OWS Struggles With Sexual Assault at Zuccotti Park

Recently, what has been the most ominous threat to the success of the Occupy Wall Street movement has been the ever-increasing problem of sexual violence within the OWS encampment at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan. A number of acts of sexual violence within the camp threaten not only the safety of the occupiers, but even the survival of the movement overall.

Zuccotti Park has become the home for nearly 300-600 occupiers each night, according to medical officials on the OWS Medical Support Team. According to an occupier, Lauren Digioia, who has been occupying since the movement’s beginning, at Occupy Wall Street, there have been numerous occasions of sexual violence towards both men and women, including four possible rapes, and as many as 12 additional instances of sexual assault. Police have confirmed at least two instances of sexual assault there, and at least one arrest has been made as a result. Although the majority of these claims have yet to be substantiated, these events pose a threat to the effectiveness of the movement overall by detracting the public’s discussion from their message, and instead leaving these scandals at the forefront of public speculation and debate.

Lauren Digioia, 26, who has been an occupier for over six weeks, has witnessed these crimes first-hand.

“There have been multiple rapes,” Digioia recalled, since the movement’s beginning “I was sexually assaulted. There were three men that have been raped so far, and countless numbers of women.”

Although these allegations have not been substantiated by outside sources, instances of alleged sexual assault have been on the rise since tents were put up in the park some four weeks ago. According to the New York Observer, last week Zuccotti Park kitchen worker Tonye Iketubosin was arrested in connection to two of these instances of alleged sexual assault, while other attackers still remain at large.

Lucius Ringwald, a social worker from Connecticut who has been a member of the “support team” at Occupy Wall Street for over two weeks, helps counsel the occupiers at Zuccotti Park, especially the victims of sexual assault. He believes that the root of the criminal problem and safety issues in the park  stems from the city’s homeless population, who gravitate to Zuccotti Park since OWS offers free food around the clock.

“Like everything here, this has been an evolving process,” Ringwald said, speaking to the Group’s efforts to protect its’ members from instances of sexual assault. “There are a number of people who come in without any real supports in life, whether it be substance abuse problems or mental illness, which presents a number of challenges in the day-to-day.”

“We don’t know who these people are when they are coming through the door,” Digioia said of OWS’s open door policy. “There is only so much we can do. The police do the bare minimum to help us. They do not offer any support.”

In order to provide a “safe sleeping space” for women at the encampment, a women’s-only tent which fits 15 women was erected this past weekend.

Calling Zuccotti Park a “predators paradise” Digioia asserted that efforts made by police officers are lackluster at best, and that she was made to feel as if the attacks were “my fault because I was in a park.”

Though police do keep a watchful eye on Zuccotti Park, many occupiers believe that the burden has now been placed on their own shoulders to deal with the problems in the park, lamenting lack of support from the NYPD to actually police the encampment.

Such problems, Ringwald believes, accounts for the dropping number of women in the park. Digioia agrees, noting that the ratio of men to women is now “about 60/40.”

Upon hearing that the demonstrators initially kicked Iketubosin out of the park instead of informing the authorities, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg criticized the OWS protesters, saying, "If this is in fact happening — and it's very hard to get good information — it is despicable. I think it is outrageous and it really allows the criminal to strike again making all of us less safe."

Digioia claims that she tried to press charges on her assailant, but that the district attorney refused to place an order of protection for her. Since no order of protection was given, once her same assailant came into the park a few days later, the police contended that they could not do anything without that same order. The growing number of cases of sexual assault in the camp, in culmination with the lack of protection from the police, has pushed the focus of the public not on what issues they are discussing, but rather, the possible threat that the OWS encampment poses to the lower Manhattan community.

In light of the recent attacks, it leaves one to wonder whether the group will be able to rise above all of the obstacles that it faces, or rather be torn down by all of its aggressors. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons