Occupy Baltimore: One protester's take on the sexual assault memo

October 25, 2011|By Jenny Gaeng

The Sun has invited participants in the Occupy Baltimore protest to submit occasional articles describing their experiences, ideas and goals. This one, from Baltimore resident Jenny Gaeng, provides one protester's perspective on a memo circulated at the protest that drew criticism for apparently suggesting that any allegations of sexual assault at the encampment be handled internally and that victims not call police.

Well, it’s finally happened.  Occupy Baltimore, the 100-person occupation fighting valiantly to stay above water, has made the national news. (In your face, D.C.) We're all over the blogosphere and the countrywide radar … for creating a sexual offense policy that doesn't recommend reporting assault to the police. 

The problem is, it's not true.  The policy in question was drafted by an ad hoc security committee during the beginning of our occupation in McKeldin Square, and that team has been almost entirely replaced in the weeks since. It was barely even discussed, and never ratified, by our General Assembly. In fact, it was basically forgotten until a right-wing blogger came around to dig through our trash, looking for a juicy weakness to exploit. 

(A journalist worth his salt might have reported on the sexual harassment problem at the protest, which is not hypothetical, and the way it's being carefully yet contentiously addressed.  That story could be juicy, too -- except that the blogger would have to take into consideration the fact that you can't actually brand an entire movement with one person's position.]

When the original article came to our attention, most of our media team voted to ignore it.  They called author Derek Hunter's claims a malicious misinterpretation, unworthy of our time.  The first part was true -- but when the story spreads to major news corporations, the maxim “don't feed the trolls” has to stop applying eventually.

And then there's the funny part. Mr. Hunter inadvertently stumbled across a dark undercurrent at Occupy Baltimore, and part of me is glad that he did. And just because he twisted it for his personal use doesn't mean we get to act indignant and ignore the root issue.

Occupy Baltimore does not, as the website Jezebel recently claimed, overtly "Prefer You Didn't Report Sex Crimes To The Police." But the wording of the policy is definitely an implicit discouragement, especially given the vocal anti-police mentality of our old security team. They stated that "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." 

Victims of sexual assault already face the blame and stigmatization typical of rape culture; the added pressure of "we don't want the cops at our movement!" could mean the difference between a jailed perpetrator and another assault. And maybe it makes me scum in some prison justice circles, but guess what? If people are assaulting me or my friends at Occupy Baltimore, I want them off the street. (For the record, however, nothing like that has happened here -- and given our new high-security system, it's not something I worry or even think about.)

So, while this policy wasn't an official policy, it was still a problem. Just like the blasé dismissal of media critiques as "trolling," it's indicative of the larger dynamics at play in McKeldin Square.  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.

A week ago, this really upset me. I was ready to walk out of the General Assembly; I stormed to everyone who would listen that I hadn't come here to fight the same old fight against male privilege. But something -- habit? exhaustion? demented hope? -- convinced me to linger.  I drank herbal tea with my new friends, conspired for a better world, and realized that there's no way I'm going anywhere.

This is not the movement that some of us have been waiting for. But it's powerful and pervasive, and it's the movement we've got. Whether the Occupy protests turn out to be the catalyst for systemic reform or a blip on the cultural radar, I want to say that I was there, giving it my all. 

And let's be real -- this whole mess is not about us. 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 G.A., it's not because he's a poster boy for What's Wrong With the Revolution.  He's the depressing norm.

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