The Occupy movement was supposed to be ideal. It had momentum; it had unifying, “universal” potential; most importantly, it was never tied to any one figurehead or charismatic leader. Having a leader often ruins protests — makes them as simple as one perceived failure or weakness on that leader’s part. The Occupy movement was “leaderless,” based on a consensus decision-making process in which a motion could be brought forward, or definitively blocked, by any one person. Everyone had a voice. At least, in theory.
In practice, we knew, “everyone” tended to sound like the people who were already in charge — white people, men, straight people. And after dozens of sympathetic critiques, a thousand guiltily made suggestions — some by me — that Occupy Wall Street might not be the anti-capitalist, non-hierarchical utopia that protesters had promised, someone finally crystallized the problem. That someone’s name was Steven Greenstreet, and his video, “Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street,” was all my fears come to life.
The video is, as promised, a montage of chicks that Steven Greenstreet finds hot. Most do not speak. Some do. As a signal that Steven Greenstreet was deeply interested in the structural analyses and incisive political points of these women, he interviewed one woman saying the least politically relevant stuff humanly possible: “I’m an astrologer, so, you know, the Piscean age had a lot to do with delusion.” Stimulating. Later, Greenstreet interviews a woman with smarter points, but continually cuts away from her as she’s talking, to splice in slow-motion, serial-killer-cam shots of her eyes and hair.
All of this is overlaid with a soundtrack of sentimental, wonderstruck strings — the sort of thing that’s playing on the Nature Channel when a baby faun takes its first steps, or when an elephant produces another, much younger elephant out of its vagina. The similarities are not incidental. One gets the sense that women are a sort of natural marvel to Greenstreet, something that arises from the landscape for no other reason but to give him pleasure. Like a nature documentarian, he continually shoots women from a creepy, discreet distance; like the magnificent northern elk, they give no indication of knowing that they’re being watched. Of course, this is in part a tactical move. Should he get too close to these exotic creatures, or make direct eye contact, they might charge. Which Greenstreet is admittedly unequipped to deal with, given his penchant for repeatedly harassing feminists on Twitter, or (oh, honey, no)asking them out.
The extent to which Greenstreet cares to know his subjects — that is, the extent to which he acknowledges them to be human, possessed of political standpoints and thoughts, as well as bosoms — is best displayed by a caption on one non-Greenstreetian photo from his Tumblr, of a (very) young-looking girl in a green Invader Zim hat, being led away by police officers. “She is reported to be 18,” he writes. Classification: Legal. You might even say Barely Legal. Let’s move on.
Actually, let’s move past Greenstreet, shall we? The point of the Occupy movement is that it unifies; it invokes a big, near-universal grievance (belonging to the 99% of the country that is not composed of its most absurdly wealthy citizens), promises to address a near-universal problem (financial woes), and leaves the rest of it deliberately unclear. It is leaderless, demandless, without any of the strict boundaries or goals that limit other movements’ potential; people bring what they have to the table, and push to have this addressed, or at least made visible. This is good because it means that anyone can speak on behalf of the movement. This is bad because it means anyone can speak on behalf of the movement — even Steven Greenstreet.
The permeability of Occupy’s boundaries has manifested in other, more troubling ways as well. At Occupy LSW, Julian Assange was allowed to speak. And to distract the world from his ongoing fight against extradition to Sweden, where he would have to face two separate allegations of sexual assault and rape. Whether or not an alleged rapist can and should speak for the “99%” does not appear to have been in question.The F Word denounced the fact that Assange was “asked to speak.” When I reported this on my Twitter account, a user by the name of Paul Hardcastle put forward a different account: “Assange was not asked to speak, he turned up and was allowed to speak. Thanks, consensus decision making.”
And, finally, at Occupy Cleveland, one 19-year-old girl alleged that she was raped. She said that she’d been assigned to share a tent with a man who raped her, named Leland; organizers denied any potential responsibility, pointing to the “leaderless” nature of the movement. “Your assignment would be your own choice of what you want to do,” said organizer Rebecca Walker. Whether a girl that young — a girl who attends a school for students with ADD and autism, and may not process social interactions in a neurotypical way — would assume “leaderlessness” to work like this, or whether she might not naturally interpret an organizer’s saying “why don’t you share a tent with Leland” as an “assignment” given how power works elsewhere, is not addressed. In New York, protesters have worked with police to kick out men who groped women. But the boundaries of anarchy and leaderlessness, as they concern sexual assault, continue to trouble many women who are involved — or who would like to be involved — with Occupy.
Even in movements that are formally leaderless, those with privilege tend to bring pre-existing power to the table, and that power can be dangerous. This is part of any communal space, no matter how well-intended; I can testify that, even in my own best efforts, and even with trusted friends, I’ve brought my own privilege to the table, created invisible hierarchies, and hurt people. Addressing how power works — who is seen to be powerful, who is exercising power, which kinds, and why, and how that looks like the old world and old structures of oppression we are trying to break away from — has to be a central part of any radical movement.
And, of course, paying this much attention to Greenstreet gives him that much more power. I’m sympathetic to the points made by my friend Sarah Jaffe, when she writes that “the space is designed for accountability, but it is also designed for people who are in it and using it.” 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. It is important to stress the feminist groups, the working groups for people of color, the marginalized within that movement; it is important for this reality to be as visible, hopefully more visible, than anything else, and not to use one sexist man with a camera to discredit a hugely diverse movement.
It’s hard to focus on what marginalized people are saying, when they’re reduced to a collection of photos for the purpose of telling us that they’re “hot.” The act of finding those voices, actively seeking them out, and listening to them, is harder than taking a photo. It’s also the work that can and must be done.