Trigger warning: sexual assault and other violence. Also, police.
When they tore down the Occupy Vancouver tent city, I was there. I was all geared up to get arrested for peacefully resisting the destruction of what was ultimately an important and helpful resource, not only for Canadian democracy, but for the city of Vancouver. I called my parents to tell them I might be thrown in jail; I called my close friends to put them on notice that if they didn’t hear from me in the next few hours, I would need them to start making phone calls. Then I headed downtown, fully expecting to see the scowling face of a judge before I saw my own bed again. What I saw instead was a massive cleanup crew with police helping to facilitate the voluntary removal of a bunch of supplies. The square was cleared without any confrontation whatsoever.
My Occupy experience was entirely bloodless, with the Vancouver Police Department behaving as though they truly understood the concept of peaceful protest and civil liberty. Their professionalism and restraint stands in sharp contrast with what we’re seeing out of their comrades in New York City:
Many of these arrests are carried out in such a way to guarantee physical injury. The tone was set on that first night of March 17, when my friend Eileen’s wrists were broken; others suffered broken fingers, concussions, and broken ribs. Again, this was on a night where OWS actions were confined to sitting in a park, playing music, raising one or two tents, and marching down the street. To give a sense of the level of violence protestors were subjected to, during the march north to Union Square, we saw the first major incident of window-breaking in New York. The window in question was broken not by protestors, but by police—using a protestor’s head. The victim in this case was a street medic named José (owing to the likelihood of physical assault and injuries from police, OWSers in New York as elsewhere have come to carry out even the most peaceful protests accompanied by medics trained in basic first aid.) He offered no resistance.
I used to roll my eyes when activists of various stripes used to throw around the term ‘police state’. I feel like I owe them all a collective apology. The stories in this article suggest that not only are police not respecting the rights of citizens to peaceably assemble and protest, but the right to even walk down the street without getting your head smashed in. The wry component of the above pullquote is, of course, that the victim of the assault by police was there to treat the injuries suffered by other protesters at the hands of power-drunk cops.
That, however, is not the worst part of the story:
Arbitrary violence is nothing new. The apparently systematic use of sexual assault against women protestors is new. I’m not aware of any reports of police intentionally grabbing women’s breasts before March 17, but on March 17 there were numerous reported cases, and in later nightly evictions from Union Square, the practice became so systematic that at least one woman told me her breasts were grabbed by five different police officers on a single night (in one case, while another one was blowing kisses.) The tactic appeared so abruptly, is so obviously a violation of any sort of police protocol or standard of legality, that it is hard to imagine it is anything but an intentional policy.
For obvious reasons, most of the women who have been victims of such assaults have been hesitant to come forward. Suing the city is a miserable and time-consuming task and if a woman brings any charge involving sexual misconduct, they can expect to have their own history and reputations—no matter how obviously irrelevant—raked over the coals, usually causing immense damage to their personal and professional life. The threat of doing so operates as a very effective form of intimidation. One exception is Cecily McMillan, who was not only groped but suffered a broken rib and seizures during her arrest on March 17, and held incommunicado, denied constant requests to see her lawyer, for over 24 hours thereafter. Shortly after release from the hospital she appeared on Democracy Now! And showed part of a handprint, replete with scratch-marks, that police had left directly over her right breast.
I’d like to emphasize this because when I first mention this, the usual reaction, from reporters or even some ordinary citizens, is incredulity. ‘Surely this must be a matter of a few rogue officers!’ It is difficult to conceive of an American police commander directly telling officers to grope women’s breasts—even through indirect code words. But we know that in other countries, such things definitely happen. In Egypt, for example, there was a sudden spate of sexual assaults by security forces against protestors in November and December 2011, and followed a very similar pattern: while women activists affirmed there had been beatings, but relatively few specifically sexual assaults during the height of the protests, starting in November, there were dozens of reports of women being groped or stripped while they were being beaten. The level of the violence in Egypt may have been more extreme, but the circumstances were identical: an attempt to revive a protest movement through re-occupation is met by a sudden ratcheting up of tactics by the security forces, and in particular, the sudden dramatic appearance of a tactic of sexual attacks on women. It is hard to imagine in either case it was a coincidence. In Egypt, no serious observer is even suggesting that it was.
Something has gone terribly wrong in New York City, where the Statue of Liberty is becoming a more ironic presence with each passing day. I don’t know when it happened – maybe it was always broken and we’re only now noticing it because the kind of people who “don’t deserve this” are facing the types of abuse that have been alleged for decades. Whatever it is, New York City police appear now to be using a tactic of sexual violence against protesters who are made vulnerable by a culture that condemns women for existing adjacent to sexual activity, regardless of their role in it. These are the same police, incidentally, who contribute to this kind of culture by refusing to take sexual assault seriously.
Something has gone terribly wrong with those police officers as well, to obey such an order. Mob mentality being what it is, I can just barely wrap my head around the idea of violating people’s civil rights in ‘defense’ of the plutocratic ideals you’ve been instructed to defend. But when I think of what could possibly possess someone to go to work and decide that they are justified in sexually assaulting someone whose greatest crime is exercising their right to free speech and free assembly, I draw a total blank. It is certainly a failing of imagination on my part, but be that as it may I simply cannot fathom how a person could look at hirself in the mirror at the end of the day and think ‘I have done a good job today’.
Here’s a cute kid being awesome:
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