Occupy, sexual assault, and internal control

An ABC News reporter called me yesterday to ask about the spate of sex crimes taking place in the Occupations (here’s Alyssa Newcomb’s story).  I didn’t know anything, but a moment of online searching generated plenty of stories.

A lot of the reporting was on conservative websites, including the Daily Caller, Big Government, Townhall.com, the Blaze, and Gateway Pundit.  None of these sites has any residual sympathy for the emergent Occupy campaign, and many have played fast and loose with facts in the past.  The most tendentious coverage emphasizes that crime and sexual assault are part and parcel of a generally disreputable campaign filled with irresponsible and self-indulgent people.  More mainstream conservative outlets like Fox News and a Wall Street Journal blog have echoed the stories.   Like Herman Cain and his allies dismissing news reports of prior sexual harrasment complaints, sympathizers could dismiss these reports as a conspiracy to undermine the Occupy campaign.

But:

New York City Police arrested a 26 year old man at Occupy Wall Street, charging him with two counts of sexual assault that involved unwanted and forceful advances inside the tents in the cold of night.  In Dallas, police arrested a 24 year old man who had sex with a 14 year old runaway who, allegedly, claimed to be older.  (Not all of the charges stuck: Police investigated a widely reported account of a sexual assault in Baltimore and judged it unfounded.)

The stories, as well as the rumors and reality they represent, are a problem for the Occupy movement, and its one endemic to social movements, particularly a campaign so dedicated to grassroots democracy.

At the most basic level, the 99 percent contains some ill-informed, scuzzy, and even criminal people.  Organizers of any event struggle with finding unobtrusive ways to reign in their crazies; they know that their opponents will try to tack a picture of the sleaziest or stupidest person in their midst and label the whole movement with him.  This is a chore at a large demonstration that may last for 4-5 hours.  It’s somewhat more difficult at a all-day every day occupation that could stretch on for months, particularly one that welcomes all comers.

Having an inarticulate or ill-intentioned person give an interview to a media outlet describing your goals is a problem.  Having violent action directed at targets that didn’t get the hard-fought consensual endorsement of the entire Occupy community, as in Oakland, is a bigger one.  Sheltering violent criminals within your encampment is another one.

There’s no one working the doors in most social movements, filtering out the undesirables or enforcing discipline.  People who come to join are assumed to be well-intentioned and helpful, and it takes a while to shake that assumption.  And, particularly in popular media, social movements own their own crazies.

There are plenty of examples: Anti-abortion activists who see their efforts as part of a campaign to end violence are tarred by the few murderers of doctors that they inspire.  Pacifist antiwar campaigners must grapple with the marchers on the periphery who sign on with the other side.

Internal control is a serious challenge for those mounting the Occupy campaigns.  For those who want to spur political reform, reports of crime can discredit your efforts, invite repression, and warn off people who might otherwise join you.  Activists may need to enlist the help of police and prosecutors they would prefer to ignore, and suffer prosecution or evacuation for failing to do so.  (Mayor Bloomberg, no fan of Occupy Wall Street, has announced that the Occupiers have a moral and legal duty to report crime within their midst. Unsaid, at the moment, is that he could use their failure to do so as justification for clearing out the encampment altogether.)

And for people who believe that they are building a new world from the ground up, the problem may be even more difficult.  Rejecting the authority of the state or police in general, they are confronted with the reality of bad actions–or bad actors, who must be confined, disciplined, or banished.  Does this mean setting up new police and judicial systems within the encampments?  trusting the democratic mob?  hoping that the good will of the vast majority of those present will somehow establish new norms that infect people who have spent their lives in a much larger world?

At minimum, it doesn’t make sense to allow your political opponents to enjoy a monopoly on reporting your problems.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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