Occupy Wall Street, Faces Of Zuccotti Park: The Woman In Pink
By Saki Knafo & Adam Kaufman, originally posted on Huffington Post
Melanie Butler was watching a news clip about Occupy Wall Street in late September when she noticed that all of the demonstrators talking to the reporter were men. “I just kept waiting,” she said. “I was counting in my head. Finally a woman came on.” The final count: one woman, nine men. “I was enraged,” Butler said. “But I knew from myself that when there were reporters in the park or a press conference was called, I wasn’t saying, ‘I want to speak.’ And I’m not a shy person.”
Butler, 30, is an organizer for CODEPINK, an anti-war group founded during the run-up to the Iraq War by a cadre of female activists, including Jodie Evans, who ran Jerry Brown’s campaign for the presidency in 1992. (Medea Benjamin, another founder, has blogged for The Huffington Post.) Its members are known for their high-profile disruptions of congressional hearings, which occasionally result in arrests, and for their color scheme, which Butler described as disarming. As she put it, “It’s really hard to be angry at someone who’s wearing a neon-pink feather boa.”
After seeing the news clip, Butler held a media training just for women, and it was there that she learned that the problem was even bigger than she’d thought. “It wasn’t just the media,” she said. “Women were having trouble speaking out anywhere, in any of the discussions.”
Butler and Evans stood in Zuccotti Park recently talking about their efforts to get more women involved in the movement. Evans wore a knee-length pink jacket, a pink scarf covered with peace signs, a pink shoulder bag, a floppy pink hat, a pink hip-pouch containing a pink iPod, and a black T-shirt with a Grace Paley quote in pink lettering that read, “The only recognizable feature of hope is action.”
Butler was dressed more conservatively: jeans, olive-drab parka. She did have on a pink scarf, which she said she’d found in a box of pink clothes in CODEPINK’s New York office.
Butler joined CODEPINK in May, at a march. “I was supposed to go into an interview and Jodie was like, ‘Why don’t we do the interview at the rally?'” Butler recalled. The march, which was organized by the group New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, has been credited with actually setting the stage for Occupy Wall Street. At the time, Butler was working in a temporary position for city council member Brad Lander. “We ran into him as we were walking,” Evans said. “He gave a recommendation.” Evans hired Butler on the spot, handing her a pink tunic.
Evans is big on street theater, and in the months after Butler was hired the group put on several characteristic performances. They build a cardboard-box replica of the Israel West Bank Barrier outside a convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in D.C., and blocked the entrance to a Nevada Air Force Base where soldiers were operating pilotless drones. When Donald Rumsfeld’s book tour came to New York, one of their volunteers threw handfuls of pink arrest warrants onto the stage. (“Because he’s a war criminal,” Butler said.)
In August, after learning that a group of activists were planning to “occupy Wall Street,” Butler began meeting in Tompkins Square Park with a group of OWS activists calling themselves the arts-and-culture committee. In the week leading up to the movement’s inaugural rally they performed a series of lunch-hour “stunts” on Wall Street. There was a yoga session, a picnic and a lot of singing. Some of the CODEPINK women made cupcakes — pink ones, naturally.
“We gave them only to the rich,” Butler recalled. “We told everyone else they could wait for the crumbs to trickle down.”
The early days of the demonstration were exhilarating for Butler. But she was concerned, even then, that men were dominating the conversations with the media and within the movement itself. If that was to change, Butler said, it was clear that men– especially white men — would have to learn to “step back,” and women to “step up” to overcome the self-doubt that had learned as products of a sexist society. When Butler announced the media training for women at a session of the general assembly, she said to the women in the crowd, “If you ever felt that you had something important to say but someone else could say it better, you should come.”
After the training, she said, women began approaching her, and she connected them with like-minded women in other groups. When producers for the “Colbert Report” invited one of the men from the movement to appear on the show, Butler and others made sure that they brought on a woman as well.
By that point, CODEPINK had set up a table in the park where they were making origami peace cranes and distributing information about the cost of war and fixing the economy. “And because the table was so visible and people knew it and there were always people there and, you know, the pink, people were approaching us with general questions about women,” Butler said. She collected donations and, after consulting with a committee dedicated to making the park safer for women, used the money to buy walkie-talkies and flashlights. She organized a “safe-space sleep-out” for women who wanted to spend the night in the park. “I got the CODEPINK women to come down, and some of the members of the Granny Peace Brigade, and we all decided we’d sleep out on the same night.”
Butler was hardly the only demonstrator working to bring attention to women in the movement, or to create safe spaces where they could sleep. Among the others was Ketchup, the woman who appeared on the “Colbert Report.” (Colbert: “I think I might have misheard that. Your name is…?” Ketchup: “Ketchup.”)
Ketchup says that when she first started trying to organize groups around women’s issues, she ran into problems. “A lot of people would sort of come at me with the feeling that it was divisive even to acknowledge that there was a difference between men’s and women’s experiences,” she said. “But Melanie was hugely supportive and made it really possible to start organizing and really getting those groups going.”
Then came the night of the eviction. “I missed most of the drama, embarrassingly,” Butler said. While the police were arresting demonstrators and hauling off their belongings, Butler was in bed with her phone turned off. “The back story that you don’t need to know is that I’ve only had a cell phone for a year,” she said. “They make me nervous.”
In the weeks since, Butler says, her emotions have alternated between despair and hope. “I was burned out near the end, and I was concerned about safety — it was a little bit of a hostile movement, especially for women,” she said. “And I hoped that the eviction could be the start of a new chapter. And then I went to the sanitation space to try to retrieve our stuff, and just being confronted with all this stuff and what our community had been reduced to, and just seeing the tents and broken bicycles and the mangled wheelchair and the kids’ toys and the ruined books… It was just so traumatizing, to be honest. It was really depressing. It just felt so symbolic of the way that we had been treated by the police.”
By the time she met with Evans at Zuccotti the other day, the emotional pendulum had swung back to hope. But a few days later, in a follow-up conversation on the phone, she revealed that her mood had darkened somewhat. She’d just come back from a women-only meeting that hadn’t gone as well as she’d hoped. “Men were only allowed to listen,” she said, “and some dude came in and yelled at us. He started yelling, ‘Is tomorrow night going to be men-only?’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God, no. That’s every night.'”