27 Thursday Oct 2011
I can’t honestly say that I was ever that enthused about the “Occupy Movement“. After seeing a live link up from Occupy Wall Street earlier this month, I did feel a frisson of revolutionary excitement, but it faded by the time that 15th October came round. It was genuinely amazing and inspiring to hear from an OWS activist live on video link, and when asked what we could do to support them his immediate response was to bring the Occupy movement to wherever we were. But once the initial rosy glow evaporated, I can’t say it was an action which filled me with much enthusiasm.
In Glasgow there was considerable debate within the activist community in the lead up to the global day of action on 15th October. Should we be supporting the better planned Edinburgh Occupy? Should we be looking to set up our own Glasgow Occupy? Or should we be concentrating our activities elsewhere? In the end the decision was kind of made for us when people unknown to the activist community set up a facebook event which attracted considerable support. In such circumstances it would have been horribly elitist of us to stand at the edges shouting “Look, you’re doing it all wrong”, we needed to roll up our sleeves and muck in, at least to some extent.
The launch on the 15th was quite good, if a bit unfocused. Lots of people, good diversity, interesting banners, a few dogs, some leaflets, a gazebo…and that was about it. I said my hellos, shortly followed by my goodbyes and wished it well. From that point onwards I fell firmly into the “Meh, it can’t do any harm” camp – not willing to condemn it as pointless (although to be honest I didn’t actually see the point), but equally unwilling to give it active support. In the following week and a half, I’ve popped back and forward at various points, asking people’s opinions on it, chatting to bods there that I know from their activity and some that I met for the first time there, followed the tweets, the blogposts and the news articles, good and bad about the whole Occupy movement. My position remained that I didn’t really see a point to it, but it had undeniable potential and may possibly grow into something worthwhile, so didn’t write it off, but at the same time the time/benefit ration was in my opinion seriously out of kilter.
Any occupation, particularly long term ones will hit problems. The recent 7-month occupation of the Hetherington Research Club was not without its issues. There we dealt with homelessness, sexual harassment, drug taking and mental health issues on top of ongoing and constant battles over particularly sexist, but also racist and heteronormative attitudes. In total over the course of the seven months, three people were excluded from the occupation. The only formal sanction that we had within the space to deal with behavior was to determine that we couldn’t deal with it and exclude the perpetrator. Despite the existence of a safer spaces policy and later a grievance procedure being developed there was a time when the sexual harassment of female activists within the space became so extensive that some refused to return to the occupation during that period. Some never returned at all.
The Hetherington Occupation was a very different kettle of fish from the Occupy movement. With a clear set of demands, it had seized control of a well equipped secure building and as the occupation had gone beyond its first days and weeks, turned it into a social space opening it up beyond the students and recent graduates who had created it to established activists, community organisations, international activists and individuals from the community who were in the process of becoming radicalised. No occupation exists in a bubble away from wider society – sexism, racism, homelessness, migration issues, violence, drug and alcohol issues, homophobia and mental health issues are all prevalent in Scottish society – it is utopian to believe that they either would not emerge or could be “legislated” out of existence through a safer spaces policy.
The Free Hetherington, however flawed and imperfect did tackle a number of these issues head on, but it did it in a context of a consistent base of empowered and aware individuals. It was never perfect, but safety and security was taken seriously and there was a genuine attempt to overcome some of the issues which led to some of the original occupiers feeling unsafe within the space.
But back to Occupy Glasgow. As I said earlier I cannot claim to have been particularly involved with the occupation – although I kept tabs on it from afar. My initial skepticism seemed ill-founded after a very successful public assembly was held on the 23rd October with a high proportion of attendees from the general public, a number of established activists and trade unionists engaging, however problems were becoming apparent.
The start of the occupation was a Saturday, and Saturday night in George Square can be a strange place, yet despite my reservations that the occupation would be over before it started, it seemed to pass without incident. None the less given a city the size of Glasgow, the problems that it has and the lack of services to address them it was somewhat inevitable that in time, people in need of food and shelter would find their way to a central location providing both. A number of people with a range of issues found their way to the Occupy camp at the same time as the politics and experience level of the activists involved declined. The semi-cultish “anti-politics” of the Zeitgeist Movement and David Ike started appearing associated with Occupy Glasgow – something which I believe has also been found in other Occupy locations. Additionally there were rumours of neo-nazi occupier and a racist element to the camp.
By the Tuesday, I was sufficiently concerned at some of the things that I was hearing about the camp that on one of my regular visits, I drew aside an activist that I knew to express my misgivings, where he confirmed that there was a level of dodgy politics within the camp, but that their overwhelming issue was with vulnerable and aggressive people turning up. I grew even more concerned at this but he assured me that while he would take what I had raised on board it was all in hand and a “safer spaces” policy had been implemented that evening.
I first heard the news on Wednesday lunchtime. Reporting was sparse however it was apparent that a rape had occurred within the camp. Later it transpired that she had arrived at the camp and despite the Occupy Glasgow’s efforts to obtain her accommodation, she was not offered anything suitable, despite being six months pregnant. This is absolutely shocking and a disgusting reflection on Glasgow City Council. Occupy Glasgow should be commended for the efforts that they put into attempting to obtain her suitable accommodation in the face of an uncaring bureaucracy, yet must also be held responsible for what happened next. They eventually offered her and her partner a tent for the night – the most prominent tent in the entire camp, right at the front and in full view of the square. From that moment on, fully knowing her vulnerability, her pregnancy and lack of accommodation, they had full responsibility for her safety as with any other member of the camp. Her partner left shortly afterwards then, according to press reports a group of men turned up and started drinking with some of the occupiers, then entered the tent. Occupiers overheard her crying and the men emerged from the tent offering them “shots”. Where upon they called the police.
Their initial statement is below
Occupy Glasgow is shocked and deeply saddened about the alleged sexual assault on one of the individuals that have been co-inhabiting George Square with the separate Occupy Glasgow movement.
“Since October 15, Occupy Glasgow have provided free food, shelter and clothing to some individuals who had none of their own and we immensely regret any harm that may have befallen one of these individuals.
“We are fully committed to working with Strathclyde Police in their current investigation, and in continued improvements to the provision of safety to occupiers, the homeless and the general public that use George Square.
The distancing from this woman, referred to without reference to gender coupled with the implicit benevolence of the camp and lack of responsibility for what has happened is stunning without even mentioning that what later transpired to be a gang rape is referred to as an “alleged sexual assault”.
After work, I went down to Occupy Glasgow for the general assembly that night and talked to some of the participants. I was genuinely shocked by some of the attitudes that I found there. The woman was referred to in one conversation as an “undesirable element”, there were continual references to “alleged” rape/sexual assault, questions were raised about whether she had invited them into the tent and how genuine her claims were and her “vulnerability” was repeated over and over again as evidence of their lack of responsibility for her wellbeing.
The meeting which followed was little better. The overwhelming impression that I gained from that meeting was that this was a terrible tragedy which had befallen the camp due to their kindness and benevolence, but was really nothing to do with them, and that all they needed to do was to rectify the security situation.
I can’t (and don’t want to) remember all of the comments which were made and left unchallenged during that meeting, but I sat there transfixed with anger and my teeth on edge. Online the discourse was little better with a continual stream rape apologism, minimising, othering, denial and victim blaming coming from some of the Occupy Glasgow contingent.
This isn’t the first rape that has occurred in the Occupy movement, and the victim blaming that has gone on here is replicated in a rape of a 14 year old at Occupy Dallas, while Occupy Baltimore has discouraged victims of sexual offenses reporting them to the police. The leaderless nature of the Occupy Movement, and lack of accountability leads to informal hierarchies taking hold – and at the top of the hierarchies are generally the straight white males.
When sexist people are allowed to join and define a movement this drives women away; but, when women stay away, men, including sexist men, become the defining voices within the movement
At the moment there is no possible way that Occupy Glasgow can continue. This rape was fully preventable and it is a sobering reflection on the culture of the left that it happened. I am sure that there are many good and genuine people who have been involved in Occupy Glasgow, as with other Occupy camps, however the current situation is untenable. It is perhaps unsurprising that sexual abuse has occurred within a movement which started off by welcoming a rapist as a hero. While I continue to support the aims and ambitions of the Occupy Movement, its methods and culture need seriously rethought.
A woman’s place is in the movement and not just as a fucktoy for teh menz.
Cross posted to Village Aunties