After the Encampments


The history of activism is a cat-and-mouse game of surprising tactical innovations that spark an insurrectionary situation and the counterstrategies developed to put down the revolt. In 1848, the invention of the barricade toppled the King of France and sparked a Europe-wide people's uprising. In 1999, the unique mixture of a carnivalesque mood with human lockboxes disrupted the World Trade Organization's Seattle meeting and launched the alterglobalization movement. In 2003, the speed of the Internet empowered the world's first worldwide, synchronized antiwar protest. In each of these cases, the power structures were taken by surprise, were slow to respond but eventually, through trial-and-error, discovered a successful counterstrategy.  If there is one law of activism it is that every tactic which works initially will eventually be defeated if too often repeated.

From the perspective of the status quo putting down a revolution is a matter of buttressing oneself against unforeseen assaults and waiting out the initial storm while continually experimenting with responses. Once an effective response is hit upon it is replicated across society and used to suppress the revolt everywhere. In 1848, for example, the barricade was practically invulnerable because the military was unprepared for street fighting (they approached the barricades head-on, at its strongest point) and were constrained by the ethical code that cannons cannot be used against one's own people. Once this spell was broken, once the government grew desperate enough to use cannons to destroy citizen houses so that barricades could be attacked from their flank, the revolution of 1848 fizzled out. And yet, even after a tactic is neutralized it lingers on within the insurgent imagination. It wasn't until the 1871 Paris Commune that the barricade was finally shown to be utterly useless, perhaps even a detriment. Our task as revolutionary activists is thus quite difficult: we must continually innovate; we must perceive immediately when one tactic begins to fail; we must be ready to deploy another stratagem. 

#OCCUPY was birthed when the Tahrir Uprising was combined with the Spanish acampadas and transposed onto an unexpected place: the most potent symbol of casino capitalism: Wall Street. From a strictly tactical perspective, the first phase of #OCCUPY was comprised of a permanent encampment and a general assembly. The encampment claimed symbolic territory and the general assembly enabled organic, bottom-up self-governance. It was the quantity and autonomy of these encampments – that they grew despite an early media blackout, that locals showered them with financial and material support, that they functioned as a viable alternative to the corporate-State – which presented the greatest threat to the status quo. Thus, what happened next is not surprising: after several failed attempts nationally to foreclose the encampments, the corporate-State finally discovered this counterstrategy: first, announce an eviction deadline; then, amass a large show of force which provokes a corresponding mobilization of the encampment's local supporters, exhausting their resources; next, pretend as if you have decided not to enforce the eviction and let it seem like the encampment has won; finally, come back suddenly a day, week or month later and carry out a military-style raid when the encampment is sparsely populated and unable to "cry wolf." We can safely say that this successful technique will be used against every encampment from on.

Attacked on one front, our natural inclination is often to concentrate our energy on winning back lost ground. This may not be the wisest option. In this particular case, we could very easily get stuck in a game of diminishing returns by expending our resources to set up encampments once they've been taken down knowing they will be taken down once again. If we were not able to defend our encampment from eviction when we were strongest, why would we be able to defend it when we are weakest? 

This is not to say that we should abandon the encampments but rather that now might be the perfect moment to embrace the innovation that is already happening. Encampments are the site of new ways of being and new forms of revolutionary social organization. At a purely practical level, they provide the food, shelter and resources that are absolutely necessary to many of us. However, the creative re-imagining of the encampment model has already begun … we should encourage it. 

We can accelerate the #OCCUPYHOMES meme by making a concerted push on December 6 and beyond to set up squats in bank-owned, foreclosed homes. In addition, we can facilitate the #OCCUPYMIGRATION of occupiers from hostile to friendly cities. There are, for example, over ninety tents at #OCCUPYBERKELEY even though #OCCUPYOAKLAND's encampment a few miles away has been shut down. 

While the corporate-State chases symbolic tents, we can start consolidating and fortifying our outdoor encampments in friendly territory until we are strong enough to resist foreclosure. Meanwhile in cities everywhere, let's quietly set up local indoor Occupy Homes in every neighborhood. Both of these spaces just might become the bases for our Spring Offensive.

Micah White