At exactly the moment when tents are disappearing, when, at least for the winter, Occupy is trading long-term omnipresence for short-term actions, Occupy DC made news for building a large, wooden, winterized structure in a city park. The Occupy DC barn fiasco can be understood, in part, as a move to double-down on the endurance of the Occupy movement precisely when it is at risk of losing that secret ingredient that made it powerful: time.
As Sarah Wenechak wrote, tents pitched in city parks come to be more than practical but also symbolic. And part of this value is that they represent time. Overall, much of the writing about Occupy has focused on space. Traditional protest actions, like marches, claim physical space but merely do so for short periods of time (especially as the march moves from location to location occupying any particular space for a only very brief amount of time). While that big umbrella term “occupy” certainly refers to space, there has also been a special focus on time.
A tent, for example, proclaims that these are not just marches or protests that appear with fury and dissipate when the point has been made but instead signify the passing of time, of bodies sleeping and enduring together in a permanent way. And this is (was?) part of the fundamental character of the movement.
But, of course, the environment became increasingly hostile to the tent. Cold weather can be debilitating as anyone who has spent time at one of the icy encampments knows well. Most importantly, many cities simply stopped tolerating the encampments by dramatically and sometimes violently clearing them away one by one. In response, most of the various geographically-based Occupy movements have decided not to attempt re-camping through the winter but instead focusing on what some have called “phase 2” which involves a variety of quicker actions. Prominently, there has been the “occupy our homes” day of action as well as the focus on West Coast ports.
However, given the power of permanence, what does the movement lose when focusing on brief actions versus the interminability of long-lasting occupations?
Enter Occupy DC and their big, wooden barn:
This particular occupation in McPherson Square near the White House has enjoyed relatively little interference from a city used to political protest. Occupy DC is now the largest remaining encampment. Faced with the option of moving to “phase 2” and focusing mainly on short-term direction actions, Occupy DC has doubled down on unbroken permanence and further dug in.
The first major police standoff for Occupy DC came December 4th when the group erected a 24x24x17-foot wooden barn overnight. The city immediately told the group to take it down. Instead, protesters clamored to the roof, prompting a day long standoff that ultimately resulted in 31 of the protesters arrested and the structure trashed by the city.
The symbolism of a large wooden structure appearing overnight in a city-park is clear: Occupy can still be about persistence, durability, omnipresence and longevity. “We need a symbol of our permanency here”, one protester said.
This ethic of ceaseless immovability has been critical for the movement. When you wake up, there will be tents. When you go to lunch or out to a bar, there will be tents. Regardless what you think of the movement you knew at any given moment there were people sleeping in tents in city spaces all across the country. The physical perpetuity of the camps leads to a sort of cognitive permanence, lingering in the head of people across the country and world. The endlessness forces questions about who these people are, what they demand and what this movement means.
If time was the movement’s secret ingredient, that is, if the endurance of the movement is central to its efficacy, then taking a break might very well kill momentum. Will there be consequence to the disappearance of tent-based Occupy encampments around the country? Can a movement forcefully and sometimes violently denied physical space still hold onto the power of time?