Event raises awareness about sexism, homophobia within Occupy protests
on January 9, 2012
When Occupy Wall Street first started in September, Wil Cook, an Oakland woman, was eager to join.
After health issues prompted her to pull out of school for the semester, she quit her job and flew to New York to join hundreds at the Liberty Plaza camp. But she soon realized that men in the group would tell her how to do things. On one occasion, she said, a man grabbed a broom out of her hands as she was cleaning and told her to get another.
“I thought it was me at first,” Cook recalled, “but then I talked to other women in the camp who said it happened to them too.”
As with Liberty Plaza, at Oscar Grant Plaza (Occupy Oakland’s name for Frank Ogawa Plaza), some women and queer-identified occupiers said they experienced sexism or were the target of slurs by fellow campers when the vast tent city took over the plaza. On Sunday, Occupy Oakland’s feminist and queer bloc hosted an “Occupy Patriarchy” event that drew at least 200 people over the course of the day at the lot at 19th Street and Telegraph Avenue.
Throughout the day, several canopies hosted a number of workshops covering such topics as conflict resolution, the politics of sexual and intimate violence, empowering women and ensuring political and social equality. Artists played guitar and spoke poetry on the open-mic stage. Many families brought their children, who kicked soccer balls around and played with a large parachute.
Some of the harassment experienced at the Oakland camp, said Lauren Smith, an Occupy Patriarchy organizer, came in the form of interruptions at the general assemblies, where men shouted down women as they spoke. On one occasion, she continued, harassment by one male was so great that he had to be physically removed from the area. Meanwhile people around them watched and did nothing.
“We [women] took care of it ourselves. I think people don’t know what to do,” in those situations, Smith said. “It’s clear we need to organize a space for us that is safe.”
Yosef Tinkelman, who recited poetry during the event, said that a committee was formed to address issues that included sexism, homophobia and racism following a number of incidents at the Occupy Oakland camp during which people were harassed or threatened, and in response to a feeling among some in the queer community that they were being alienated.
Tinkelman, who identifies as androgynous, said he’d had people heckle him when he dressed in drag at the Occupy Oakland camp.
“Yeah, I’ve had a lot of unsavory comments, which I’m used to,” he said of his experiences at the camp. “Transphobia, both within the gay and straight community, is a huge issue.”
Having safe spaces for parents to bring children is also important to the Occupy protesters, said Tess Unger, one of four women who started the children’s village at the Oakland camp. The village was a place where parents could safely leave their children in order to participate in the general assemblies.
“We wanted families to feel like the movement was accessible to them,” she said, adding that the village was safe entry point for people who were new to the camp, particularly women.
But protesters like Unger are concerned that Occupy Oakland has not necessarily been a safe place for children. During the first police raid on the Occupy Oakland camp on October 25, police officers fired tear gas into the camp after giving the protesters dispersal orders. Although the tear gas was not used until after campers were warned to leave, and many had voluntarily departed, Unger said she is concerned that children still could have been present. (Although Oakland North reported that there were children living in the camp in the days before the raid, we do not have any confirmed reports that children were still in the camp at the time the tear gas was used.)
“I used to think the police would respect the safety of children,” said Unger. “I don’t think so anymore.”
Cook, who returned to Oakland after a month at Liberty Plaza, said she had concerns about the confrontations in downtown Oakland between protesters and police that unfolded later that evening after a march, when police once again deployed tear gas after giving protesters orders to disperse. She said the use of tear gas and less-than-lethal projectiles “alienated a lot of parents” from the protest.
The Occupy protests have placed a renewed spotlight on issues of inequality, and started a national conversation about how to change the status quo. Recently, the use of the word “occupy” itself to define the protest has initiated conversation about the European settlement of America, which displaced indigenous peoples through disease and relocation. There is currently a campaign to change the name Occupy Oakland to “Decolonize Oakland.”
Sunday’s event was intended to further this conversation by are educating people about words or behavior that makes women, transgender and queer people uncomfortable or contribute to their unequal treatment. “People are still used to placing other people in boxes,” Tinkelman said. “I like to think outside the box.”
Many people have been waiting for something like Occupy, an outpouring of voices demanding change, said many of the participants in Sunday’s event. But it has to include everyone, Cook said. “I want to see a revolution that happens that includes everyone and is safe for everybody,” she said.
You can see Oakland North’s complete coverage of Occupy Oakland here.
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