Occupy Dallas Addresses Need to Keep a Clean, Safe Camp Amidst Sexual Assault Allegations

Occupy Dallas protestors outside Lew Sterrett yesterday following the arrest of 23 at a downtown Chase bank branch
Occupy Dallas protestors outside Lew Sterrett yesterday following the arrest of 23 at a downtown Chase bank branch
Photo by Anna Merlan

Several news outlets have reported in recent days that the Dallas Police Department is investigating the possible sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl at the Occupy Dallas camp near City Hall. The original report, from KTVT-Channel 11, cited an anonymous source within the police department who said that a 14-year-old girl had been staying at the camp. She initially told officers that she had sex with a man in his early 20s and, per the CBS11 report, "engaged in sexual activity with several other people."

According to the report, she is now refusing to cooperate with investigators. The news has since been picked up by both the Occupy Wall Street homepage and a host of conservative news blogs, including Glenn Beck outfit The Blaze and Breitbart TV. As of this morning, city spokesperson Frank Librio would only say: "Police are investigating." But the City Attorney's Office, which has an agreement with Occupy Dallas allowing them to set up camp behind Dallas City Hall, is watching to make sure they don't violate that deal.

"Really at this point, everything is all hearsay and rumor," said 26-year-old Michael Prestonise, who's part of the group's communications committee and is acting as a spokesman. "What I've heard is that a girl showed up with several people, [including] her boyfriend, and alleged that she was 19. ... She stayed for about a day and a half. Sunday morning, the police came and put her in handcuffs."

It was only then, he said, that the camp learned that she was a 14-year-old runaway. This version of events was repeated by four other Occupy Dallas protesters over the course of the day yesterday, in separate interviews at both their camp and outside Lew Sterrett, where about 20 of them waited for news on people who had been arrested outside Chase Bank around midday.

Prestonise said that although the Occupy Camp was still awaiting final word from the police on what had happened, the incident crystallized concerns the core group of occupiers have about knowing exactly who's present in the camp at all times.

"We're in the process of establishing a registration process to identify who are actual members versus who are outsiders," he said.

Compounding that problem, he said, "DPD, homeless shelters and Lew Sterrett are all directing people here. We've had several people show up and say that was the case, that they were sent there by a homeless shelter or by a DPD officer. We don't have official names or badge numbers yet, but we know the DART police are sending people here as well."

Prestonise had several explanations for why police and homeless shelters would refer people to Occupy Dallas.

"On one hand, I can see a sort of, 'Hey, there's a place that will give you food and shelter,'" he said. "On the other hand, it definitely does disrupt our day-to-day operations. We worry that people will have to look over their shoulders, or worry that people will walk away with our equipment. We've identified that as an issue."

Another occupier, Aaron, 34, also said he had been told by several homeless people that they were referred by police to the Occupy Dallas Camp.

"This has been going on all over the country to try and break up the movement," he said. He felt the police were deliberately introducing "unsavory types" into the camp. "We try to stay nonviolent here," he said. "But if they're putting violent people in here, it gives them excuses to break it up."

Prestonise said that every day more and more people from North Texas arrive, "asking what can we do, can we donate, we want to stay a couple hours to support you." But if people are found to be underage, "we'll ask those people to leave, to return home or to shelters from where they came."

He also criticized the media portrayal of Occupy encampments as "free-for-alls, with free love in every tent," or as seedy dens "filled with rapists and pedophiles."

"When I first heard about [the alleged assault]," he said, "it definitely was a concern to me. If we find people in the camp who admit to having relations with that girl, I'm going to identify them to police and turn them over for arrest. We're definitely enforcing and making a point that people don't break the penal code, that people obey the laws of the city," including, he said, the 11 p.m. weeknight curfew for children under 17.

"The unfortunate reality is that when stuff like that happens, it dilutes the message," Prestonise said. "People forget what we're here for."

The city, of course, is keeping a close eye on all of this -- both the police investigation into the alleged assault and yesterday's arrests.

"If the law-abiders in the group will disassociate themselves from the law-breakers, we'll be happy to work with the law-abiders," says First Assistant City Attorney Chris Bowers, who reminds that his office isn't the only one involved in the decision-making process. "And if they don't, our chances of continuing to work with the Occupy Dallas movement certainly diminish greatly."

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