Activists in Ohio–and elsewhere–have grabbed the Occupy label to demonstrate their
concern that Steubenville authorities (including the police and the high school football coaching staff) are covering up a sexual assault. Using Occupy, Anonymous, the Guy Fawkes mask, hacktivist tools, and visible mobilization, they’ve been successful in bringing attention to what they describe as a violent crime that took place five months ago.
Two football players were arrested, charged, and released, and await trial for rape next month, but a local debate about what this incident is really all about has intensified. While some locals question whether a sexual assault actually took place, locals and a broader public have questioned why only two young men are facing charges when many others witnessed–and may have participated–in assaulting the girl. (See good summaries of the assault and the aftermath at the New York Times, The Atlantic,and CNN.)
Last weekend, an estimated 2,000 people protested against the sheriff’s handling of the crime, particularly about the failure to charge others involved. The legal process has been a mess, including the almost immediate announcement by the Jefferson County prosecutor that she was recusing herself from the case because her son was a member of the football team. State prosecutors are responsible, Meanwhile, hactivists, only some Anonymous, had released photos of the sixteen year old victim dragged from party to party, and a video of one observer ridiculing the girl. They’ve also begun to identify other individuals they believe should be charged, and accused both the football team and the sheriff of ignoring evidence.
At this point, the activism has been successful in bringing attention to both the case and (perhaps) larger problems of sexual assault and rape culture. In this way, it’s an example reminiscent of the activism around the shooting of Trayvon Martin. There is however, as Slate’s Amanda Marcotte notes, a fine line between activism and vigilantism.
For Occupy, there’s something else worth thinking about: Occupy emerged as a targeted
action against big capital with a broad concern about political and economic inequality. The issues of concern to local activists in Steubenville may be related, but the connections aren’t immediately obvious, nor were they suggested in most of the 2011 protests in public spaces around the United States.
Occupy has become a label that activists of any sort can try to grab in making their own claims. If it inspires people at the grassroots to mobilize on behalf of the things they care about, this inspiration comes with a cost of clarity and coherence about just what Occupy is all about.