I Believe in Occupying

Guest post by Paula Allen, MADRE Supporter

I believe in Occupying, in refusing to go home, to be silenced, shut down. I believe in visibility, declaring that THIS matters enough to forfeit one’s comfort, one’s lifestyle until the world does change – until the missiles are not deployed, until violence against women is unthinkable, until the only choice is not to wage war.

The more I stay in Zuccotti Park, the harder it is to accept the structures of what is acceptable between having and not having in the world.  This has always been hard for me, which may explain, in part, why it is so easy, so comfortable and so necessary for me to be an actual physical part of Occupy Wall Street.

I stay in the park as often as possible. When I am not there, I think about being there. I started, like everyone else, sleeping on the ground with tarps for cover. I always seemed to choose monsoon nights and ended up soaking wet.  On one of my first nights, I lay in a row of sleeping bags with Tony, a bagel maker from Staten Island, Nate, an English Teacher and Michael, a 9/11 responder. Tents were illegal, but over time, more were erected and the police removed less until the entire park had become a tent city. Now I have a little tent that I share with my first ‘occupier friend’ Stephanie. We live in a crowded ‘neighborhood’ and look out after each other.

On an ‘ordinary’ day in the park:

Marsha, a grandmother and unemployed seamstress, was knitting while David, an unemployed graphic artist, was occupying and decorating his 4 foot by 4 foot cardboard box. Kyle, a 19 year old who lost his apartment in Brooklyn, was sweeping.  Algia, a designer, from ‘sea to shining sea’ was drawing on discarded NY Times canvas bags adding a heart into the center of the “O” in Occupy Wall Street. Akio, a ‘spiritual traveler’ was playing his didgeridoo. John, Jrae and John were rolling free cigarettes.

Nicolas was giving away pieces of orange mesh, cutting them into sections to be worn as armbands, headbands or ties. I admitted my confusion at the “Free Mesh” sign. He patiently explained, “Take something that is your enemies’ weapon and make it symbolic of support.”  Letty, who tells me she is Puerto Rican and Egyptian and runs Helping Hands in the Bronx, was serving homemade soup with a group of volunteers.

Chuck, a retired telephone worker from Nutley, New Jersey was waving an enormous banner with the name and symbol of his Union. It was his 11th time coming to Zuccotti Park.  Zeek, from Massachusetts, had developed a practice within the movement called ‘Love Missions.’ Whenever there was any threatening behavior to an individual or the community, a group of men would gently surround the person and stay close by until the tension subsided. He told me the missions had been necessary a few times and assured me they always deflected the aggression through conversation or laughter.

When the camp’s generators were all removed, two weeks ago, by the Fire Department, there was no longer electricity for the press center, food or medical stations. There are now a group of stationary bicycles set up with 24-volt motors plugged into batteries. People line up and take turns cycling to produce electricity.

Zuccotti Park is not a utopian community. It is a very raw, strange, passionate, dangerous, safe, loving, unkind, scary, creative, divine experiment in living. A real viable, powerful political movement grew out of people’s refusal to leave.  I see people learning how to respond to every kind of situation non-violently, to form one unified human body when faced with both fellow occupiers and police violence.

I have also been deeply disturbed and disheartened to the point of leaving. This happened at the end of October when a woman occupying Zuccotti Park was sexually assaulted. The person who assaulted her was identified and arrested and is now in jail. She decided, with the support of the OWS community, to press charges and prosecute her assailant.  When women held an anti-rape march, I was told by the organizers that they were heckled by men living at the camp. When I questioned men about this, one of my favorites who had been at the camp since the first week said, “It’s only one woman and she was probably a drug user so who knows what was true.”  What? And then he warned me that the camp was changing and I really needed to be careful.

I love occupying Zuccotti Park. I love the movement. I am a defender of the movement. But can we do this differently? Can this movement rise up in solidarity, in horror, in protest against ANY and all aggression of any kind against women?

At the end of last week, a woman’s tent was erected. It is a large army tent. While it saddens me that women need a place of their own to ensure their safety, it also made me feel better that women would have their own tent to build community in the ways that women can do so stunningly together. Here women could sleep together in greater peace and security. Last night, 12 women were sleeping in the tent and women are providing security outside 24 hours a day.

A young woman, carrying an oversized backpack, came up to me and said she was looking for a place to sleep at the camp. She had just arrived from her college in Louisiana. The dean of the school had paid for her airplane ticket in support of her coming for the weekend and reporting back to the school on the movement. I walked her over to the new women’s tent and knew that she would be safe there.

What I see is a movement that represents human kind. I see a movement that I myself am responsible for building and nurturing and guiding and questioning. I see what is developing around the world in support of the Occupy Movement. I see what we have learned and where we became connected and engaged with each other and how we became more powerful. I don’t feel a conflict in the contradictions or “mistakes” of the movement. In fact, I continue to feel deeply excited and hopeful and kind.

Paula Allen, NYC

All images (c) Paula Allen

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