NEW YORK — After a sexual assault at the crowded tent camp set up by Occupy Wall Street protestors in New York, security issues are starting to overshadow the more idealistic concerns of the activists.
Ironically, the intense police presence deployed to keep the protestors under control does not extend into the camp at Zuccotti Park itself, where less savory residents have started to appear among the several hundred anti-capitalist demonstrators.
"There are problems sometimes," admitted Sean Dolan, who takes part in the camp's kitchen, serving out free meals. "But we have our own security force, and usually, we are successful in de-escalating (tensions)."
That security force, comprised of volunteers, as in every other aspect of Zuccotti Park life, will step in to stop brawls or even expel troublemakers from the camp. Repeat offenders can also be expelled, Dolan said.
According to Occupy Wall Street's website, people involved in criminal activity are turned over to the police.
But that's not happening, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who criticized the "outrageous" practice of what he said was the protestors' attempt to exclude police and resolve criminal matters on their own.
Andrew Smith, who is part of the security detail, said the alleged sex assailant, who had been working in the kitchen, was immediately turned over. "OWS security personnel forcibly removed the individual and handed him directly to the NYPD," he said.
Self-policing, however, is complicated by the simultaneous policy of welcoming anyone and any cause to the non-stop protest. Signs protesting war, energy policy, Israel, China and high education costs can be seen, among many others, in the crowd.
The make-up of the population at Zuccotti Park is just as varied. People stay a night or a week, or just a few hours, then go, while only a few are permanent residents.
On a broader scale, there are divisions between the western end of the small park and the eastern end, where organizers have set up bustling attractions such as a library, a media center and a welcome desk. At the eastern end there are homeless people and travelers mixing heavily between the regular protestors.
"At least 50 people do nothing. They are here just for food, and for comfort," said Monica Lopez, 25, who joined OWS after taking part in the "Indignant" protests in Spain.
Lopez said she was not against the presence of the squatters, saying that "homeless people also have a problem with the system, but we are not capable to take care of all that, the drugs, alcohol."
The sex assault case set off alarm bells and a wave of negative press coverage. Occupy Wall Street responded by creating a women's safe area.
"We have a women-only tent, we have been proactive," Karanja Gacuca, a media representative. The troublemakers are a minority he said, adding: "We don't have a homeless population problem. The city does."