By Melanie Butler
If week one of Occupy Wall Street was about surviving, week two has been about finding our voice. Some of the organizing and facilitation processes we’ve developed to make our movement inclusive and participatory have proven not to be enough, and we are constantly adapting and regrouping to ensure that everyone’s voice in this broad and vibrant coalition is heard.
During Monday’s General Assembly I announce through the call-and-response system of people’s microphone that CODEPINK’s Medea Benjamin will be leading a media training session for women and gender queer/non-male identifying members of the demonstration:
This morning I watched // This morning I watched
News coverage of this protest // News coverage of this protest.
10 people were interviewed // 10 people were interviewed
1 of them // 1 of them
Was a woman // Was a woman
The 99% // The 99%
Is not 90% men // Is not 90% men
Reflecting briefly on the conversations I’ve shared since the occupation began – the countless sound, necessary suggestions and contributions that have been voiced amongst ourselves without making reaching the larger group or media – I add:
If you’ve ever thought // If you’ve ever thought
‘I have something to say’ // I have something to say
… ‘but it’s not that important’ // but it’s not that important
‘It can wait’ // It can wait
Or ‘someone else can say it better’ // Or someone else can say it better
Please join us // Please join us
The message is received enthusiastically. When we do our introductions in the training, we realize many people are not only finding it difficult to speak to press but also during the General Assembly (GA). CODEPINK members following from across the country via livestream have expressed similar concern that women’s participation in the GA seems limited to logistical report-backs from working groups that run the encampment at Liberty Plaza rather than more weighty discussions about our principles of solidarity and Declaration. As these important discussions have intensified, so has women’s insistence on meaningful inclusion and representation in the drafting of our “living documents.”
During the training Medea offers some suggestions on how to make sure everyone’s voices are heard – we tell her about the speak-easy caucus of the General Assembly, which is a safe space for women and non-male identifying members of the GA, and the group responsible for calling the Colbert Report out for doing a piece on Occupy Wall Street that featured interviews with three men and a shot of a topless woman from the demonstration, who apparently was not deemed worthy of interview. That evening a new group, the “Safer Spaces” Committee, will announce its formation to address the problem of sexual harassment:
Please keep in mind // Please keep in mind
Not everyone // Not everyone
Wants to hug you // Wants to hug you
You might need a shower // You might need a shower
If you want to dance with someone // If you want to dance with someone
Or talk to them // Or talk to them
You should find a way to ask them // You should find a way to ask them.
When we get to the practice portion of the training my partner, Anna, is shy and says she doesn’t want to try it. I ask her why she’s here. She freezes up. I tell her to imagine she’s on the phone with her best friend, someone close to her, who’s wondering what all this is about. Without so much as a pause or an “um”, Anna tells me she’s here because she’s been unemployed for two years and she’s tired of seeing media blaming young people for being jobless. Another young woman says she’s here because she grew up homeless and although she was able to escape that lifestyle (I later learn she’s earning a PhD), her family has not been so lucky. We immediately bring the livestream camera over to record these stories, which are more compelling and personal than any I’ve heard covered thus far.
Since the demonstration began two weeks ago, I’ve been coordinating with members of CODEPINK, the Granny Peace Brigade, and the Speak-Easy Caucus looking to take the demonstration to the “next level” by staying overnight, and wanting to generate a critical mass of trusted friends to create a safe encampment for the night. On Friday we gear up for our first Occupy Wall Street sleep-out. After last Friday’s was rained out, this time we are ready. At least most of us are – I still don’t have a sleeping bag.
I receive an email from Eve Ensler – she wants to pay a visit and is wondering if there’s anything we need that she can bring. Problem solved. I notify one of the founding members of the Speak-Easy caucus. Her eyes well up – “Omigosh! Are you serious? HERE?! When?!” She tells me about how her closest group of friends formed around a highschool production of the Vagina Monologues and still lovingly refer to each other as “The Vaginas.” When Ms. Ensler arrives she tells her “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”
Eve and Alicia – one of the V-girls – arrive at the encampment with bags of supplies – including a wonderful sleeping bag that I gratefully accept. Eve tours the ground, interviewing people, and says they will return tomorrow night with the rest of the V-girls – for now she just wants to take it all in. Her face glows with awe, praise, and curiosity: “A second wind is coming.”
CODEPINKers come and go from the square throughout the day and gather for the march against police brutality at 5:30. After the march more members stop by to offer support and delicious home-baked chocolate chip cookies. As night falls I go to the nearby fast-food restaurant that has become our bathroom. It’s packed with young women from Occupy Wall Street. One [Nicole, 20] watches me take out my toothbrush and nods knowingly. I ask her how long she’s been staying in the square – since last Saturday. She tells me she didn’t planning on staying, just came down one day to check out the scene, met some cool people, and didn’t want to leave. “You can’t capture that on camera, that sense of community. I’ve never felt so close to the people around me.” A woman who I recognize from the encampment’s medic committee reminds us that our cell phones will be the first thing taken by the police and instructs us to take down the National Lawyers’ Guild number in case of emergency. We obediently pen the number on our forearms in pink sharpie and wish each other luck.
As I’m consulting with the Safer Spaces committee – identifiable by their pink armbands – where to set up camp, it begins to rain. I run over to where the General Assembly is meeting and duck under a big red umbrella with Sara Beth, a member of the speak-easy caucus. We reminisce over how the umbrella originally brought us together in a moment that seems years ago but was probably last week, when I asked to trade my red umbrella for her pink one. The rain gets harder and louder. A young woman in a poncho tours the square with a cardboard sign shouting like a newsboy: “FREE HUGS!” People huddle under tarps and shout jokes across the square to keep spirits up: “Two fish are swimming in a river. One slams into a concrete wall. Dam!”
Alli, a CODEPINKer from DC, somehow finds us in the labyrinth of tarps and umbrellas creating a patchwork shelter throughout the square. She is down for the weekend to help out and to prepare for DC’s own occupation in Freedom Plaza beginning on October 6th. We discuss what to do if the rain continues and decide to stick it out. I duck from tarp to tarp trying to cover my belongings and rally together other speak-easies while Alli bravely bolts across the square to the Comfort Station to see if they have any extra ponchos. Eventually we seek refuge in the WikiLeaks truck, owned by fellow Bradley Manning supporter Clark Stoeckley. Referring to our Occupy Wall Street-induced evolution from twitter-following to friendship, I joke that I’ll thank him on twitter. There’s about 7 people in the van already, only one of whom is a woman. They welcome us in joking that it’ll make her feel better. This is not exactly the “safe-space” we were envisioning, but it is warm, cozy, and most importantly, dry.
At around 11 pm I receive a text from my partner asking where I am. I reply “still in Liberty”, expecting him to text back that I should come home before I catch a cold. Instead, he joins us about half an hour later wielding a huge Tupperware of freshly-baked brownies. More people stop by the truck as the night progresses, including members of the Security Committee, who leave us with one of their yellow walkie-talkies in case we need anything. Like many of the committees, they mention they are looking for more women members. A figure dressed in garbage bags drops off bottles of water and someone else pokes their head in asking if anyone would like a pair of clean, dry socks. A few of us hold back out of politeness before accepting – he has a whole bag of them. Wiggling our toes with glee in the too-large white tennis socks (“they feel like a hug!”) we all agree: they are the best socks we have ever worn in our lives. Alli returns from a bathroom run with an armload of hotdogs and falafels and reports: “ We have occupied McDonalds!” The venue is full of occupiers escaping the rain, playing guitars and singing “this little light of mine.” We keep a running tally of the number of people in the truck, joking that we should adopt the restaurant’s slogan: 17 served. Everything is funny to us. Max, the sock-bearing carpenter from upstate New York, says his next cardboard sign will read: “For the first time in my life I finally feel at home.”
At 5 am I return to the 24-hour fast food bathroom. It is as hot as a sauna, and we pack in, taking turns using the hand drier to ease some of the night’s saturation. Some are changing clothes, some cutting each other’s hair, some just sitting on the floor to get some warmth into their soaked bones. People tell each other they’re beautiful, reunite, hug, and compare horror stories of the rough night we just survived. One jokes that tonight we should all just sleep here in the bathroom where it’s safe and dry – “let the guys figure out their own thing.”
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