home Current Affairs, Feminism, GLBTQI, North America, Racism, Women How Occupy’s (non) power structure enables sexism

How Occupy’s (non) power structure enables sexism

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.

16 thoughts on “How Occupy’s (non) power structure enables sexism

  1. Sady, while I think you make a few stellar points about the quality of messaging that’s coming from OWS, I think that you functionally turn your argument on its ass by singling out the actions of individuals.

    I don’t think you prove that there is any structural sexism within the OWS movement, but that there are sexists that subscribe to its tenets. I think that’s obviously true.

    I think your other argument is also particularly problematic. Feminists have no official spokesperson or leader, and there is little agreement among what is the ‘best’ feminism. To say that the entire community is responsible for the words of Naomi Wolf or even Sady Doyle is incorrect, I think, and a generalization that no one would be comfortable with.

    You can’t keep people from movements, when has that ever been possible? There are people that call themselves feminists that are decidedly not, and there are people who call themselves libertarians who are decidedly not – according to the accepted doctrines of both groups. How exactly does one go about purging people from #OWS or any other movement?

    In any movement, you have to take the good with the bad. There are feminists that make me roll my eyes on the daily, and who I believe are truly harmful to the movement (I’m looking at you, Jezebel), but that doesn’t mean that I’m any less of a feminist or any less connected to my feminist sisters.

    To your point about sexism driving women away, I think that’s obviously true, but it’s problematic if feminists are truly to make change. I don’t not go see my family because some of them are misogynists, but I do say things that (i think) make them think about what they are saying. Action creates change. If feminists are scared of sexism, then they’re not going to get a whole lot done.

  2. Beautiful women and their sexist portrayal aside:
    I do not want voting demographics to be split into tribelike voting cells anymore. I do not want to be told that one amount of my money will be allocated to a corporation that I did not opt to support, and I do not want the actual amount of money allocated to them to be different from what I was told. I do not want American citizens to be sent to offshore prisons where they are stripped of their rights, no matter what they are accused of. I do not want to be stripped of my constitutional rights within my own nation’s borders. I do not want to be subject to permissions and licenses to exercise those rights in my hometown.
    I want to be fully informed of the military actions of the nation that we as a people are in charge of running. I want to be informed of the use of the tax money that we as a people are in charge of raising. I want campaign donors to contribute funds in a manner that supports politicians, not influences them.

    I refuse to stand only in desperation while our nation spirals into debt.

    I am not blameless for the current state of affairs, but I have changed myself and I have been activated. The next step is to allow this activation to continue up the power structure, and to change 100% of the United States.

  3. Pingback: The Complicated Sexual Politics Of Occupy Protests [Occupy] | My Blog
  4. Sharp article Sady! In response to Amy– the movement is structurally sexist to the extent that the collective does not take accountability for ensuring that women are not harassed, and for holding harassers accountable. I know there is a “safer spaces” group– which manages to dodge the key issue of sexual politics at the core of the harassment going on, and strains to be inclusive to many groups rather than address the issue of men’s behavior.
    the movement is also structurally sexist to the extent that it has not yet addressed any feminist perspectives on the global situation that Wall Street is one symbol and location of.

  5. P.S Sady, I have hated all the space given to Greenstreet but you’ve used the space very well–to skillfully and sharply take him down in a completely unapologetic way. I really appreciate the ripping apart of his visual codes in his piece of shit video—you really give it the creepy factor it deserves: serial killer gaze, yes. with ambient sound track of discovery channel. Very good!

  6. Very good piece.

    John – the word “alleged” (in reference to Assange) would be an easy “allegation” to refute. He should have gone to court, stood trial and doubtless would have been found innocent given our shocking rape conviction rates and/or his innocence. This is what the ‘99%’ of us non-millionaries without legal teams and internet warriors have to do when we are charged with criminal offences.

    Instead, he and his band of rape apologists have spread muck and misogny – it wasn’t REALLY rape in the conventional sense/the girl was right wing so probably deserved it or colluded in it/its all the work of the evil capitalist lizard people etc. etc. Until he faces justice he has no place in a movement which demands justice.

    On Tuesday evening there was a sexual assault at Occupy Glasgow. In response a statement was given to the press where the woman was called “homeless” and part of “a seperate Occupy Glasgow movement” (distancing themselves from the victim). They have also consistantly hidden behind the word “alleged” although a woman WAS raped (it is an allegation – and only in the strict legal sense – against the men who commited this vile act). If the woman had had her purse stolen it would have been reported as fact. Why is rape different?

    When challenged they insisted this wasn’t an attempt to dehumanise before continuing to spout “but homeless people get raped in Glasgow all the time” and have continued their occupation despite calls to end it now as a matter of respect. They responded by saying they would “sort out safety” and ending the camp would make things “worse” (yes, worse than rape). It will take more than fluorescent jacket and a torch to make our sisters feel safe amongst these people.

    As a man, I am disgusted by the continued failure of other men to grasp the most basic points about the way men behave towards women in our movement. Sadly, even “the good guys” are capable of doing terrible things.

  7. Before i was able to make it down to Occupy Seattle, i heard it was white male dominated. Then my 19 year old told me she spoke up about sexists comments made by 2 men in GA. When i finally spent some time down there, i particpated in a meeting on how to talk to media. Tho called by a Black male, it soon was white male dominated as most in it were white males and they naturally gathered in closing out most of the 4 women. A white guy with a laptop was self appointed note taker and all my comments about importance of addressing racism were taken out as controversial. I just did not have it in me to say anymore. I can tell by reading posts from the Occupy that it continues to be dominated by white men who feel anyone bringing up racism is divisive. Gee, where have i heard that before in this white patriarchal corporate dominated unculture. If we can somehow keep talking to those who see the importance of addressing the isms that divide us: sexism, classism, racism, ablism, elitism, agism, perhaps we will be breaking unprecedented ground on a global scale that will pierce the divides that keep us voiceless and marginalized. Aprreciate the men speaking to rape and sexism. Needs to be normalized among men just as dismantling racism needs to be normlaized among white people of western societies. It is never ending. Been dealing with this crap all of my 61 years. Blessings to all who take it on…………

  8. I agree that taking a stand against the commodification of women must be taken so thanks for doing that. I would like to say something about patriarchy though-
    When dealing with patriarchy we must also acknowledge how women hold it in place. One aspect of that holding in place is the competition between women. Another similar way is when a woman who is more ‘masculine’, more rational or maybe ‘left brained’ in her approach, looks down on a woman who is more right brained, intuitive and more embedded in metaphor in her thinking. The astrologer interviewed is a woman who is looking at massive trends in the evolution of human consciousness and she is spot on in her analysis. I thought that this comment in the article was uncalled for – ‘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.’ – I actually think the man who allowed her to finish her piece, was more respectful of her than the author of the article. I don’t mean to hurt with this comment. I only want to point out something for women to self reflect on. I am living in South Africa but was blessed to be in the USA when the occupy movement sprang to life. The fear that came up was that patriarchy could cause the failure of the movement. It is pretty much the only thing that can stop it. So thanks for your work.

  9. Hi, an interesting article, and in many ways I agree & see these problems with Occupy in London too, although I have also experienced consensus decision making and the structurelessness that is a feature of Occupy as a way to include and give space to diverse voices – for example in the UK-wide co-operative community that I’m part of. I wrote about this on Visionon TV: http://visionon.tv/web/mermaid/home/-/blogs/going-beyond-safer-spaces.

    But re. Julian Assange shwoing up and being allowed to speak at St Paul’s, here’s an eyewitness account in the comments on this blog that tallies with the others I’ve heard: http://toomuchtosayformyself.com/2011/11/02/assange-loses-appeal-against-extradition.

  10. I participated for many days in Occupy Wall Street (NYC) during the fall. I experienced overt sexism on several occasions. First of all, during two marches where the group became split into two. I was marching at the front of those who had been left behind. I was asked by this group to tell the people in front to wait for them. Since the march had to reroute due to police actions, we were going to lose those in front. I ran ahead and asked the group to wait for a few minutes for the people in back. This is a normal procedure. The response from the men in the march was amazing. one young man said “Leave me alone honey, it’s really ok,” and another said “Stop trying to control us.” And another grumbled “shut up” in so many words. This was accompanied by sarcastic laughter at me, for some reason. While at OWS, I have witnessed women making very intelligent points while attempting to speak to the crowd, and the response is to ignor them as they try to get a mic check. On more than one occasion directly after a women, a loud but uninformed and inarticulate male instantly gains the rapt attention of everyone, women and men. We are conditioned by TV to respond to a male voice in “authority” even if he says nothing of value. (Witness Obama’s speeches.) At OWS there have been moments when I’ve felt it was 1967 . I wasn’t born then, but I’ve read accounts of the kind of sexism that was ubiquitous in the protest movements of the 1960s. Do we really want to prove we have gotten nowhere as a country since then when it comes to respect for everyone as equals? If we are going to build a real movement, men had better re-educate themselves on the subject of power and women’s issues. Just spouting slogans is not enough. You have to LIVE justice to make any difference at all. Over the past thirty years white men in America have become more and more illiterate when it comes to the subject of sexism. That they are more defensive about also, fails to impress me. This attitude is the lazy, default state of simply consuming and enjoying mainstream American pop culture. At OWS we can’t afford not to critically examine the effects of our conditioning in America. While that covers a lot of area, it certainly includes male attitudes towards women.

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