The word “occupy” has taken on a new meaning since September 2011. Of course, it still means to physically reside in a space—to seize or hold property otherwise denied to the public in the cases of Occupy Wall Street and its various chapters—but now the word is also used as a euphemism when protesters seek justice in the wake of institutional failure. Occupy Our Homes arose when the government failed to help underwater homeowners remain in their houses, and Occupy Sandy emerged in the aftermath of a hurricane when the state failed to provide timely aid for thousands of New Yorkers.
Following the horrific assault of a 16-year-old girl in which the alleged rapists, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, dragged the extremely drunk girl to three separate parties during the course of the night as their personal rape toy, hundreds of protesters descended upon the city of Steubenville, Ohio, demanding justice. The New York Times discovered that many local members of the community, including the football coach, have been extremely defensive and wary of assigning blame for the alleged rape, apparently because the community assigns something like a God-like status to football players.
The hacking collective Anonymous has taken a keen interested in the sheriff investigating the case, accusing him of being close with Steubenville High’s football coach, deleting video evidence, and running “the largest illegal gambling operation in Jefferson County.” Anonymous is convinced, rightfully so, that the case isn’t being taken seriously enough by the community or the justice system, and so some Anonymous activists have taken it upon themselves to start a local leaks page to release information gathered on people they believe are involved in covering up the full extent of the alleged assault.
Steubenville’s Sheriff Abdalla recently responded to Anonymous’s accusations by telling WTRF that he was “coming after” Anonymous.
Anonymous clearly didn’t take that threat seriously:
And Abdalla seemed to have a change of heart after that interview when he appeared at the Occupy Steubenville gathering to try and convince the crowd that he’s “not the bad guy.”
As The Atlantic diplomatically phrased it, “The crowd didn’t receive him that well.”
The rally consisted of many rape victims offering extremely moving testimonies about their own experiences being raped. One woman gave a tearful speech while wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, only to dramatically remove it and declare she didn’t want to hide anymore.
While it’s heartening to see Anonymous rally around this case, setting off a larger (and badly needed) discussion about rape and rape culture within the United States, Slate’s Amanda Marcotte is right to urge caution about these leaks. The potential to name and shame innocent people during the frenzy to obtain justice is high right now, especially when the traditional institutional channels appear to have failed in Steubenville. Take a lesson from director Spike Lee, who retweeted a Florida address said to be that of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain who fatally shot teenager Trayvon Martin, to his more than a quarter-million Twitter followers. Turns out, in his rush for vigilante justice, Lee posted the wrong address. David and Elaine McClain, whose son is named William George Zimmerman, were forced to flee their home. Lee later apologized to the McClains and agreed to compensate them for their loss and the disruption to their lives.
It’s a tough balance to find between direct action and vigilantism, particularly when it comes to Anonymous, but what’s clear is that Anonymous is one of the only forces taking a vocal interest in obtaining justice for the Steubenville rape victim. When the legal system experiences total paralysis, perhaps what’s needed is a shock to bring the public’s attention to systemic rot.
Occupy Steubenville is a particularly interesting phenomenon given that so much media interest has been devoted to the no-less-horrific gang rape of a young woman named Jyoti Singh Pandey in India. Establishment pundits rushed to condemn the rape, and the rape culture that permitted the attack, when it came to exotic Indian folk in a faraway land, but seem more hesitant to address rape culture within the United States, even though a shining example of women’s second-class status is on display in Ohio.
Men who rape—and rape culture contributors who laugh about it later on Twitter and YouTube—do so precisely because they either don’t think rape is wrong (or, at the very least, raping a drunk girl “doesn’t count”) and/or they know they can rape with impunity. The “justice system” can’t work if there’s a two-tier structure where someone people get punished for raping teenage girls, and others don’t simply because they happen to be football players.
But this is the example set by the highest echelons of the NFL, mirrored down the ranks through college football, extending to small communities like Steubenville. Some members of our society are permitted to rape because we like watching them run a ball down a field, and that skill is deemed more culturally valuable than the lives and dignity of women.
With that massive institutional failure—the failure to protect women—in mind, it’s no wonder that Occupy Steubenville arose quickly in the aftermath of the Ohio rape case.
“Make no mistake, all you need is a Google search engine to realize we are serious in what we do. You can hide no longer. You have attracted the attention of the hive,” an Anonymous activist said in a video. “We will not sit tightly and watch a group of young men who turn to rape as a game or sport get the pass because of athletic ability and small town [inaudible].”
In response to the Anonymous-led campaign, the city of Steubenville set up a new site called Steubenville Facts that claims to include facts to clear up any confusion about their community.
Cathy Davis, the city manager, said the site is meant to combat the perception that “everyone in Steubenville is acting or is like the individuals that are involved in the case. That we are a community that is run by football. That is not the case.”
As Dave Zirin writes this week, women have also been harshly victimized by varsity-blues-gone-wild at Notre Dame.