The Occupations of the Public Squares

The tactic of occupations of public squares was one of the main political movements of 2011 – a year which saw a rise in extra-parliamentary movements, as people lost confidence in the traditional political movements. No longer with faith in the system, traditional lobbying means such as petitions, pressure on elected representatives and marches was abandoned in favour of more publically visible and inclusive forms of pressure.

The tactic of occupation of visible public squares has its roots in the occupations in Tunisia and Egypt in the January of that year which demanded the overthrow of the regime of repressive regimes, and was taken up the Greeks and the Spanish in May. In September, the Occupy Wall Street movement had also adopted the tactic and by 15th October the tactic was in use across the world, but by the end of the year, the movement was all but dead. Comparing and contrasting the role of occupations within these three spheres: the Arab world, Europe and the US,  examining their affinity and looking at the differences gives us a bit of insight into the approach and tactics that were adopted.

The Arab Spring

The first occupation of a public area was in Tunisia on 14th January 2011, Citizens converged on Avenue Bourguiba, the same place they had gathered to demand an end to colonial rule and named after the country’s first post-independence president.  Unlike previous attempts at such gatherings, the police tolerated the gathering, filling the area.  It was not until protesters scaled the walls of the overlooking Interior Ministry that police intervened, firing tear gas and chasing protesters away, but by that night, Ben Ali had gone.

Later that month on 25th January, protesters started to gather in Tahir Square in Cairo, seeking to overthrow the repressive regime of Mubark.  Previous attempts to gather, most notably in opposition to the Iraq War had been brutally put down, but protesters were determined that this time they would hold the area.  That night, the state security forces tried to clear it, but that had the effect of making it an even more potent symbol and within a few days, several hundred thousand had gathered. Water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition were all used against the protesters.  Within a month, on 11th February, Mubarak had resigned.  The following day, people took to the square, this time with brooms, to clean the debris in a symbolic act of cleansing the new Egypt which they had reclaimed.

In Yemen, after ongoing demonstrations through January, protesters occupied Change Square in front of the main university in Sana’a on 18th February.  On 18th March, the area was brutally cleared as security forces opened fire on the protesters killing 52 and injuring hundreds of others.  Despite the tactic of occupation being abandoned, protests continued eventually resulting the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, after he was severely wounded in a rocket attack.

In Syria, the main occupation in Homs was not nearly so successful.  Spurred on by the events in Tunisia and Egypt, on April 18th, protesters gathered at Clock Tower Square, which they renamed “Dignity Square”, expecting a clampdown, they made plans for the defense of the square and started to establish field hospitals for the repression that they expected to follow.  In the event, the repression was brutal and deadly – hundreds were murdered in the early hours of the following morning as security forces stormed the area and opened fire on the crowd, marking the start of the bloody civil war which is still engulfing Syria.

The Indignatos Movement

The Indignatos movement grew out of the Real Democracy internet movement which started in January 2011. Rejecting the traditional forms of political power, parties and trade unions, it sought the support of wider civic society while making a direct appeal to the unemployed, poorly paid, the subcontractors, the precariat and young people. This combination of civic support combined with the involvement of isolated, unorganised workers bypassed the hierarchical structures which govern access to power. The call went out on 15th May 2011 for people to take to the streets – not converge on a central symbolic point, but to take to their own city and town centres.

In  Spain, approximately 130K people participated in the demonstrations and marches which were organised the length and breadth of the country.   The main concentration was in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol.  This e met with clampdowns, particularly in Madrid where people started camping out in Puerta del Sol, where a swift eviction the following morning saw police drag the protesters away bodily.  In Catalonia, protesters camped out at Plaza del Catalunya in Barcelona.  A brutal eviction followed on 27th May, where police beat protesters peacefully sitting on the ground, injuring over a hundred.  In Greece,  the occupation of Syntagma was held for several months, swelled by general strikes throughout the summer months, before being evicted on 20th July when riot police were sent in to remove the protestors.

Several other more minor  public occupations occurred in a variety of other cities in Southern Europe, but were relatively quickly and peacefully disperse by the authorities.

The Occupy Movement

On 17th September, Occupy Wall Street was born.  Advertised in advance, the first two choices of locations, One Chase Manhattan Plaza and Bowling Green Park were sealed off by the police, but the third Zuccotti Park, where the occupation eventually took place was left unsecured.  On 1st October, a planned protest march on the Brooklyn Bridge, organised by Occupy Wall Street, turned into an unwary standoff between police and protesters with approximately 700 arrested, but still the occupation of the park continued.

The protest gained international attention and following a global call on 15th October to “Occupy Everywhere”, the protest spread across the United States and worldwide – primary within the global West.  Occupy protests took place in 600 communities in the USA, together with over a hundred further protest camps established in 82 countries.  Occupy Oakland – in an area with historic tensions between the police and the population – was one of the most militant camps, and saw a brutal eviction on 25th October, with many arrested and several injuries including a Iraq war veteran suffering a skull fracture when hit by a tear gas canister.

Many of the smaller camps petered out within a few weeks as exhausted and overwrought activists came to terms with the practicalities of running a 24 hour protest with winter fast approaching.  Issues over sanitation and safety also came to the fore, as a thefts and assaults within the camps became a serious issue.  The attraction of the camps to marginalised people – particularly homeless people, people with mental health issues or issues with drug use, put additional pressure on the camps which had little experience of dealing with these issues, as they appealed to the authorities for assistance and bewailed their inaction.

The final eviction of the flagship camp at Zuccotti Park came on 15th November, when police moved in to clear the area amid rising concerns over sanitation and safety.  By the end of the year only Occupy London remained as a major base, until it too was finally cleared in February 2012.

Motivation, Philosophy and Aims

Although the tactic of occupying public areas may have been common across all three manifestations, the philosophies and aims behind them differed.  In the Arab Spring, prompted by the rise in food prices and state repression, the demand was very clear: to rid the country of a hated dictator and establish free and open elections.  People converged on public areas which had historic connections and were publically visible, frequently in view of the political authorities.  Its primary slogan, which resonated across the countries involved was “The People want the Overthrow of the Regime” –  a clear demand with a tangible outcome.

The Indignatos, also established their camps in highly visible areas, although more connected to the polity than to the political authorities – driven by the bank bailouts and austerity measures which were, and are continuing to, cripple Southern Europe, there was a demand for transparency in the political process.  Their demand of “Real democracy now!”, indicated the frustration that they felt that although they may have nominal democracy, the actual decisions were taken by faceless beaurocrats against the expressed wishes of the people that they proported to represent.  This demand was far less focused: a simple change of government insufficient, as all flavours offered tasted the same.

In contrast the Occupy Movement more frequently adopted less visible sites, such as parks or wasteground, rather than locations which were already imbibed with political significance or publically obvious as in the Arab Spring or the Indignatos movement.  . With the slogan “We are the 99%”  and motivated by social and economic inequality and the level of corporate influence on Western governments, it explicitly refused to express demands.   An attempt to formulate such – known as the “99% Declaration” was explicitly rejected by the movement and denounced as an attempt to co-opt it.

Organisational Management, Safety and Security

Of the longer occupations, Tahir Square, was by far the most organised in practical terms. Considerable regard was given to the security of the area, with protesters defending the area, checking identification at the entry points to the square and denying entry to anyone associated with the Interior Ministry, long queues form as people sought to gain entry to an area which had become a temporary autonomous zone with food, drink, creative workshops, impromtu health clinics and creative workshops.  Despite the subsequent severe sexual violence which has been noted in the protests following the revolution, during the main occupation of Tahir Square at the start of 2011, this was not an issue, with a number of women camping there safely.  Once Mubarak was overthrown people again took to the streets, this time with brooms, in both a practical act and symbolic gesture to clean the square which had become a symbol of post-revolutionary Egypt.

In contrast despite the best attempts of dedicated activists, many of the occupations of the Occupy Movement, became incubation grounds for disease, with “Zuccotti lung” affecting many of the participants. Athough attempts to address the practical issues of healthcare, food and security were made, participants found themselves simply overwhelmed, and appealling to authorities to assist them deal with the social problems that although they had been aware of, and which for many were a motivating factor in their participation, they were confronted with head on for possibly the first time.

The level of sexual violence within the camps became notorious, with a number of rapes being reported at several locations including Occupy Glasgow.  Thefts were commonplace, hard drug use was present in many of the camps, a number of physical fights and attacks broke out within the camps and the social problems that the camps sought to highlight and address, such as drug addiction and mental health difficulties themselves proved a threat to other occupants.

In the Arab Spring, the main danger faced by activists was repressive security forces which killed hundreds of people and injured thousands more; in the Occupy movement the main threat to safety and wellbeing was other participants.  The Occupy movement’s appeal to state authorities to intervene to shore up the safety and security that they themselves were unable to provide is a bitter irony of the levels of social inequality and marginalisation within Western societies that even protests to highlight such issues are overwhemed by them.

Inclusion

In all three movements, the occupations were notionally open to all, however in Tahir Square checkpoints were set up to protect those occupying the square from members of the Interior Ministry, while in the Occupy Movement several people were excluded from various camps due to difficulties with managing their behaviour in order to keep people safe.

The Arab Spring took place in countries which are frequently divided along religious lines, however there appeared to be little tension between the various groups during the occupations.  In several of the occupations, most notably in Homs, there was a call for women to leave for their own safety recognising the risks of a violent attack by state security forces.  Although many stayed, many did indeed leave under pressure.  The Occupy Movement by contrast resonated with the marginalisation of female and non-white participants.  The levels of sexual violence, generalised sexism and casual racism which were demonstrated time and time again marginalised those who were already marginalised within society.

The Occupy slogan of “We are the 99%”,  was ill-chosen at best, originating in a country where the global 1% reside and spreading to the rest of its homelands, while the members of the global 1% who do live in those countries – the migrants, the homeless, the drug users and the mentally ill were seen as parasitic intruders into a worthy cause, best left to the authorities to deal with.

Legacy

It is said that history repeats itself, first time is tragedy, the second time as farce. In this case there was a small summer intermission somewhere between the two.

Tunisia and Egypt progress bumpily along; changes made, but a revolution incomplete.  Syria is a bloody disaster, while Yemen teeters on a knife edge,  The tactics of peaceful mass occupation given over to more direct forms of resistance, while the emergence of sexual violence, particularly in Egypt and ethnic division , particularly in Syria have driven wedges between the opposition.

The Indignatos movement in Spain  continues although more integrated into other radical movements particularly the unions, although maintaining their autonomous character while the occupation of Syntagma devolved into local assemblies, diffusing the central mass occupation outwards into the districts of Athens building links between the established squats and radical groups and providing an additional layer of support for Syriza, performing a bridging act between the anarchists and the parliamentary left.  Both countries have however seen a massive rise in fascism in the intervening years.

And the Occupy movement?  The “brand name” carries on in charitable initiatives such as Occupy Sandy, which organised relief workers in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy; launched several co-operative businesses, such as OccuCopy, a print and design co-op, while Occupy Farms and Occupy Homes have organised to prevent foreclosures.

But as a tactic, the peaceful mass occupation of public squares is dead.  Where there is a regime brutal enough to unite the people, massacres have resulted, where regimes have been sufficiently benevolent to pose no significant threat to protesters, they have been forced to step in to deal with the threat that some protesters posed to others.

The irony is that the issues that all three movements sought to tackle are global.  Mere regime replacement cannot not bring about any significant or lasting change so long as the West retains control over the strings of the new rulers; and the social injustice which people railed against in the West is only the tip of the iceberg of global injustice, built on the back of the misogyny and white supremacism which found its way into each and every Occupy encampment.

Certainly the fundamental issue is economic exploitation, but that exploitation is premised on a form of divide and rule, backed by the corporate media who provide us with our socially acceptable narratives, who encourage the othering of women and of non-whites which make rapes which occurred forgettable and the massacres of scores of people a footnote in history as the West watches for its chances of further neo-colonial occupation.

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