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MONTREAL—On the night of October 19, something happened at Occupy Montreal that would substantially change the mood of the camp.
Exactly what occurred is unclear. Some claim there was an attempted rape. Others shrug off the incident as nothing more than an invasion of a young woman’s personal space by an intoxicated man.
Incidents of sexual assault and rape have been reported in New York, Cleveland, Dallas, Baltimore, Glasgow...sadly, the list goes on. It is an unfortunate reminder that even movements seeking a more just world, free from oppressive systems such as capitalism, are not inherently free from a culture of rape and violence against women and other marginalized populations, such as trans- people and those with disabilities.
“It has nothing to do with Occupy. It has everything to do with the problems in the world that Occupy is trying to eradicate,” says Laura Boyd-Clowes, a philosophy student at Concordia University. Boyd-Clowes has been actively organizing with the Occupy Montreal movement since it began.
“Let's be clear. This is something that happens in society regularly and the Occupy movement is like a little microcosm for society,” she says.
According to the Violence Against Women Survey, published in 1993, 39 per cent of Canadian adult women reported having experienced at least one incident of sexual assault since the age of 16. This comprehensive study on gender-based violence also found that only six per cent of sexual assaults were reported to police.
It should not be seen as exceptional that sexual assault is being reported at Occupy sites. Rather, it seems to reflect a society rife with problems, one that so often silences, excuses or condones sexual assault.
Lucinda Marshall is the President of the Feminist Peace Network. Noticing the prevalence of gender-based oppressions in the Occupy movement, she created a group called Occupy Patriarchy. Based in Washington, DC, Marshall is hopeful that Occupy Patriarchy will spread to other sites and help to create spaces that explicitly address gender-based violence and oppression.
“The bottom line is that you cannot talk about economic justice unless you are going to talk about things like the wage gap, about childcare policies, maternity leave, all of those things that have a huge economic impact on women,” she says. “Those things need to be a part of the conversation if we're going to have real change that [would] impact 99 per cent of us, not just the male percentage of us.”
At Occupy Montreal, movement to address gender-based inequalities has been slow. Discussion of creating safer spaces and an anti-patriarchy committee has circulated in camp. However, after the disputed incident of October 19, no explicit gender-based policies were discussed at the General Assembly, and no statements have been released against sexual assault.
While there has been little concrete action to challenge issues of gender-based violence at Occupy Montreal as of yet, anti-oppression workshops addressing gender inequity have been scheduled and a call-out to organize around issues of consent and safer spaces has been circulated among many local gender advocacy organizations.
When asked if there was a need for a motion explicitly addressing gender-based violence, Occupy Montreal participant Vivian Kaloxilos stated that gender inequality was not an issue. “We try to look at each other not as men and women but as people just doing things,” she said.
Not all agree that a space that operates without acknowledging the existence of gender differences will be able to overcome gender inequality.
“Clearly, gender-based oppression is happening in our world and may be perpetuated even in these well intentioned spaces,” says Vanessa Fernando, External Coordinator of the Sexual Assault Centre of McGill’s Student Society. “I think explicitly acknowledging its occurrence is the first step towards making it better.”
Fernando says that the rhetoric of supposed equality might erase or delegitimize the experiences of those who experience gender-based violence.
For Fernando, identifying the existence of gender inequality and its intersection with issues of privilege, race, and ability is a key move in the creation of a strong movement for social justice. “We can't just be talking about the state and capitalism. We need to be talking about all of these other things together. Historically in these movements it's been like, 'Oh, we'll talk about this later, once we get these baseline things achieved,’ and then it gets further and further marginalized.”
In an effort to combat sexual assault, a handful of occupations have established gender-oriented committees and released statements explicitly condemning gender-based violence. Occupy Wall Street has created a safer-spaces committee that strives to create an anti-oppressive environment. The committee has established itself “in order to respond to threatening actions that continue systematic forms of oppression.”
Safer spaces frameworks have been employed to provide for a greater sense of safety within a community, while recognizing that notions of safety can vary from individual to individual. These spaces frequently challenge the way that dynamics of power, domination, violence, oppression, marginalization and inequality are replicated, and place a greater emphasis on processes of consent.
Fernando sees the creation of safer spaces as part of a process of recognizing differing access to power and privilege. She sees these anti-oppressive frameworks as powerful tools for change and self-reflection. “There needs to be that wholesale recognition that [social change] needs to be created in a way that people will be respected and supported if they critique something," she says. "Otherwise the movement is going to keep perpetuating [the oppressive system] we have.”
Despite the creation of safer spaces committees, controversy continues to surround protocol for dealing with instances of sexual assault. Whether or not to engage with police has caused much argument within occupation sites.
At Occupy Baltimore, a security statement released to the media without the consent of a General Assembly, caused an uproar in the press. The statement suggested that assaults be dealt with internally rather than through police involvement.
Police involvement has been criticized by some for its potential to cause greater harm or trauma to a survivor, particularly those with precarious legal status. The statement was later revised to express that while recognizing the flawed US Justice system, the movement will respect the desires and decisions of survivors when dealing with assault, and will provide alternative resources for those who don’t wish to engage with police.
Instances of assault at Occupy Montreal are dealt with on a case-by-case basis, says Eric Laramee, who acts as Occupy Montreal's negotiator with police. There is a mediation committee set up to deal with the accused, but ultimately the decision on whether or not to call police is up to the survivor.
“I think the key thing is that the ultimate decision is up to the person who was victimized,” feminist advocate Marshall says. “I think that [dealing with assault internally] should be seen as an option. If it's an option that might empower somebody, then, that's terrific. If it's intimidating them from reporting a crime to the police that they feel can better handle it, then that's not okay.”
In the case of the October 19 incident, the police were called and the accused individual was removed from the site. It is unclear whether or not charges were laid.
While the occupations outwardly focus their battle on economic injustice, an important struggle towards gender equity and against a culture of rape continue to be fought within the Occupy camps.
"The problem is still there,” says Marshall. “We have a lot of work to do, specifically to make male people aware of the damage that misogyny and patriarchy cause."
Dana Holtby is a feminist, environmental activist and indy media lover.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.