"How many of you are or are close to or closely related to someone who is a survivor of sexual assault? Raise your hand." I asked the group, a sub-meeting before the big meeting. We were about 25 women of various ages and backgrounds. We all raised our hands.
"If that person reported the assault to someone in authority: a teacher, a parent, a counselor, keep your hand up." About half the hands dropped. I kept mine raised. When she was 16, my ex-spouse’s 19-year-old brother raped her. She told her parents the next morning.
"If the person who committed the assault was arrested, keep your hand up." Most of the hands went down, including mine. My ex’s father knew that her brother couldn’t continue to live at home. He ended up sending her brother to live in a family vacation house -- rent-free -- a couple of states away. Nobody went to the police.
"If that person was ever charged, keep your hand up." Now there was only one hand. My ex’s brother was accepted back into the family fold within a year when he attended the wedding of the oldest sister, the one who had been like a second mother to my ex. My ex also went to the wedding. She was 17 years old.
"If that person ever served any time, keep your hand up."
The lone hand faltered and the woman it belonged to said, “I don’t know.”
I said to the unsure woman, “I’ll take that as a ‘no’.”
The Women’s Caucus meeting was over. We all picked up our metal chairs and folded them against the wall. Many of us then made our way into bracing, January night air for the larger meeting, a General Assembly for the Occupy movement in my city.
I am not naturally a joiner or meeting-goer. When I join a group I have to fall in love a little -- not with an individual who is part of that group, but with the group itself. When I started to go to meetings at the Occupy camp in my city, just as when I started going to Queer Nation meetings 20 years before, I said to myself what I would say after a fabulous date, when the person sitting across from me says aloud things I have thought but never imagined I would hear echoed from someone else: "At fucking last."
The previous month, our local Occupy camp had been raided and shut down -- as all the rest of the Occupy encampments eventually would be. Still, a lot of us who had religiously attended meetings and planned events wanted to continue to work for economic and social justice, camp or no camp.
As a show of “solidarity” (a word that was used constantly in the Occupy movement -- people even signed their emails “in solidarity”) after the raid, a contingent of Occupy folks were waiting at the jail for the release of those who had been arrested.
One of those waiting thumbed through the sex offender registry and found a familiar face, a twice-convicted child rapist whom the state considered likely to re-offend. This person was also one of many who had lived on the campsite but who seemed otherwise pretty apolitical. The convicted rapist had, while the camp was still extant, attempted to get close to a five year-old and his unsuspecting mother.
I was late getting to the second, larger meeting and noted how scattered the women who had been at Women’s Caucus were in the big room, our voices and experiences already diluted. We were there because the mother of the five year-old had brought forth a proposal for an official policy on what to do about Level 3 sex offenders (a group that included the twice-convicted, child rapist) within our ranks.
The mother’s proposal had several incarnations, but the version that survived four grueling General Assemblies stipulated that if this person reappeared, or another Level 3 sex offender glommed onto our Occupy gatherings, we would be informed and -- this part really scared people -- might even have a meeting or two on how to respond.
I don’t know why I expected anything different (the camp had not exactly been a feminist utopia) but all the retro, woman-blaming bullshit that we see about rape in India or from would-be high school jocks in Steubenville or from Cro-Magnon Republicans in Missouri or college athletes in my own city was in full force for all of the meetings leading up to a vote on the proposal.
People worried aloud about “false accusations,” or “misunderstandings.” No one ever, or at least very rarely, mentions false charges in association with crimes like robbery, but the possibility that the victim or victims are lying is always part of the conversation about rape. Men are overwhelmingly the people who commit rape and their victims overwhelmingly women and children, but I’m sure those facts have nothing to do with how willing people (including some women) are to deny a crime even happened when a rape takes place.
That room was full of “cool” guys, progressives, radicals even, vegans who boycotted Wal-Mart and Bank of America and paid a lot of lip service to “diversity” and “feminism.” And still they saw the world as an episode of Perry Mason where men accused or convicted of crimes against women and children were innocent, and the truth would come out in the end.
That worldview completely denies the reality of most women’s lives, not just my ex’s, not just mine and not just the lives of those who had raised and then dropped their hands in that Women’s Caucus meeting. The people who got up to speak against the sex offender proposal were, without saying so directly, telling us we were liars, or suckers who had been lied to, that we imagined things, that we blamed others for our bad behavior, that women generally weren’t to be trusted.
My ex did lie to me at times during our relationship, but I know she didn’t lie about what happened with her brother, in the same way I know the color of my own eyes and the sound of my own voice.
Thanks in part to the director of an organization that “reforms” sex offender laws (who never disclosed his affiliation, a violation of General Assembly rules), the proposal was blocked from even being voted on. I walked out, and so did a lot of other people -- not just women and not just members of the Women’s Caucus. Even the live-tweeters and the official note-taker left with us.
When I looked around at the Occupiers who had gathered in a bar after the walkout (and those who had joined us there in support), I saw the backbone of my city’s movement.
Only a week before, I had spent a couple of cold, damp hours projecting a looped message (based on Occupy Wall Street’s “bat signal) of unity, peace and New Year’s greetings in full view of a location crowded with Occupiers and New Year’s Eve revelers. Apparently I should have included a frame that said, “Rape is real,” because some folks didn’t realize.
Occupys around the country also had to deal with issues of sexual assault and did nearly as bad a job as my city did. Waiting for Occupy either locally or universally to formulate and then actually enforce a policy against sexual assault and sexual harassment was a lot like Waiting for Godot. Many women -- and people who believed women -- ended up leaving.
The hordes of people who took part in Occupy marches in the fall of 2011 didn’t suddenly get their jobs back. Their crushing student debt has not been forgiven. Banks didn’t stop foreclosing on their homes. The government didn’t start prosecuting and convicting the people responsible for the financial crisis. People didn’t stop participating in Occupy marches and actions because the bad times were over.
The coordinated raids and police harassment that alternated with police inaction (whenever we reported criminal activity in the camp) did nothing to help Occupy, but antediluvian attitudes about rape (and toward women in general) within the membership were also a factor in the thinning of the great Occupy herd.
A lot of people whom I respect believed infiltrators caused Occupy’s problems. To me what happened always brought to mind that line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars. But in ourselves.”
I wasn’t angry with only the people who blocked the proposal or said stupid, misogynistic shit beforehand. I was angry with the greater number of people who hadn’t confronted the misogyny, who had let it take over. I was angry with the people who had stayed seated while so many of us had walked out.
Like all the other women in Occupy (and women in nearly every activist group), I ignored a lot of shit that happened because I felt the cause was a good one and the people around me, as imperfect as they were (I was imperfect, too) believed in and were working toward the same goals I was. Now I felt like I couldn’t trust them.
Some women who stayed with Occupy (for a limited time -- most left in the months afterward) said, “It’s a microcosm of the world at large. Of course there’s sexism.” They weren’t wrong, but those of us who were busting our butts for the movement weren’t wrong either to expect, just this once, in this “radical” setting that we wouldn’t have to beg to be believed.
My spouse didn’t tell me her story until we had been together over a year. Was she afraid I wouldn’t believe her? Before she told me, her parents had seemed like nice enough people. After she told me, I tried to follow her lead and not be overtly hostile to them or to the other members of her family who had known and not gone to the police. But I hope I did not disguise well my contempt for them.
During the year since that last General Assembly I have seen around town the people from Occupy who chose to stay while the rest of us walked out. Those people smile at me, and all I can think is, “Solidarity, my ass.”
They always seem puzzled when I don't smile back.