The Value of a Safe Space: One WOC’s experience with harassment at Occupy Wall Street

By Ashwini Hardikar

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 “Occupy” 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 there 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 grabbing and squeezing 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 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 mine somehow.

“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 young person chanting, “Lady Liberty is a whore!” I almost walked past him, but 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. A relative, the day before, telling me that her older white male landlord told her she had a “nice butt.” Another relative experiencing dating violence from a classmate. Women, queer and trans friends recounting that particular day’s outrageous act of interpersonal violence. My own frequent reluctance to make eye contact on the street.

So maybe this weekend wasn’t that much of an anomaly afterall.

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 okay. I wondered if anyone spoke with the man later and backed me up by denouncing his actions in a forthright manner.

The Occupy movement is inspiring for the very reason that it is an umbrella for 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.  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 types 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 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.

Editor’s note:  Because of the prevalence of experiences like the ones Ashwini has described here, a group of people started the Safer Spaces Working Group at Occupy Wall Street in NYC.  Contact saferspaceows@gmail.com
for more information, and look for people wearing pink armbands in Liberty Square for support.  
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30 Responses to “The Value of a Safe Space: One WOC’s experience with harassment at Occupy Wall Street”

  1. Thanks so much for this. I’m an old, tough, white dyke who has been hanging around the fringes of OccupySF — I love ‘em, but there is no way I’d move in with all those oblivious white young men. The tolerance demonstrated by the POC and women who do awes me.

    On the other hand, I can march with “Foreclose Wall Street” as we did Wednesday. In motion, it is easier to overcome the distortions of engrained privilege.

  2. Hi Jan, thanks for your comment. I’m looking forward to today marching on Times Square and bringing OWS to the streets there. But I think as you mentioned even “in motion,” we still need to be vigilant about the dynamics present in marches as well. I’ve been in countless marches that were rife with mostly white men who sought to co-opt the action for their own purposes–trying to get folks to change tactics or destination when they were previously agreed-upon through group consensus, encouraging people to take to the street when we had already decided to be on the sidewalk (or vice versa), setting a pace that wasn’t inclusive of the differently abled or elderly, etc. I wonder what’s it like to have so much unchecked privilege that when you speak you automatically expect people to listen to you as an authority figure…

  3. I wish I had your courage. I was at Occupy Allentown last week and within the hour I had between my classes I was upset twice. One by a person holding a sign depicting the statue of liberty that read, “I ain’t saying she’s a gold digger but…” and once by a person telling a story where the metaphor, “some people just love to drop the soap and take it” came out of their mouth. As the rally was pretty small at that time on that day (About 30 people) and being very new to what was going on I felt I couldn’t say anything in response to call these protesters out. I didn’t want to divide up the movement, but I left that day feeling angry that I hadn’t said anything, and unwelcome as a feminist. I want to go back to support occupy itself, but I don’t want to inadvertently support signs or language like that — let alone feel disempowered again.

    • Wow, that is very upsetting. I completely understand that you couldn’t or didn’t want to say anything in that moment; it’s a super tough thing to do and it can open you up to defensiveness or attacks from others. I’m sure that others shared the feelings that you did from those incidents. Here in NYC there is a Safer Spaces working group; do you think it might be possible to create something like that? Or for someone to write an open letter about being mindful about language and dynamics? I hope that you do find a way to participate in a manner that feels healthy and empowering to you.

  4. Peace and Blessing Family I am truly upset at what I have read, it’s troubling to me to hear our women violated without a 2nd thought about it. Like it’s a free feel day! Where are the security people? Our women must be protected at all cost. If we can’t protect our women then it’s better that we be dead! see this is supposed to be about bringing in a new world based on the rights of the people but abuse of the women must never be tolerated! I hope someone is keeping a record of these crimes. I want it to be understood that if any cases are brought to me as the Minister of Information with Black Unity about the abuse of our women the guilty will be dealt with make no mistake about it! Word needs to go forth that if you have a problem with your hands and you can’t control yourself we will have a answer for that. So the organizers need to tighten it up. Security is a must!!!

    • Hello Maurice, thank you for your passion, but I think it’s EVERYONE’S right to protect one another. A person of any gender can be the victim of violence or sexual harassment. Security is important, but I would like to envision a type of security that is based on community accountability, not any specified “security team” that goes around policing people.

  5. The Safer Spaces email doesn’t work.

    • Sorry to hear that. If you e-mail me at ashardikar@gmail.com, I will direct you to the person who added me on the Safer Spaces Working Group google listserve, which is quite active and has some good resources. Hopefully that person can add you to the list too if you want (I just don’t want to put that person’s email in the comment directly as I haven’t asked their permission)

  6. Ashwini,
    Wow, you really went through a lot within a day– racism/misogyny concentrate. I’m so inspired by your courage–which includes having the guts to publicize this. I just read an article about a woman who was raped in Occupy Cleveland. I’m also a teacher, and have been trying to connect with others to have a feminist teach-in. I will email you separately to see if we can connect– feminist analysis (which includes analysis of race) must be at the center of Occupy Wall Street. I see this is as connected to the need to confront the issues of sex politics *on the ground* as you are doing- in terms of dealing with men’s harassment of women (for the most part)– in the encampment.
    One blog I am setting up with others is
    FeminismNowOWS.wordpress.com
    Here anyone can see the content of our flier and core of our developing analysis.. much more to come. See soon another blog called Occupy Patriarchy. thanks again.

  7. very powerfully written, and kudos to you for your courage. i do hope in exploring safe space, people with dis-abilities are included. this may require specific outreach, because very often the structure of an event, excludes us, very often we can’t even get our wheels in the door (or in the park.). pwds come from every community and are part of every struggle, we face enormous barriers (social and physical) in housing, education and employment. we experience unusual levels of domestic violence, sexual abuse, unemployment, homelessness, police brutality, incarceration and institutionalization. we are often left out of the canon of groups facing marginalization– (racism, sexism, transphobia, heterosexism…) we are the marginalized of the marginalized.

  8. ““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”

    What a horrible mean person that sounds like. It is the caring and fellow human love that is supposed to bring people together under a common cause. I wish the rest of the protestors would have taken the time to try to explain how only through love, caring, and friendship that we can overcome the fascists without becoming them.

    • This person groped me in an aggressive and very sexually-charged manner. Yes, I was “mean” to him. He was not being caring nor showing love towards me, he was trying to make me feel uncomfortable and assert his power over me.

  9. Violent misgynoism against all women is abhorrent. When Andrew Sullivan crawled inside Gov Sarah Palin’s utereus declaring her the un-Mother of her child or when Bill Maher relentessly piled on Gov Sarah Palin his infamous viciously degrogatory ‘jokes’ did any of you demand this woman receive ‘safe space’?

    I am a fifty year old woman, hear me roar-feminism loves the viciousness of progressive identity politics when used to destroy those who do not live within the collective groupthink; this is the life you created now you are living the consequences. Own it Ladies.

    • AND in 2008 when Hollywood Sandra Bernhart-on a stage in Washington DC- threatened to ‘send her black brothers to rape Palin if she set on foot inside Manhattan’ were you appalled or did you all laugh and applaud Bernhart’s ‘jokes’?

      • All misogyny, sexism, racism and homophobia must be denounced, including the ones that you mentioned. I continue to denounce Roman Polanski for raping a 13-year-old, I denounce Whoopi Goldberg for then denying that the rape was a “RAPE-rape” and I denounce Bill Clinton for taking advantage of a subordinate who likely was not able to give free consent given the imbalance in power. If anything, social conservatives encourage a worldview where the responsibility for gender-based violence falls on the victim. Many feminists and feminist movements around the world and throughout history have focused specifically on addressing a rape culture that pervades society and that ignores or condones violence, while still celebrating people for their positive and healthy sexualities and sexual practices that occur between consenting adults.

  10. thank you for sharing this! as a queer girl assisting occupy movements in oakland and sf i have experienced persistent issues with harassment. i support goals of this movement, believe it can be something transformative for our world, but at times I am frustrated to find myself among limited number of individuals advocating for safer space.

  11. Seems to me the OWS protestors are creating a more oppressive society than the one they are allegedly protesting against.

  12. I feel that – in the spirit of gender activists quieting down so that the ERA would pass, creating this sort of division is problematic because it may delegitimise the economic concerns that are more prominent, and frankly more important to the average american.

    While, of course, the problem is there and speaking up against it is important, and I’m sure correction in a conversational situation is probably meritorious if concerns are justified – frankly, I can’t see a damn thing wrong with random hugs – if you start forming groups and getting picked up by the media, anti-OWS news polemic could spin your actions in such a way to discourage feminist interest in OWS – in fact, from the link that sent me here, I think they have. Frankly, some of your commenters seem to be taking this in a partisan fashion which won’t help the OWS movement’s economic goals.

    For these reasons, I really don’t support your approach to the problem. However, if you are certain you can actually encourage interest in the movement, rather than discourage it, please, please remain cognizant of the possible reverberations of your actions.

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