Safer Spaces in the Occupy Together movement

article by Ian Anderson and Stacey Nylund, originally published in Issue 5 of the Occupied Dominion Post.

How can we be together in a unity that is not simplistic, that is not oppressive, that is rather complex and emancipatory?

-Angela Davis, Occupy Wall Street

By occupying spaces in the middle of major cities, we all take risks. We’ve seen the women maced on Wall Street, the mounted division charging in on Occupy Melbourne; we’re aware that eviction is a possibility, relieved when it’s averted; these are necessary risks to make our statement.

But there are other risks associated with this movement, internal rather than external threats. Reports of rape in Cleveland and Glasgow circulate online. Occupiers in Wellington debate how to react to the presence of fascists in the city, and potentially at the occupation itself. It’s become increasingly obvious that by including those who behave oppressively, we automatically exclude others.

This de facto exclusion, particularly of women and those on the trans* spectrum, limits the development of Occupy politics. A recent post on the Occupy Patriarchy blog highlighted the familiar frustration of wanting to deal with the ‘big issues,’ but having to deal with safety concerns in order to participate at all:

If I had my druthers, I would be writing about the importance of feminist principles in the developing Occupy movement, about how comprehensively addressing economic injustice necessitates addressing issues like unequal pay, childcare access, unpaid work, etc… But what has become all too clear from a number of reports since the Occupy movement began and from the many people we have heard from since starting Occupy Patriarchy last week is that before we can address those issues, we need to feel that we can safely participate in Occupy.

This follows from wider power structures within the 99%, requiring a conscious approach. Those belonging to one or more marginalised groups are more likely to experience violence, limiting their ability to participate in public life. To counter this many organisations take their cue from the women’s liberation movement, by developing “safer spaces” policies which make participation less of a danger – through consciousness-raising workshops, policies on dealing with harrassment (sexual or otherwise), or in the last event, exclusion of those behaving oppressively; this exclusion is not necessarily an attack on those excluded. Safer spaces are difficult to establish and easy to undermine.

The Occupy movement has specific aspects that make safer spaces particularly hard to establish. The allegiance with the dispossessed, freely available food and shelter, and inclusive fluctuating membership structure is a double-edged sword; in reality, many Occupations attract problems beyond their capacity to deal with.

One commentator has referred to “the other 1% – the most marginalised, the most affected and the most excluded.” Another stated of Occupy Wall Street, “You wouldn’t see somebody at the General Assembly smoking a joint. But at the back they’re smoking crystal meth.” Occupiers in Adelaide report a homeless man wandering the camp-ground with a taser. The reality is that we can’t be too utopian about ‘building a new society in the shell of the old.’ While it is important to support people, sometimes that means recognising that we don’t have the resources, or knowledge, to provide specialised assistance – in fact, it’s irresponsible to pretend we can.

It’s also important to recognise that anti-social behaviour runs throughout every class, that those with social power have greater room to behave destructively. Some insist that bringing up issues of safety or oppression is divisive, that the 99% is homogeneous and horizontal, when in reality the hierarchies of class society go well beyond the divide between the richest 1% and “the rest.”

As long-time communist Angela Davis observed in a speech at Occupy Wall Street, false unity can be deeply oppressive and simplistic. To really liberate ourselves as members of the 99%, we have to recognise that each of us is coming from different experiences of oppression; we have to create a space to articulate complex and challenging ideas. In the long term this complexity will help, not hinder the movement.

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