Lines of Dissent

OccupyLSX and the Camp for Climate Action


By Tim Gee, November 2011

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 social change.
Photo Bond/Tallis

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