Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Friday, November 04, 2011

What is the Sound of No Back Touching?

What is the sound of no back touching? Who are the leaders of a leaderless group? These are but two of the profound Zen koans that Occupy Baltimore offers to the young Grasshopper.

To come clean here, I didn’t take notes in any of the meetings. Much like my barely composite representation of OB’s leadership, Callow N., some of my recollections of specific moments may be mashups of one or more separate actual moments.

As such, I no longer recall whether the assertion of our right to discuss things amongst ourselves was ejaculated forth during discussion of the Sexual Offense policy, or the equally ridiculous discussion about whether or not to apply to the City for a permit to occupy the square, as both subjects were masticated for at least 5 days. The discussion of the permit issue was tabled in exasperation each night, as the fledgling consensus democracy could not come to a consensus.

The Sexual Assault Policy went on to be discussed over at least three weeks or more, during which it later became the Sexual Harassment Policy, and then simply the Sexual Offense Policy. It went through several drafts; an early one caused a negative media firestorm. It is periodically still being discussed.

The Sexual Offense policy was not only discussed ad nauseam, but this issue, the permit issue, or issues related to gender and LGBTQ equality led the G.A., apparently every night, for weeks. As far as I could tell, economic issues were not big a priority for the Callow Crew.

The proponents of the so-called Sexual Offense policy seemed to be largely concerned with preventing such horrific offenses as strangers touching them in the middle of the back without asking permission first, and also preventing anyone from calling them “sweetie,” “babe,” or even the dreaded “Hon (TM).” The looming threat of such actions made some people feel unsafe in the square, perhaps even made them feel like something much worse, such as actual rape, might potentially occur. (To the best of my knowledge, nothing beyond rogue back touching or the occasional rebuffed proposition had occurred, or had even been alleged, at the time of the start of this lengthy discussion.)

During the public discussion of the Sexual Offense policy in one of many General Assembly meetings, some voices of reason prevailed, and it was apparently agreed by consensus (among the self-selecting group that is willing to sit through hours of circular discussion) that if a victim was offended by some cretin doing something unforgivable, such as calling the victim “Hon (TM)” or touching her or him on the back without permission, they should not report the “assault” to the police, but the group should deal with such petty offenses between individuals itself.

I want to be clear here: I don’t think the Occupy Baltimore group ever discouraged the reporting of actual crime to the police. Nevertheless, the original “Sexual Assault” policy caused a media firestorm when someone in the group prematurely discharged an early draft, and began promiscuously disseminating it as a pamphlet.

The media (rightly so) assumed that “Sexual Assault” referred to serious crimes such as rape and sexual molestation; they saw that the policy was discouraging reporting of (minor) offenses to the police, and publicly made the unwarranted leap to the conclusion that the group was discouraging reporting of rape.

The resulting brouhaha was an example of a media tactic that Revolting back-toucher Revo and I know well (having been past media targets): if you want to discredit someone, say they are the exact opposite of who they actually are. The main proponents of Occupy Baltimore’s “Sexual Assault” Policy were in fact overly concerned with preventing anything that might have any remote chance of being construed as sexual offense of any kind, by even the most sensitive and easily offended soul. Through the distorted lenses of the media’s voyeur binoculars, however, OB became known for being totally unconcerned about preventing or punishing rape.

The discussion about the Sexual Assault/Harrassment/Offense Policy went on for the next 3 weeks, resulting in a current final draft that prominently includes the following words (emphasis mine):

“Sexual harassment is defined as any unwanted commentary or physical contact. It is the victim's prerogative to classify any action as sexual harassment, and to decide whether or not the harasser be ejected from #occupybaltimore. If the victim chooses to enforce the ejection policy, the harasser will be ordered not to return until the Safer Spaces Committee in conjunction with the Mediator’s Committee has reviewed the incident on the following day.”

Got that? ANY action. This policy amounts to nothing more nor less than a license to convene a vigilante mob against anyone an alleged “victim” does not cotton to.

Now, if someone tells you that a touch or a particular use of words makes them feel uncomfortable, then cool it and do not touch the person. Perhaps walk away. Sincere attempts to be respectful of others is key.

However, unless it’s actual physical or actionable verbal abuse of some sort, minor infractions aren’t “harassment” if the offender ceases the offensive behavior when asked. Individuals have differing comfort levels.

One should always endeavor to respect another’s comfort, but honest differences of opinion about what is appropriate can and do occur.

Something that is not a crime, or at least a repeated offense, should not result in vigilante actions and mob rule.

By acting like one who cried wolf, the policy’s main proponents inadvertently trivialized the risk of bona fide sexual assault, particularly when people are sharing a public space 24/7.

Weeks later, a rape was alleged to have occurred at Occupy Baltimore. The allegation was given sensationalist coverage on Fox 45 TV news, although police have since reported that they believe no sexual assault occurred, and the alleged victim made no such formal charge. One might question the veracity of a charge that is made publicly on the local right wing TV station, but never filed with the police, particularly when the TV coverage showed alleged drug paraphenalia left conveniently outside the door of a tent, for Fox News cameras to find.

Part 4

Previous installments in this series:
Click here for part 1.
Click here for part 2.

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