of their own accord. Genghis Khalid Muhammad (or GKM), a member of  Picture the Homeless, has been camping at Liberty for the last two weeks, organizing teach-ins on how occupiers can support the homeless, as well as workshops on how to survive living on the street. Standing by his tent during a General Assembly this week, GKM told me that the rift challenging the occupation is not about homelessness or crime, but about race and political power.

Because so many of the city's homeless population is black – according to a  Coalition for the Homeless 2011 report, 53% of the people who comprise New York's shelter population are African-American – GKM sees the blaming of the homeless for disruption and violence at the occupation as an expression of unchecked racism. “The epidemic of homelessness nationwide is because the 1% are deliberately creating this situation, “ GKM explained. “The homeless being here is actually ideal. It allows the homeless to stand in solidarity with the whole people's movement.” 

“It's really easy right now to say 'there are a few crazy people who have been sent down here to mess up the movement,'” said Maharawal, “when it's really like, 'Actually, what Safer Spaces has been saying for a month now is: we need community guidelines and accountability.' The rhetoric 'it's people from the outside coming in' who are the problem is a huge issue, and it's just a way to sidestep it.”

In the case of the October 29th attacker, members of the Security and Kitchen working groups identified him as a member of the occupation's Kitchen crew, who had been staying in the park for a few weeks. This can't be ignored, said Maharawal, as “intimate and partner violence within our own movement is an ongoing and divisive issue, and if we don't take it on, it's a huge oversight. We won't change anything fundamentally if we don't take this issue on.” 

In response to the limitations of relying on outside law enforcement, as well the concerns of Safer Spaces and others that the safety of occupiers must be ensured in order for the occupation to succeed, the Security Team is now shifting towards a prevention model, rather than a policing model. As McKeown explained their new approach, “We're trying to uproot the things that allow these behaviors to happen in the first place.”

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