Disturbances at Liberty Park and in Occupy meetings spoke to some of the difficulties that radically inclusive movements face. By insisting on non-coercive, accessible spaces and meetings, Occupy opened itself up to problems that it was ultimately unable to solve. I bring up the issue of safety in a chapter on access because unsafe environments drive people away and keep people from joining. One way for a slice of the movement (e.g. men) to control the movement’s future is to intimidate another group (e.g. women) into departing. Liberty Park had an overrepresentation of white males partly because white males felt safer and more secure there. Less likely to fall victim to sexual predators, verbal abuse, and police brutality, white heterosexual men felt the freedom to “step up.” Disproportionately harassed by their fellow occupiers, provacateurs, and/or the police, marginalized people felt compelled to “step back,” or step away from the movement altogether.
The mayhem at the park was exaggerated in the media, and especially by the New York Post, but it is also true that the park was not always a safe place. In response to the safety problems, security teams, neighborhood watch committees and deescalation teams emerged, training themselves and other in how to deal with developing drama in ways that are consistent with their values.
The breakdowns in solidarity were unhealthy for individuals in the movement and the movement as a whole. Additionally, bouts of mayhem fed into a larger narrative about Occupy: that it had turned into a hedonistic party fueled by drugs, sex, and crime. Geraldo Rivera helped push this along on Fox News when he labeled Occupy as a “pleasure party.” And the New York Post, openly committed to defeating Occupy, begged Mayor Bloomberg on the front page to restore dignity to New York City by evicting the depraved occupiers. When Bloomberg complied not long after, the Post declared victory.
Mayhem in the Park
There were several groups at Liberty Park who were devoted to making the space safer: the Security Working Group, Community Alliance, Community Watch Group, Female Bouncers Initiative, and the Safer Spaces Working Group. Despite their hard work and careful strategizing, none of these units were ultimately able to solve the problem of safety in the park. The park attracted people who were unwilling or unable to comply with the Good Neighbor Policy, which was consensed upon by the General Assembly on October 13th. The Good Neighbor Policy states that OWS has “Zero tolerance for violence or verbal abuse towards anyone,” and “Zero tolerance for abuse of personal or public property.” Perhaps it was because I usually visited the park in the morning but I rarely saw open drug use in the park, although I did encounter a drunk fellow one morning. He had a barely concealed Coors Light in his hand and, in our conversation, he declared his lack of interest in anything Occupy had planned for the future.
On day 30 of the occupation, the Safer Spaces WG came to the GA to solicit ideas about how to make the park a safer space. In the spirit of horizontalism, they asked for breakout groups to generate ideas surrounding these three questions: “What does safety mean to you?” “What are safety concerns for you and others?” “What agreements can we make to ensure safety?”
On day 38, a participant at the GA noted that theft, drug use, and assault were becoming bigger problems in the park and threatened the movement. Another participant proposed community watch training for all residents of the park so they could perform the watch collectively. Just as the Outreach Working Group emphasized that “everyone is outreach,” the Community Watch Working Group felt that everyone should take responsibility for watching out for the community.
By day 54, things had only gotten worse. The General Assembly heard reports from _____ saying that they still had not charted a way forward while dealing appropriately with “the volatility that comes with openness.”
Since they occupied a public space, movement participants couldn’t prevent anyone from entering the park and using it in whatever manner they chose. Creating barriers to entry is one way to privatize public places, and that is exactly what Occupy was protesting against. In order to keep faithful to their ideals, Liberty Park needed to remain open to all, even those who had been disruptive in the past.
For example, on the morning of November 7th, a Liberty Park resident asked for a mike check, so that he could tell everyone about a person who had been coming to the park almost every day to pick fights with occupants. The speaker wanted everyone to rally against the provacateur. He felt that a fight was inevitable and an occupier would end up in jail. Frustrated by the tepid response he got from his fellow residents, he finished by asking, “Is this a social movement or what?”
I was on the other side of the park at the time and would not have been able to hear the speaker without the human mic. The people surrounding me continued eating their breakfasts instead of launching into action. One guy muttered to no one in particular, “We’re in a public park. There’s nothing illegal about being a jerk.”
By November, provacateurs were being met with new strategies, including the “swarm” technique, in which disruptive people are surrounded by a large group of people who use the persuasive power of crowding to steer the disruptor away from the park. I watched one man receive this treatment in early November. The 20-something guy was standing on the edge of the park with barely any clothes on, seemingly very high and making sexual gestures towards the drummers. It was a weekend with many tourists streaming by on the street, and many of the tourists were children. A few occupiers became very indignant. “This guy is exposing himself to kids, practically! We got to do something!” Moments later, the half-naked man had been surrounded by a group of occupiers and successfully directed away from the park. They encircle him and guided him elsewhere using the persuasive power of crowding. Mayor Bloomberg publicly criticized this technique, calling it irresponsible and remarking that it merely redirected troublemakers elsewhere.
Even when acts of violence took place, it was difficult to get those people banned. In one case, there was video footage of a young, black woman raising a chair over her head and attempting to smash another occupier in the head. Soon after, an official proposal came to the General Assembly, looking to ban the chair-wielding occupier from participation in the movement. The proposal gained a lot of support, but still, some Occupy participants put blocks up against the banning. One person felt that not enough had been done to “engage and connect.” Another person commented that her violence “is inevitable in a movement dominated by young white men.” Others insisted that any banning had to be accompanied by a “path back” that would allow the banned person to reenter the movement after having taken certain steps. And the Kitchen made clear that they could never be compelled to deny someone from the food they prepared, regardless of whether that person had been banned or not.
The Community Alliance Working Group
On day 14, the security working group clarified their role to the General Assembly. They said aren’t about policing people’s behaviors, only about protecting equipment.Yet, on some occasions, members of the security team felt compelled to forcefully police people’s behavior. On day 31, for example, a member of the security working group announced they he had just confiscated a large amount of alcohol, saying that alcohol stockpiles could get Occupy removed from park.
These struggles over their identity and their role and their outcomes required the Security Working Group to continually revise their operations. On day 54, the Security Working Group asked to be referred to as Community Alliance from then on, because “Security” evoked associations they were not interested in evoking and that is why they changed their name to “Community Alliance.”
The Security Working Group eventually began training in “de-escalation,” their preferred method for dealing with developing drama in a non-violent way. Early on in the occupation, people felt uncomfortable with the security teams’ aggressive techniques. Some residents in the park, including a few women who had worked as bouncers, grew frustrated that their peacemaking skills were not being drawn on by the movement. One morning I overheard a female bouncer explaining her concerns about security in the park. She said,
I’m sick of these aggro dudes wandering the park, calling themselves ‘security,’ while actually making the place less secure. If they talked to the people here who have worked as bouncers, we could train them in de-escalation. But they haven’t talked to us. So we’re creating a new group called “FBI: Female Bouncers Initiative.”
F.B.I. never emerged as a visible group in the park, but their pressure contributed to changes in the Security Working Group’s name and methods. On day 54, they announced their new name, “Community Alliance,” to the GA and emphasized that they wanted to provide safety for the community without compromising the ideals of the movement.
Techniques for dealing non-violently with disruptions
Occupy participants aspired to develop non-violent methods for dealing with people’s mistakes and disruptions. The Safer Spaces Working Group, for example, employed non-violent rhetoric even when discussing catcalls that women in the park were getting from fellow occupiers. These catcalls were specifically referred to as “oppressive comments,” and it was recognized that the comments made the space less accessible for women. Yet, requests from Safer Spaces to stop the catcalls were always prefaces with generous interpretations about where behavior stems from: “We understand that there are a lot of beautiful people here in the park,” they’d say, before explaining how catcalls make many female residents feel less safe and less valued.
On day 39, the community watch working group explained how they try to deal with troublesome behavior like theft, assault, and drug use. Their method is to engage and connect with the people who are participating in that behavior. In my time at the park, I noticed that one of the ways that the community watch group “engaged and connected” with drug abusers was through “substance abuse teach-ins.” They would much rather help someone get off drugs and keep them in the movement than exclude them because they are unable to function in the park and make it unsafe for others. On the sixth of November, I noticed signs around the park offering “substance abuse teach-ins.”
Women-only sleeping areas
Women who felt unsafe in the park, especially at night, opened up a women’s only sleeping area, which they felt was necessary to accomodate women who felt uncomfortable waking up next to men they did not know.
Mayhem in the General Assembly and Spokescouncil
Just as the park itself strove to make the park itself as accessible as possible, Occupy’s decision-making bodies strove for maximum inclusivity as well. This ideal was jeopardized sometimes when the meetings would devolve into shouting matches and when the facilitation team could not return the group to the agreed upon process. On one occasion, the facilitation team itself stepped away from a General Assembly because shouting matches had overtaken the assembly. Unable to bring people back on process, they walked away, and the minutes taker stopped recording the minutes.
The Operational Spokescouncil had the same problems, only more often. On day 56, an operational spokescouncil meeting devolved into chaos, leading many working groups to conclude that the Spokescouncil had lost its legitimacy. After reaching this conclusion, many walked away, with the OWS en Espanol Working Group remarking to the larger group that they are leaving because the SC was no longer legitimate in that moment.
There were many reasons for the failure of the failure of the Spokescouncil, but one major problem was that people who were opposed to the existence of that decision-making body were free to participate in the meeting and free to grind the proceedings to a halt. All the people who were eager to participate in the Spokescouncil were at the mercy of those who wanted to destroy it. In their refusal to give up on provacateurs, insisting they could be flipped, the movement managed to drive many others away.