As Occupy Boston struggles with a sex-offender ban, its weaknesses have been laid bare

Temperature check: Will the movement stabilize? Or will it splinter?
By LIZ PELLY  |  January 18, 2012


It was after 10 pm on Tuesday, January 10, in the stale, bright basement of the Arlington Street Church, where now-nomadic Occupy Boston was holding a meeting. At issue was something that would seem straightforward: a proposal to prevent level-three sex offenders from being a part of Occupy. But suddenly, it felt as if the entire movement could be splintering. Two nights earlier, the sex-offender proposal was blocked. And now, as the Occupiers attempted to deal with the aftermath, the room filled with a tense whirlwind of emotional outcries about feeling triggered and targeted by misogyny, sexism, and homophobia.

Within the first half-hour of the assembly, it was clear that a typical GA wouldn't work for the night's anxiousness. So instead, it became more of a Quaker-style community speak-out, with rows of about 75 chairs reorganized into a circle. The facilitator told the group to "let a spirit guide them," and to speak as they felt inclined, without being called on. Someone handed out stress-relieving clay; the room even took a moment for "spiritual grounding" as someone from the Faith and Spirituality working group sounded a Tibetan singing bowl. It all worked surprisingly well for the first three hours.

But eventually, it broke — people started lashing out, yelling, antagonizing, walking out of the room. A new hand gesture was soon established for the night's GA — a fist covered by an open hand, to signal oppressive language or verbal abuse — but it wasn't working. Overall, the night confirmed that, as one Occupier put it, "Shit's boiling over right now."

The fight over whether to ban level-three sex offenders has become an even larger issue — highlighting the weaknesses of the open, consensus-based process that Occupy GAs rely on. And according to representatives from other Occupy cities, the issue isn't unique to Boston.

"As it went on, it became really painfully obvious how broken things are and how far we have to go to repair them," Women's Caucus member Ariadne Ross said the next morning. "By the end of the night I was feeling worse than when we started."


The conversation surrounding sex offenders began percolating after December 20, when the GA passed a "Mutual Aid Working Group Proposal" allotting cash to help homeless persons who'd been displaced by the dismantling of Occupy's Dewey Square camp — a pool that at least one registered sex offender attempted to access.

So on December 27, an Occupier named Sarah Barney brought a proposal to the GA to ban sex offenders. Her proposal generally states that if a member of Occupy Boston is found to be a level-three sex offender (a person convicted of a sexual crime whom the court deems to be at especially high risk for reoffending), the Safety working group would ask them to leave for one week, during which time the GA would vote on whether the accused should be asked to leave Occupy Boston permanently.

For Barney, a mother who often brought her five-year-old son to Occupy Boston, the issue was larger than the mutual-aid proposal.

"It stemmed from one specific incident, finding out that someone who lived at Dewey Square had gone to jail for nine years for two counts of sexual assault and rape of children under the age of 16," said Barney.

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