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How Right-Wing Smears Against Occupy Exploit Victims of Rape in the Movement

Right-wingers are using sexual assault at Occupy to justify smears and attacks. Here are the facts.
 
 
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On the morning of October 29, a woman participating in OWS was sexually assaulted at Liberty Plaza.” This was the opening of the November 4 statement released by the NYC survivors’ support team (an offshoot of Safer Spaces OWS) responding to a sexual assault that had become a lightning rod within the movement--and for its agenda-laden critics. 

In November, those critics of Occupy included Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who used the assault to maneuver toward eviction. Now they include notorious right-wing smear operative Andrew Breitbart, who went on his already infamous “stop raping people!” and "you're filthy animals" rant directed at Occupy-affiliated progressives outside of CPAC and has caused a media firestorm as a result. He has acknowledged that his campaign is part of a smear effort to wreak vengeance on progressives who criticized racism within the Tea Party.

When Emily Crockett, the young woman who took the video, waded into the online discussion, this is what happened:

Breitbart then suggested that I was a rape denier! So did Michelle Fields of the Daily Caller.

Why? Because I dared to suggest that the blame for rape lies with the rapists, not with the places where they live and sleep, and that smearing an entire movement for the actions of a few criminals who infiltrated an encampment is disingenuous and irresponsible.

Even though the encampments and occupations are almost all gone, the subject of OWS and rape has, thanks to Breitbart's campaign, become contentious once again, tossed back and forth most prominently between Breitbart, Keith Olbermann and Markos Moulitsas. The latter two, along with Emily Crockett, are being called “rape deniers” by Breitbart and his minions. Tommy Christopher at Mediaite aptly describes how the issue of women's safety in the movement has been turned into a football between prominent men, without much consideration of what women in the movement actually had to say during that first phase of Occupy.

So let’s set the record straight. I have been reporting extensively on the role of women and the Occupy movement since October, and here’s what I’ve found:

  • First of all: assaults did occur at a number of the encampments, particularly those which grew exponentially in a short amount of time. It’s true that some of the perpetrators weren’t seasoned activists but showed up seeking shelter at the camps. However, in an “open-source movement,” it’s hard to distinguish between “true” occupiers and moochers; this was a challenge organizers faced.
  • Second of all, there was a gargantuan effort from within the movementto combat the problem, ranging from creating designated safe spaces to internal security checks to involving law enforcement when victims requested it. 
  • Thirdly, to smear the entire movement (or any group at all) based on sexual assaults misunderstands the rape epidemic in our culture. We live in a patriarchy in which no space is ever really safe from sexual assault. Many activists understand this in a way that neither law enforcement nor male pundits seem to. 

“Although we all believe we are ‘like-minded' individuals, activists must be prepared to face ignorance and rape culture, and do everything they can to combat it within the movement,” Sarah Armitt, a Brooklyn resident and OWS activist, told me a week before the Zuccotti eviction. “When activists enter a movement, they should be aware that they will still have to deal with the same issues they face externally. It's not all unicorns and rainbows. Education and awareness are key.”

Women in the movement face a double-bind: they have to contend with misogyny and assault on the ground, and outsiders like Breitbart and Bloomberg exploiting these incidents to tarnish a movement that they have more claim to then a handful of perpetrators. Some have had to step back from OWS because of these pressures, while others have re-upped their efforts at combining feminism with Occupy.

Two weeks before the eviction, NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg had directly called out sexual assaults in Zuccotti Park as a reason to distrust the Occupy movement--and even as ammunition to disband the camp. He claimed that activists were discouraging victims from reporting their assaults, hinting that there is a “no snitching” code in place because reporting rapes might hurt the movement. 

Thus, the statement from the survivors’ support team, which, in part, explained what actually happened:

“On the morning of the assault, the survivor was accompanied to the hospital by a group of women from OWS, including a social worker, to support her and act as advocates. From the moment the incident was discovered to the present time, the survivor has been surrounded by a network of allies and trained advocates offering resources to provide emotional, medical, and legal support. At every step of the process, and in line with the core principles of survivor support, her wishes as to how she wanted to proceed have been honored, and information from a range of sources has been provided to her about her options.” 

According to the statement, the survivor then asked those who accompanied her to prevent the perpetrator from harming others in the park. He was heavily monitored and at one point physically “chased away.” Furthermore, she wanted to file a police report, and she did. Several other incidents in the park have also been reported to law enforcement: early on, protesters directly handed at least one serial groper to the police.

So Bloomberg’s manipulative use of these awful incidents was based on false information. And conservative pundits like Breitbart who seize on rapes at Occupy while ignoring things like the Virginia ultrasound law, the FBI’s attempted redefinition of rape, and Republican opposition to the Violence Against Women Act, hardly show themselves to be allies. (Dana Loesch, a Breitbart associate who wrote a long post about alleged rapes and cover-ups at Occupy, is the same person who declared that women who had had sex (or been raped) had therefore pre-emptively consented to an invasive transvaginal ultrasound.)

Furthermore, the use of rapes at OWS for scapegoating by Bloomberg, Breitbart, Loesch, and others misses a crucial point. In New York, the NYPD and the city DA's office had a dismal year protecting women from sexual violence. This has been the year of the East Village “rape-cop” acquittal, the Dominique Strauss-Khan debacle, the incident in which cops warned women in Park Slope not to wear short skirts--and the NYPD’s brutal (and videotaped) treatment of Occupy protesters of both genders, including the notorious pepper-spray video. Other cities where assaults occurred had similar long-term issues with law enforcement. So it’s understandable for a woman, person of color, or anyone who has had a bad experience with law enforcement to be wary of the police.

This was a common pattern: "I was more victimized by the NYPD who handled my sexual assault case than I was by the assaulter," read the sign carried by one woman who was groped in Zuccotti early in the protests, as reported on NYMag.com. She claimed that the police treated her like she had invited the attack by joining the movement. 

In his post about the Breitbart vs. Olbermann fracas, Tommy Christopher describes the problem with the Right's new wave of attacks on sexual assault at Occupy:

The most disturbing thing, though, was the video that Dana Loesch embedded in her Olbermann takedown. The young woman in the video talks about the assaults at her camp, and explains that the Occupy organizers urge victims to alert the police, but that the police refused to take any action. She also described efforts, much like the ones we reported here, to make the encampments safe from the predators that the police ignored, to stand guard over people as they slept. These are the people that Andrew Breitbart called “filthy animals” and told to “Stop raping people!”

OWS anti-violence activists were eager to avoid those victim-blaming tropes. And so beyond responding to incidents, they initiated a broad range of important work in the encampments (including erecting military-style safe space tents) before the wave of evictions began. That anti-violence work continues today.

Just this week, the movement in New York adopted a new Community Safety Agreement that includes a provision that OWS, to the best of its power will, “remove people who have committed sexual violence or abuse and let the survivor decide the conditions for their return. We understand that they may not be able to return.”

Within Occupy, many protesters are engaged in the kinds of nuanced and proactive conversations found in women’s studies departments and feminist blogs. Still, as Melanie Gold of "Women Occupying Wall Street" told me this winter, there was a limit to their effectiveness in the encampments. “None of us are rape crisis people, we need professionals, we need the volunteer work of people who really understand this stuff and can help.” 

There's no question that the way the movement handles and deters past and future painful incidents will be a true test of its staying power for internal reasons as much as external ones. No one will join, and no one will stay if the movement is seen as fostering violent individuals. But the right-wingers who criticize the sexual assaults without understanding the movement's dynamics or addressing misogyny at large--in fact, while actively fostering misogyny--are doubly exploiting victims. 

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published at the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Jezebel and the Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @fellowette and find her work at sarahmseltzer.com.