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Occupy Wall Street Protesters Wrestle With Growing Security Concerns

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Protesters living in Zuccotti park are dealing with an escalating security problem, which some say could threaten the sustainability of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

There have been multiple incidents of assault, drug dealing and drug use, rape and attempted rape, according to conversations with numerous protesters. And the problem, they say, is getting worse.

In the past several weeks, the cluster of tents at the west end of the park -- the farthest section from the bustle of working groups and activity near Broadway -- has grown increasingly dangerous, many say. The sanitation team has reported finding needles in tents, and reports of crack and crystal meth use have surfaced. But the most serious concern most protesters say, is the risk of assault, especially for women and at night.

In an attempt to maintain peace and institute some measure of security, park-dwelling occupiers convened on Monday to discuss safety and security concerns. Among the issues discussed: What sorts of incidents should the police be involved with? How should the security working group -- one of nearly 80 groups to have sprung up since the movement's inception -- handle violence or theft in the park? What role should the community watch working group play? Should OWS welcome anyone who wants to join them in the park, no matter how unstable his or her behavior appears?

As with other logistical issues occupiers face, from managing the communal finances to preparing for winter, reaching consensus is a critical challenge for the movement, which tries to give every participant a voice. But safety issues also pose specific difficulties for occupiers, who want to be involved in making the community safe, but often lack any security experience.

At Monday's meeting, a member of the facilitation working group -- who had helped organize the meeting -- announced to the crowd, "We all know that safety and security concerns are growing more and more dire by the day," then laid out a proposed six-point plan to deal with individuals who pose a serious security risk.

Currently a number of working groups are already devoting themselves to safety concerns. In addition to the security group, there is a community watch that patrols the park at night, a peace council, a community alliance and a mediation team.

But disruptions abounded during Monday's meeting, illustrating a concern for many occupiers: Can the current consensus-driven decision-making process function as the group in Zuccotti grows larger.

"These people are telling you what to do!" an agitated man with a mohawk shouted out. "There are many dangerous things being spoken right now!"

The crowd was torn over how to handle the disruption. Some people wanted to hear his argument, while others shouted, "This is an example of disrespect to the community!"

Another member of the facilitation working group stepped forward, trying to calm the crowd. "We are all here because we're trying to fix a broken and violent culture that we grew up in," she said. "It's scary to be in this situation because a lot of us are new to facilitating in a stressful situation."

The police have made a handful of arrests, but many of the alleged crimes have gone unreported. Although a police presence surrounds the park, officers rarely enter it. Protesters offered dozens of explanations for what they describe as a diminishing police presence inside the park and a growing criminal element, which range from the conspiratorial to the practical.

"Our safety concerns in the park are just the same kind of stuff that the rest of New York City sees," said Daniel Zetah, 35, a member of community watch who has been living in the park for three weeks. "It's just that we're in a very small, confined, public space."

Zetah says assault is the most serious safety concern. He, like many other park dwellers, believes that security problems in the park are often exacerbated, not helped, by the police.

"We are convinced [the rise in crime] is being partly manufactured by the authorities," Zetah said. "A lot of people who have ended up in the park have said that the police told them: 'Take it to Zuccotti.' "

Many other occupants said they had heard similar stories from people in the park exhibiting anti-social and criminal behavior.

The police, meanwhile, vigorously deny that they have been encouraging anyone to go to Zuccotti. They did email a list of a number of arrests they have made since October 11, which included the arrest of a man for sexual abuse of a woman inside a sleeping bag.

"He's occupying Rikers now," wrote Paul J. Browne, Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Police Department.

Another rumor that has been circulating alleges that the drop-off bus from Rikers Island has been rerouted to deliver recently released inmates directly to Zuccotti park in an attempt to undermine the protests. A spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Correction said the city was "absolutely not busing inmates to Zuccotti Park," and added that there has been a drop-off point in lower Manhattan since mid-August, 2010.

Many in the park feel that this line of thought is a distraction, and worry that the occupiers method of addressing security concerns is not working.

"My feeling is, it doesn't matter how they're here. They're here. We have to deal with them," said Deborah Goodman, a member of community watch. "I hope we don't get mired in process."

Goodman says when she first joined the group, they offered an hour of training to new members. Goodman, a retired legal secretary, was skeptical.

"An hour is not enough time to learn how to deal with this," she said. "I love this movement, but I think that right now we are in a period of critical growing pains."

Monday's meeting was difficult, said Haywood, a community watch group member who goes by one name and has been living in the park for three and a half weeks. But he said the meeting also showed signs of progress.

"There may not have been any resolutions, but there's greater involvement now, and a lot more people are on community watch," he said. "Internal conflict -- that's how all progressive movements end up dying, right? Right now we are figuring out how we are not going to let that happen."

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