The Occupation trap in history

Occupation isn’t a new tactic.  Protesters have established permanent encampments to make political claims and support activism many times in the past.  (See our Veterans Day discussion of the Bonus Army.)

The camps, dramatic demonstrations of commitment, provide an ongoing reminder of an important issue, and can kick start all kinds of other activism.  At the same time, occupiers often become consumed with the day to day exigencies of maintaining themselves and the camp, thinking more about tents, trash, and toilets than taxes.   Sometimes, as in the Wall Street Occupation in Zuccotti Park, authorities clear them out, more or less ruthlessly.  Often, however, they putter on, shift through different foci, generating less and less attention and becoming politically irrelevant.

As the Depression set in, people without any place else to go established encampments, often in empty areas on the outskirts of cities or near freight yards.  Derisively termed Hoovervilles, they weren’t explicitly political, but their very existence was an indictment of government’s response to the Depression.  Local authorities often tolerated the shanty towns, and their own concerns about crime and sanitation, because they didn’t have any other place to put the homeless.  Occupants left when they could find jobs or homes, and as World War II started, local authorities began clearing out the encampments.

In the 1980s, NATO’s efforts to place intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe generated massive public opposition.  Activists protested at the polls, in massive demonstrations in virtually every large city, and at the planned sites for deployment.  Some activists established more or less permanent encampments at the military bases scheduled to host new weapons.  The crowds would swell for large planned demonstrations or civil disobedience efforts, but a few people (or a few dozen or more, depending upon the time) remained between those campaigns, living in tents and sometimes staging small scale efforts to trespass on the bases.

The challenges and the the character of the camps depended upon the place and who organized them.  Greenham Common became the site of an explicitly feminist women’s

A trailer home at the Moleworth peace camp, 1985

camp; activists saw the campaign against ground launched cruise missiles as part of a much larger feminist agenda.  At Faslane, near the deployment of Trident nuclear submarines in Scottland, activists embraced an economic agenda as well as peace concerns.  At the Comiso camp in Sicily activists had to face not only the state, but also the mafia, which orchestrated the murder of one of the organizers.  (This is not a complete list of peace camps.  There were many encampments, some lasting only a few weeks, others continuing for years.)

Inspired by the European encampments, American feminists established the Seneca Women’s Peace Encampment, in Romulus, New York, near both the site of the historic conference establishing an international women’s movement (1848) and an Army Depot.

The missile sites were far from urban centers, but activists nonetheless had to negotiate spaces to stage protests.  Sometimes, this meant camping on land owned by supporters of the cause rather than public spaces, and hiking to stage an assault on the military base.

Once committed individuals had devoted so much effort to establishing and defending these sites, they were loathe to take them down, even after the end of the cold war.  Greenham Common lasted until the year 2000, when the camp was replaced by plans to establish a commemorative site.  The Seneca Falls encampment continued in some form through 2006. (Here’s a neat oral history site featuring interviews with the activists.)  Apparently the Faslane peace camp is still in operation in some way, staging actions and maintaining a presence on facebook and myspace.  (Myspace!)  The point: a few people continued to maintain the camps long after most others stopped paying attention.

At around the same time, university-based activists opposed to apartheid in South Africa used the construction of shantytowns on their campuses as part of their campaigns to get their universities to divest themselves of holdings in companies that did business in South Africa.  Hampshire College (my alma mater) was the first school to divest in 1977–before I got there.  Schools with larger portfolios took longer, and campus-based organizing grew in the middle 1980s.  Activists at Cornell University constructed the first shantytown in the middle of their campus in 1985; within 18months, shantytowns had spread to dozens of elite college campuses.  Some students slept outside, but classrooms, libraries, and dorms were nearby.   (Sarah Soule is my expert on the divestment movement and the spread of the shantytowns.)  Although the shantys were controversial on campuses, there was much more activism going on off-campus, including large protests, a global boycott of South Africa by artists and athletes, divestment campaigns targeted at companies and local governments, and massive public education campaigns.  Artists United against Apartheid produced a song and video I still find powerful:

The point: the encampment was one tactic in a much larger and more diverse campaign.

In 2005, Cindy Sheehan set up camp outside President George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas.  She wanted a meeting with the president to discuss the justification of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (where her son, Army Specialist Casey Sheehan, was killed in 2004).  President Bush refused to meet with her, so she camped outside by the road on public lands.  She was soon joined by other antiwar activists and relocated to land owned by a supporter of their cause.

The vigil in the hot Texas summer was big news in August.  President Bush cleared brush, bicycled, and golfed while the activists protested.  But the president cut his vacation short, returned to Washington, and the activists stayed, for a while, sort of, for another two years, getting progressively less attention.  Cindy Sheehan herself traveled around the country, continuing to speak out against the wars.

If you know of other occupations, please let us know.  In the meantime, it seems that the historical record suggests that the encampment is a political tactic that can work in generating attention–sometimes, and that it’s most likely to be effective when accompanied by a much larger and more diversified movement.

Eviction from Zuccotti Park could turn out to be the event that sets the Occupy movement loose to create a bigger and more effective political movement.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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3 Responses to The Occupation trap in history

  1. Magnus Jacobsen says:

    In 2009 a group of Iraqi refugees (about 60), who had been denied political asylum, in coordination with left wing activists occupied a church in Copenhagen, Denmark, for about 3 months (with the consent of the local pastor). The action was called ‘The Iraqis in the Church’ and Kirkeasyl (which is danish for ‘Sanctuary’). The action garnered a lot of attention on the issue (which for many years hadn’t been problematized in the media), it raised the activities for people supporting refugee rights (a 7-10k march on the day after the eviction). I would say it brought the political issue of refugees rights to the center of political discussion during the occupation, and for some time after. The political rhetoric of both sides got considerably tougher, and the government at the time took a non-negotiable approach to the issue. They tried to expel the refugees as fast as possible, even though it meant that the Iraqi’s asylum applications got hasty review (kinda sad, last week a former Iraqi asylum seeker from Denmark was found decapitated in Iraq, I don’t know if he was part of the occupation group though). During the occupation, but mostly afterwards, the group tried to be creative in the fight. Using legal methods (finding ways, described as loopholes by the government, to get green cards for some of the refugees), educational efforts to get support from the public, protests and rallies, and civil disobedience to make it difficult to make the deportations. The group shutdown in 2010 when all of the Iraqis had either gotten asylum because of reviews of there cases (which was made possible because the deportations got delayed by protests) or were expelled. – the group’s facebook page. – one of the activists speaking about the experince of using non-violent civil disobedience.

  2. Pingback: Occupy diversifies; takes a building | Politics Outdoors

  3. Pingback: Stanford and the Fossil Free campaign | Politics Outdoors

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