The Value of a Safe Space: One WOC’s experience with harassment at Occupy Wall Street
Is Occupy Wall Street an inclusive movement? I’ve discussed this in-depth with so many of my friends, colleagues and comrades over the past weeks. It seemed to me that while almost everyone felt inspired by the movement, many were reluctant to directly participate. I read notes from meetings and blog posts where people discussed the unsettling elements of racism, sexism and queer/transphobia that seemed to be present in so many of these spaces across the country.
And at Occupy Wall Street on Indigenous People’s Resistance Day, I unfortunately came face to face with some of these elements myself. Walking with my friend M, we greeted old friends, took pictures of signs, and discussed (unsuccessfully) what kind of clever slogan we could come up with as teachers. We circled back around to the entrance, and I stood trying to read a sign someone had posted about “ground rules” for the space. I felt an arm circle me tightly around the waist, and then a hand grabbed and squeezed my hip roughly. I quickly disentangled myself, turned, and saw a white man, probably in his late 30s, looking very pleased with himself. And I went off.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing? You can’t just touch people without their permission. It’s not ok to be in someone’s personal space if you haven’t gotten their consent. I have no idea who you are, you can’t just touch me!” I was yelling, getting louder and louder. I wondered if anyone was listening.
“I was just giving you a hug. I’m not allowed to give people hugs?”
I couldn’t believe he was arguing with me. My heart was racing. All those other times that I had been harassed or groped, and it happened so quickly, or by a faceless assailant, or when I just felt paralyzed, flashed through my mind. All those times that I didn’t feel like I had a voice. This time, I had found
“No, you are not allowed to touch people if they haven’t asked you to. You’re giving this movement a bad name right now because you are going around and violating others’ space, and it makes people feel unsafe.” My voice sounded clear and very strong, even though I was shaking. Wow, I thought to myself, I know exactly what to say for once!
The man continued to argue with me. I finally told him, “I don’t want to discuss this anymore. You think about it.” He asked me one last time if he could give me a hug. “NO!” I screamed, and walked away.
As we walked, I told M I felt a bit shaken up, but that at the same time I felt empowered, and that I hoped that others had witnessed what had happened and how I responded. “You were on a roll!” M said. She gave me a (MOST WELCOME) hug and told me how proud she was of me. I hoped that my pulse would slow shortly. I thought about how ironic it was that a huge part of why I felt shaken was that I had spoken out, that I had been the center of attention loudly calling someone out. Sometimes speaking out, and not ignoring it, is the most difficult part.
We walked on further. We came across a youth chanting, “Lady Liberty is a whore!” I almost walked past, then I stopped. “What do you think calling someone a whore is accomplishing?” The youth was defensive and didn’t really take my question seriously, but the man standing next to him thanked me for asking him that. Less than 10 minutes and two misogynistic incidents in a row.
I said to M, “Wow, we’ve had a lot of crazy things said to recently, huh?” Yes, we had. The night before, we heard a group of youth yell “You fucking gook” while telling a story as we were exiting the subway. As we walked up the subway exit stairs, two men leered, “Look at this thick ass Asian girl.” Less than 24 hours, and at least 4 incidents of sexism, racism and misogyny towards women of color directed towards me and my friend.
More stories began running through my mind from the not-so-distant past. My sister, the day before, telling me that her older white male landlord told her she had a “nice butt.” A relative experiencing dating violence with a classmate. Women, queer and trans friends recounting that particular day’s outrageous act of interpersonal violence. My own reluctance often to make eye contact on the street.
So maybe today wasn’t that much of an anomaly after all.
And here I was, at Occupy Wall Street, a space where people were supposedly confronting and resoundingly denouncing oppression of all kinds. I wondered why no one in the crowd of people who had seen what had happened besides M came over to me and asked me if I was ok. I wondered if anyone spoke with the man later and backed me up, denouncing his actions in a forthright manner.
The Occupy movement(s) are inspiring for the very reason that they are umbrella movements of people who believe in envisioning and constructing a different kind of world, one where justice is pursued through radically caring means. And in this world, all kinds of violence must never be excused. Within the spaces we are “occupying” at the moment, we need to be conscious of the traumas so many of us have experienced in our lives, and our interactions with one another must come from a place of understanding that as we build community with one another we cannot make assumptions about what type of interactions will be welcome or wanted. For women and queer and trans people of color especially, interpersonal violence has historically been intertwined with institutional-level violence, and the way in which we move through the world is informed by these histories and experiences. In order for the Occupy movements to be truly inclusive, they must also be safe. This will not be an easy process, but it’s one that everyone can be a part of. Call out the violence, the harassment, the racist and queer/transphobic comments, the exclusion of people of color, queer and trans folks, and women from decision-making. Check in with those you witness being harassed, and see what kind of support they may want from you. Discuss problematic racial and gender dynamics in the space without being defensive.
And then, let’s check ourselves in the process too.