Making Safer Spaces: Occupy Wall Street Addresses Questions of Security at Zuccotti Park
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Rumors of a possible eviction of Occupy Wall Street began late in the afternoon last Thursday, right after Mayor Bloomberg alleged that the occupiers at Liberty Plaza – formerly Zuccotti Park – had refused to report a rape at the occupation last Saturday, October 29th. But members of the Safer Spaces working group have strongly refuted Bloomberg's assertions and attempts to smear the occupation:
“[When] the survivor decided to make a report to the police and to push for a criminal investigation and prosecution... supporters from OWS accompanied her to the police station, and will continue to support her throughout the legal process... we were troubled at the time of her report that responding police officers appeared to be more concerned by her political involvement in OWS than her need for assistance after a traumatic incident of sexual violence... It is reprehensible to manipulate and capitalize on a tragedy like this to discredit a peaceful political movement.”
The question of how safe Liberty Plaza is – and for whom – has consumed occupiers and critics for weeks. With Bloomberg and his ad hoc protest committee within City Hall seizing on the issue of public safety as rationale for breaking up the protests, occupiers are working overtime to hold the park from threat of eviction, as well as to prove to the City that they are capable of keeping their own peace. That's meant addressing reports of sexual assault, along with rumors that NYPD are directing the homeless, drug users, and people struggling with mental illness to the park, and grappling with how to effectively prevent violence without relying on the kinds of policing that have been used against the occupation. Where once the occupation was thought of as its own demand, now the demands of how to keep occupiers safe dominate their days.
Responding to Crisis
Early last Tuesday evening in the medic tent, you could find about a half-dozen people – some new to the park and just wanting to help, some who have been here for weeks – calmly bustling around, laying out remedies for stress, cold, and aches, and making themselves available to anyone who just needed someone to talk to. In front of the tent, a woman who had only arrived at the occupation a few hours earlier staffed a table that served as a triage. “I'm in the process of moving,” she told me, “and I thought, I should just bring these things down here. Plus I have EMT training.” A shy-looking man in a trenchcoat and oversized backpack approached the table slowly, asking for hand sanitizer and then lingering for a moment to collect himself.
Behind the table, there was a small, more private seating area with camp chairs. An occupier came through looking for acupuncture to soothe an aching back, and was welcomed into the tent. A fresh pizza was delivered to the volunteer crew, which brought a friendly German Shepherd mix out of the tent. “That's Zephyr, our service and psychotherapy dog,” said Lucius, who was returning to Liberty after a few days at Occupy New Haven. He's a social worker who first came to the occupation about two weeks ago to provide administrative and process-oriented support, but found himself involved in the mental health team instead. “There's just an ambient stress, being part of the occupation. It became clear to me that the primary need here is to keep this community safe and secure and to assist those in need.”
Contrast that with a comment that ran in The New York Times, from occupier and security team member Hero Vincent, when asked about the increasing numbers of people coming to the park looking for free food and clothes and other necessities:
“It’s bad for most of us who came here to build a movement. We didn’t come here to start a recovery institution.”
It's no surprise that different occupiers will have a different approaches to balancing the demands of an occupation – which has become the focal point of a rapidly growing movement – with the needs of the occupiers in Liberty Plaza themselves. But what is the occupation but a very public demonstration of how to care for one another in the midst of a cluster of crises: the deliberate hacking away at our social safety net; the rise of a police surveillance state that disproportionately targets low income communities and communities of color; the privatization and corporatization of public spaces and political speech. As a result, the democratic, autonomous way in which people have come together to ensure the success of the Occupy movement, in holding Liberty Plaza, is now inextricable from the both radical and practical ways in which they care for one another.
Take the occupation's newly formed Peace Council, a collaborative effort to respond to crises. “The Peace Council came together very spontaneously,” said Lucius, to mitigate threats of harm to others, or self-harm. Where it can take a long time for the full General Assembly to come to consensus on a given matter, the Peace Council is empowered to de-escalate crises as they occur. Trainings in non-violent communication and conflict de-escalation are offered daily at the park for those who want to join the Peace Council, and the Safer Spaces Working Group conducts their own training with a focus on meeting the needs of survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence.
The Peace Council and related efforts should not be understood as a demand from occupiers to one another to “keep it in the park,” as Bloomberg and other have alleged. Instead, they are mechanisms for involving outside agencies to support the occupiers, but with intention and regard for the overall well-being of the occupation. For example, the Medical Team has decided in advance, through their own consensus, that they can call in EMS without debate if they are caring for anyone whose vital signs are dropping. “We recognize that our own resources are limited,” Lucius explained, “and while we want to work in ways that might be alternative to these outside health systems, we also don't eschew them.”
Consenting to involve city services – from 311 to 911 – speaks to one of the core concerns driving the Occupy movement: how can we rely on these institutions to help us when they can also expose us to harm? In the case of the sexual assault on October 29th, members of the Safer Spaces working group immediately provided the woman who was assaulted with 24/7 support, according to Manissa McCleave Maharawal, who has been involved with the working group for several weeks. They made every option for outside support available to the survivor – from speaking with trained counselors, to going with her to have a medical and forensic examination performed off-site, to going to the police. It was her decision to have the attacker removed from the park, and when he violated that agreement and returned, “it was the decision of the woman to call the police,” explained Manissa. “And when she came to that decision, we supported her in it.”
Once the attacker was identified by the Security Team, members held an active watch over him in the park. “We monitored him, 24/7 if possible,” said Sean McKeown, who is with the Security working group, “while Safer Spaces worked with the [survivor]. We know that dealing with the police in this regard can be as bad as the incident itself. One woman who was assaulted in the beginning of October – she told us that the police treated her like it was her fault.”
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.”
How the occupiers at Liberty Plaza work to address and end violence, said Maharawal, is as important for Occupy Wall Street's safety as it is symbolic, for setting a tone for occupations across the country. It's also central to their success. “For movements or communities like ours,” she explained, “how we keep each other safe is not just a side issue – it's a fundamental issue.”