Location, Location, Location: Spatiality and Protest Camps

Occupy LSX, St Paul's Cathedral, London, 09/11/2011 @ktbuckle

The issue of spatiality for protest camps is a big one, especially for someone who is not trained as a Geographer.  As my work usually deals with media representations, this is a daunting task. While media representation is a significant aspect of protest camps, and indeed a space which is struggled over, it isn’t the focus today. Instead, the focus rests on the physical location which often forms its cornerstone. An understanding of space is key to making sense of the dynamics of a protest camp.Protest camps are often defined by their physical location and their location shapes how a camp and its occupiers are perceived by the public, how they are presented in the media and how politicians and authorities react to them. Yet while all of these acts of camping are protests in themselves, I would suggest from our research that there are four (4) types of locations protest camps usually take.  These categories are, of course, a work in progress.

I.  Camps at physical sites under threat

Protest camps may be built upon contested physical areas, such as the proposed site for building a new road or oil pipeline. In such cases, the presence of the protest camp is a physical and direct intervention on a site which is perceived by those camping as at risk; at risk from takeover, demolition, destruction or eviction. The act of camping on site physically prevents, if only temporarily, the contentious action from happening.  This type of protest camp commonly sees protesters occupying trees set for clearing, as with the Newbury Bypass and Minehaha Free State anti-roads camps. Other camps of this nature see activists construct barriers and dwellings in the pathway of proposed construction as with the No TAV campaign in Italy. A case could also be made that the recent Dale Farm protest camp would fall under this banner as well.

II.  Camps highlighting physical sites as threats

While this first set of camps take place on physical locations under threat, other camps directly target sites which are seen as threats. This was the case, for example, with Greenham  Common, where protesters camped out around the perimeter of a military base storing nuclear cruise missiles. Other peace camps, spread across four continents, followed suit with camps established outside of military bases and weapons manufacturing plants. In both instances of sites under threat and sites as threats, the physical location of these types of protest camps directs media attention towards the site as a contested area. This enables, or at the very least sustains, public dialogue and political pressure around the relevant issues.  Some Climate Camps function in this way, selecting a specific site of ‘carbon criminality’ that are both immediate targets of action and stand in for larger problems of airport expansion, coal power and oil-based economies.

III. Camps as Counter-Summits

Another set of protest camps are those established as sites of resistance or counter-summits to large international gatherings of global elites. Protest camps built around the Global Justice Movement took place on sites neighbouring meetings held by the WTO, G8, G20, FTAA and similar meetings. These camps sought to provide an open and inclusive public space to converge, share ideas, enact alternatives and challenge corporate globalisation. Thus the camps were not just spaces to plan protests but were protests themselves with their open, self-organized and good-spirited nature standing in sharp visual contrast to the ring fences and extensive militarization that accompanied such summits.

Over time the Global Justice camps became a ritualistic form of protest and often plans for the camp would begin before the location of a summit was announced. For example, planning for the 2005 Gleneagles G8 Summit began in fall 2003. Dissent! Network activists steadily developed the HoriZone EcoVillage for the Summit even before the location of the G8 was announced. Activists only knew the G8 would be in the UK. Once Gleneagles was announced as the venue, the Dissent! protest network then began exploring options for the camp to take place. The salient point is, the contested site was not a tethered location such as a military base, but was what Geographer Paul Routledge has called a ‘convergence space’; an idea that activists can organise around which was then given material form through announcing the physical location. This means that whereas for some protest camps the physical place of the camp creates the ‘convergence space’, for others, and particularly those with symbolic legacies such as summit mobilisations, this relationship is reversed.  Here, the convergence space is imagined prior to the physical creation of the camp.

IV. Camps Sites as Symbolic targets

Many protest camps from peace camps at military bases to climate camps at power stations have both a particular place-based political target and a broader symbolic one. The symbolic element of protest camp sites increases when protests are around issues such as consumer capitalism or greed that are so vast and hard to concretise. In these cases protesters pick sites which are seen to embody, and be a cause of, the issues at hand. This is perhaps best seen in the current example of Public Square occupations in Tahrir, Madrid, Greece and Israel/Palestine, as well as with the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Taking the square (or the park) in an area of symbolic value or taking a public space and then assigning symbolic value to it. Both the original Occupy Wall Street camp at Zuccotti Park and the Occupy London (Occupy LSX) selected sites for their proximity to the financial centres of New York and London.   Occupy Toronto also picked a public park – St James Park – and despite its close proximity to the financial district of Toronto, it is steeped in Democratic history.  Given that the Occupy Wall Street movement has a broad focus on inequalities caused by the state of hyper consumer capitalism and has more specific concerns around the financial sector, situating protest camps in close proximity to financial districts provides a physical and symbolic or visual challenge to business as usual.

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2 Responses to Location, Location, Location: Spatiality and Protest Camps

  1. Pingback: Location, Location, Location: Spatiality and Protest Camps [repost from Protest Camp blog] | pmmcc | Patrick McCurdy

  2. Daniel says:

    Brilliant discussion. However, I feel you have missed out one more crucial categorisation – the temporality of protest camps as on-going communities as opposed to protest camps as temporary autonomous zone. For example, Greenham Common and the Occupy protests also attempt to function as continuous experiments in alternative communities in ways which the Climate Camps and the anti-globalisation camps did not.

    In fact, Climate Camp attempted to be an experiment in alternative living but many acknowledged that it was precisely its nature as a temporary exhibit which impacting its failure to succeed in this regard and this was one of the most compelling reasons for its eventual dissolution. Temporary autonomous zones are thus experiments in utopia – Baudrillardian spectacles and advertisements for egalitarian societies which rarely have to combat the nitty-gritty unfortunalities of lived community.

    Temporary zones rarely have time for informal hierarchies to develop before they are dissolved whereas permanent zones must recognise and attempt to deal with them in ways which place existential pressure on the collective. What kind of informal hierachies tend to emerge in permanent camps which do not have time to manifest in temporary ones? In her seminal novel ‘The Dispossed’, Ursula LeGuin identifies knowledge, experience, age and social capital such as charm and charisma and the ability to constructively leverage a social network as being typical of informal hierachies which tend to develop in permanent horizontal societies – this includes protests camps.

    In addition to these, I would add that hierarchies predicated around pre-existing privileges tend to carry over into permanent protest camps – for example, witness the failure of OccupyGlasgow and OccupyEdinburgh to deal with allegations of sexism within the movement, or the failure of some of the occupations in America to combat race-related segregation. Temporary zones, meanwhile, may have similar problems for entirely different reasons – the climate camp movement for example was mainly white and middle-class, probably due to the failure of the movement to frame climate change as a black or working-class issue but segregation never emerged as a problem within the climate camp movement as it has in America, and never had to be dealt with in the same way that many occupies are now having to face real-world issues of class and privilege.

    In addition to these five categories, I would suggest two additional geographic factors are important in influencing the makeup of a protest camp both of which are broadly concerned with the physical ability for wider society to engage with them.

    On a macro-level, a protest camp can never aim to be completely isolated from its parent society – in particular, its constituents must come from somewhere and must have somewhere to go on to if their aims have been met and many constituents may have jobs or families they must travel to and from. Thus, protest camps have been most successful in big cities – Seattle in ’99, to use a typical example, succeeded, however briefly, in its aims in ways which many anti-G8 demonstrations did not and this may be influenced by the fact that G8 Summits have tended to be held in small, isolated rural areas. To use more recent examples, the climate camps in Scotland were not as well-attended as the climate camps in England – the climate camps in London proper were attended best of all and this had clear implications for the ability of the movement to spread its ideas.

    On a smaller scale, however, the physical micro-geographies of a protest camp also play a vitally important role in determining its makeup. In the past, protest camps have often had unashamedly radical aims matched by radical tactics. As this combination was seen as posing a threat to the status quo many protest camps – most notably the climate camps and anti-globilisation convergences – have faced repression from the authorities. This has often lead to elaborate physical defences but these defences – walls and gates have also had another, possibly unintended consequence. By clearly delimiting a well-defined geographic boundary between the inside and the outside, these camps have been incredibly effective at differentiating between the autonomous, egalitarian, consensus-based space within and the hierachical, coercive land without. This has had two primary effects – firstly, individuals who do not identify with the groups they perceive as being in control of the space within the camp have felt disempowered from entering – this may be another key factor behind the socioeconomic makeup of the climate camps, for instance. Secondly, inhabitants of walled camps have generally been much more succesful at creating the autonomous spaces they wish to imagine – climate camp, for instance, was able to rigorously enforce a safer spaces policy without any recourse to violence or the threat of violence in ways which many Occupy camps have not. In addition to the enforcement of safer spaces however, many walled camps have seemed to have much greater success in ensuring that the resources that the camp provides have been used to meet its indended purposes rather than redirected by minorities outside of the movement towards other ends. Acquisitive crime, additionally, appears to be much lower in walled camps despite the fact that it would probably be about as easy to steal from either walled- or non-walled camps.

    Many occupy camps, in comparison, have seen fit to dispense with walls and gates. Again, this had had two clear effects – firstly, the number of day-visitors and drop-ins has been vastly greater than the number of temporary visitors to the climate camps even accounting for disparaties in location (some climate camps, remember have been in similar locations to occupy camps) and this had a concurrent impact on both financial and logisitical donations received as well and, presumably, has greatly increased the extent to which occupy has been able to effectively disseminate its ideas. On the other hand, however, many occupy camps have found it very difficult to create or enforce a safer spaces policy and many have resorted to the threat of violence (members of OLSX for example has threatened to involve the police on numerous occasions to resolve disputes) in order to do what they perceive as necessary to keep themselves safe up to and including using violence itself.

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