On 15 October 2011 activists in Britain set up a protest camp outside the London Stock Exchange. In so doing we were drawing our inspiration from Occupy Wall Street in the US. But we were also following in the footsteps of a wider wave of revolt — the tented city in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, the Indignados in Spain and the youth protests in Israel to name only three. By now, in hundreds of towns and cities across the world people have taken to the outdoors and set up tents as part of a global revolt against neoliberalism. But although it has risen to global prominence in 2011, the tactic of creating autonomous space as a form of resistance is not a new one.
Perhaps the most notable example in history is the self-governing Paris Commune of 1871, which was forcibly broken up after only a few months. In the Paris of 1968 a section of the city was occupied by students and renamed the ‘Heroic Vietnam Quarter’. A contemporary example can be seen in the Chiapas region of Mexico — where the Zapatistas have established autonomous communities — in turn acting as a continuous inspiration to activists across the world.
An important example of the use of autonomous space in Britain began in February 1992, when a group of travellers decided to pitch tents on the proposed site of a proposed motorway. They were soon joined by environmental activists. Together they remained there for the next 10 months. When campaigners began making preparations for a similar initiative at another site in the south of England the government got scared and announced that their planned road project there would not be going ahead.
Compelled by that momentum, campaigners kept building the movement and organised protest camps elsewhere. Tactics borrowed ideas from anti- logging activists in North America and Australia such as lock-ons, ecotage and tripods (three poles attached together with a person at the top), and fused them with home-grown tactics suggested by parts of the climbing community, to stretch both the wits and the budgets of the authorities in their efforts to remove them. Due to the heightened publicity and expense, the roads project became untenable. In 1996, the government decided to abandon its plans and axe plans for 77 new roads. The protesters’ efforts had paid off. Once again a feature of this movement was the autonomous spaces of the protest camps.
One of the support networks for the Roads Protests was called Reclaim the Streets. In 1995 they turned from the defensive to the offensive, by setting up autonomous ‘street parties’ in the middle of existing roads rather than proposed ones. On perhaps the most audacious occasion, thousands of people closed down a motorway. Underneath the skirts of stilt-walkers, people drilled holes into the roads in order to plant trees, the sound disguised by the music emanating from amplifiers all around them.
The tactic spread. On 16 May 1998 a ‘global street party’ took place in 24 countries and on 18 June 1999 (dubbed ‘J18’) movements in 43 countries took part. When in November of that year, activists in Seattle succeeded in combining a street party with strategic road blockades to close down a meeting of the World Trade Organization, the movement could no longer be ignored. Every meeting of the world’s elite that could be disrupted was disrupted using the tactic of creating autonomous spaces of resistance in the shadow of capitalist summits as one of their methods.
It was at the camp set up for the 2005 mobilisation against the G8 in Scotland that environmentalists started discussing the possibility using similar tactics to focus attention on the places that CO2 was emitted rather than the summits where decisions were made. And so preparations for the Camp for Climate Action (Climate Camp) began.
The Climate Camp concept rolls in to one the main characteristics of a training camp, autonomous space and sustainable community. Most importantly, the focus is action — either there or thereafter. The first Climate Camp took place in summer 2006 on land close to a coal-fired power station in the north of England. As with Reclaim the Streets the tactic spread and Climate Camps — or their equivalents — were established in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the US, Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, France, Germany, Belgium, India, New Zealand, Australia, Ghana and the Ukraine.
In Britain the link between Climate Camp and #Occupy protests is most obviously apparent in the use of public camping as a protest tactic, but also in the practice of consensus decision-making and the opposition to any economic model which hurts people and the planet. The ‘Capitalism is Crisis’ banner which adorned UK Climate Camp entrances in 2009 even flew over Occupy London for a time. But #Occupy in Britain is not simply the latest version of Climate Camp. It also reflects a growing alliance with the new youth and student movement which last year displayed its militancy and ability when the Conservative Party headquarters and then university lecture theatres across the country were occupied in protest at tuition fee rises and education cuts. For many people it is the first protest they have ever participated in.
This is due in part to the massive dose of hope injected in to every person who strives for a better world by the movement in Egypt. In a recent interview for New Internationalist, activist Gigi Ibrahim called the tent city in Tahrir Square ‘a mini-example of what direct democracy looks like. People took charge of everything — trash, food, security. It was a self-sustaining entity. And in the middle of this, under every tent, on every corner, people were having debates about their demands, the future, how things should go economically and politically. It was fascinating. It was a mirror of what Egypt would look like if it was democratic.’ It is likely that anyone who has participated in the recent wave of #Occupy camps would be able to recognise this sentiment.
Perhaps by coincidence there is a startling parallel with another movement in the Middle East more than a century ago. In 1906, in the context of a financial crisis, thousands of people camped outside the British Embassy in Persia to demand greater democracy and limits on the power of the Shah. They gave speeches, studied constitutionalism, and learnt from one another in their own ‘open-air school’. Persia’s first elections took place before the year was out.
So it can be seen that the creation of autonomous space can play a role in bringing about social change. Camps can be spaces for people to debate and learn from one another on a large scale, outside of the structures of authority and hegemony that shape ordinary life. But while the awakening of critical consciousness is central to effective struggle it is not enough. Only by using camps as bases from which direct actions are taken which undermine the interests of the ‘haves’, are such camps successful in their aims.
Gigi Ibrahim put it thus after the downfall of Mubarak: ‘if the struggle wasn’t there, if the people didn’t take to the streets, if the factories didn’t shut down, if workers didn’t go on strike, none of this would have happened.’ As the 99% takes on the ‘global Mubarak’ of undemocratic global institutions and financialised capitalism, it is crucial that we heed those words.
Tim Gee is the author of Counterpower
-- a history of the strategy and tactics that have led to transformational
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