Women in Occupy Denver

Photo: Tanner Spendley.

Occupy Denver (OD) has been a tenacious occupation—and some say the angriest—fighting on despite external pressures and internal strains along the fault lines of oppression and privilege. The following is mostly about the latter, particularly the role and projects of women organizers, but the external pressures are great and not unrelated, so let me first say a few words about them.

The two greatest external threats to OD have no doubt been inclement weather and aggressive policing under the direction of the Democratic political establishment here—the first in the nation to forcibly uproot an Occupy encampment. Three weeks after OD’s emergence, John Hickenlooper, a pro-business Democratic governor, gave a press conference with Democratic Mayor Michael Hancock, declaring the encampment illegal. Days later, riot police carried out a middle-of-the-night raid, arresting dozens and removing some 80 tents from the encampment near the Capitol building. It would be the first of three forcible evictions.

Wesleyan demonstrators at the governor’s alma mater symbolically revoked his degree two weeks ago at a protest against his campus visit. They have an online petition, which reads in part: “As members of the Wesleyan University community, we denounce the actions of Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, Class of 1974, toward the Occupy Denver encampment, particularly his support for violent eviction of demonstrators by state and local police.”

The Denver Police, recently in the national spotlight for incidents of police brutality, currently ranks second in the nation for its rate of police misconduct; a public image problem not helped by the batons, rubber bullets and tear gas used against protestors, or the recent practice of ticketing drivers that honk their horns in support of them. When I asked Terese Howard, one of several women organizing in OD, about this behavior, she noted its galvanizing and critical effect. “As the police act more brutally and more absurdly,” she says, “the people see their power more in connection with each other and not the state.”

Photo: Tanner Spendley.

Terese joined OD early on, attending its original General Assembly (GA) on September 27 with a few hundred others; the first gathering four days earlier resulted from a tweet by Jeannie Hartley, now a highly visible member of OD, serving on the Media Committee. Active in anarchic, democratic, DIY communities in Denver for many years, Terese co-founded the Denver Free School in 2007 and is a member of Occupy Denver’s GA Procedures Committee, Declaration of Purpose Drafting Group, and the newly formed Education Committee. She is, one could say, all in, helping to build a “leaderless” movement, which really means recognizing “forms of leadership based in knowledge and hard work, as opposed to institutionally bundled authority packages,” she says. “In order for OD to move forward toward concrete success and productive change, we need to collectively understand how to be a leaderless, transparent, diverse, active movement.”

I asked Liberty Shellman, also a member of Occupy Denver’s GA Procedures Committee, about how this movement can be made sustainable. She speaks of the “need to address the systemic problem of oppression.” Liberty says she is presently focused on “women and other gender marginalized communities of the movement,” because, she said, “numerous women speak to me about their experiences and feelings of marginalization. I don’t think that the dominant gender in our movement is being intentionally discriminatory,” she says, “I merely believe that they are the products of years of indoctrinated prejudice.”

Photo: Anthony Cortez.

Terese notes that men “have a history of privileges making it easier for them to be in and organize with OD” and that women face additional risks in the encampment. Shortly after our discussion, a resolution addressing resource and safety issues for women and LGBTQ people in the movement was unanimously passed at a GA. It reads, in part, that “a movement where women and LGBTQ individuals are not safe is not a movement that serves the interests of the 99%,” and that GAs should “empower women and LGBTQ occupiers with the time, space, and resources necessary to ensure that every occupied space is a safe space.

It’s an issue that Terese and Liberty have been working on. This past Sunday, November 27, the GA Procedures Committee proposed and the GA passed a significant schedule change, replacing Tuesday and Thursday GAs with community building” and “Get Involved Nights.” These activities might include teach-ins, potlucks, or as Liberty suggests, “fishbowl caucuses” for women, transgendered, and non-cisgendered individuals. “We need to reach out to marginalized communities and make sure their voices are heard and recognized as we begin to build our new foundation,” she says.

Photo: Tanner Spendley.

In this spirit, Candace Johnson has been going door-to-door, reaching out to communities of color in Denver. She recently facilitated an event on Occupy Denver and the civil rights movement at the Frederick Douglass Center in Five Points, a predominantly African American neighborhood. In addition to this kind of outreach, Candace says OD needs to address legacies of oppression and expressions of privilege within itself. “For many of the occupiers in Denver, oppression has not been an everyday issue in their lives,” she says. “If we are to really have change, we have to challenge things like white supremacy and male supremacy, which are prevalent in the corporate culture. These issues are surfacing within the movement and have to be confronted.”

This, she says, is where Liberate Denver is coming from. Here, internal strains have led some—including many women—to start an alternative group, more centrally focused on anti-oppression work. “Still,” says Candace, “Liberate Denver and Occupy Denver work closely together and the members overlap. The more diverse the players in this drama the better I say.”

Terese is also very positive about the future of Occupy Denver, because, she says “I see power in human collaboration on a grassroots level. I am hopeful because I think we hold common goals, in spite of our difficultly in expressing it, and that maybe, just maybe, we can recognize that and take it upon ourselves to enact those goals.” And Liberty truly believes that “at the end of this movement there will be great change, in ways we are unable to yet imagine.” Candace agrees, sensing a historical rupture ripe with possibility. “The momentum is here,” she says, “this is what so many of us have been asking for, the chance for a revolution.”

Photo: Tanner Spendley.

This article is published in collaboration with the Social Science Research Council’s Possible Futures project. Learn more about Possible Futures here.

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