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Re: <nettime> Follow-up on Protest Camps: a framework for understanding
Patrick McCurdy on Fri, 1 Jul 2011 20:13:34 +0200 (CEST)


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Re: <nettime> Follow-up on Protest Camps: a framework for understanding


Hi All,

Given the ongoing discussion here on protest camps, I thought I would
include the text of a "response" a blog post/message on the Tactical
Media Files blog on the tactics of camping. Be warned, the text is
long but it is intended to offer a very broad and provisional sketch
of a conceptual framework about protest camps that we (myself, Anna
Feigenbaum and Fabian Frenzel) have been working on as part of a
larger project.

As always, we welcome any comments or [productive] criticisms you may have.

best
patrick [fabian and anna too]


Protest Camps =96 some reflections on a framework of analysis
By Anna Feigenbaum, Fabian Frenzel, Patrick McCurdy

>From Tahrir Square to Trafalgar Square, from the Puerto del Sol to the
streets of Oaxaca, protest camps are a highly visible feature of
social movements=92 activism across the world. Protest camps are spaces
where people come together to imagine alternative worlds and
articulate contentious politics, often in confrontation with the
state. Protest camps are global phenomena, occurring across a wide
range of social movements and encompassing a diversity of demands for
social change. They are spaces where people come together to imagine
alternative worlds and articulate contentious politics, often in
confrontation with the state.
Based on empirical research into a variety of protest camps, we have
developed a framework of analysis for protest camps. Importantly we
understand them as a unique organisational form that transcends
particular social movements=92 contexts.

In what remains an ongoing project, we would suggest that there are
are four key attributes that appear generalisable to all protest
camps. It is not our objective to develop a structuralist account of
protest cams reminiscent of resource mobilization approaches but,
instead, use these thematic areas as threads to tie together diverse
sets of protest camps. This allows us to tell stories (across time and
space) about how protest camps are created and set up, how they
converge and diverge, and how they share similarities and differences.
These four identified areas are: (1) domestic infrastructures (food
supply, shelter, sanitation, maintenance of communal and =91private=92
space); (2) action infrastructures (direct action tactics, police
negotiations, legal aid, medical support, transportation networks);
(3) communication infrastructures (media strategies, distribution
networks, production techniques); and (4) governance infrastructures
(formal and informal decision-making processes). As these
organisational dimensions dynamically interact, they enable and hinder
each other, creating specifically configured protest camps.

This approach is allowing up to compare and contrast divergent camps
and to argue for a new reading of protest camps as emergent, often
radically democratic political spaces. Because of their specific
character, we argue that protest camps have the potential to enable an
experience of new and alternative forms of democracy for participants,
although not all camps aim to produce this effect or necessarily have
it. Showing how protest camps configure their infrastructures to
enable the experiences of participation, collaboration, collectivity
and mutuality, we hope to contribute to the understanding of
alternative forms of governance and political participation.

Domestic infrastructures

Something which differentiates the protest camp from other place-based
or space-based social movement gatherings and actions is activists=92
willingness to forgo the comforts of a =91normal home=92; to brave the
elements, living in muddy fields, up trees or on cemented city
streets. From this perspective, the protest camp disrupts the very
notion of what constitutes a home, and with it, our understanding of
public and private, of domestic and undomestic space, as well as our
attachments to property and permanence.

Of interest is how protesters engage in acts of home-building by
examining the emotional, affective and interpersonal communicative
dynamics that exist between people and objects in the everyday
material-symbolic lives of protest. From cooking to cleaning, and
shelter to sanitation, protesters and supporters work together to
build temporary homes at these sites of protest. The scale of this
domestic infrastructures ranges from semi-permanent wooden dwellings
and cultural centres to the minimal necessities needed to sustain
direct actions. How do activist generate=96and fail to generate=96domestic
infrastructures for and through their everyday operations in relation
to their differing objectives. We would argue that people=92s
perspectives toward each other, as well as towards objects and ideas,
are largely shaped through collective acts of home-building that
demand a great deal of both physical and emotional labour.

Action infrastructures

Protest Camps are often made to enable political action, and in
particular direct action. To target political institutions, power
plants or roads, camps form bases for attacks, enabling training and
collective strategic planning of direct action. Our work examines how
camps function as sites of preparation for action, both in a
theoretical and in a more practical sense. Many protest camps are
developed to enable action in remote locations, for example rural
sites of road construction, mining or international summit meetings,
where housing and feeding of non local activists needs to be provided
to enable large protest mobilisations. This instrumental origin of
some camps as enablers of protest continues in the set up of training
sessions inside the camp. Here activists learn from each other how to
do direct action, whether facing police lines or blocking access to
contested sites. The logistics of actions are also prepared at camp,
for example by distributing maps of key targets, or enabling the
formation and co-ordination of affinity groups. Furthermore, the
collective housing set up at camp also provides spaces for action
debriefs, informally and formally, in which activists reflect on their
experiences. As actions can be very intense both emotionally and
physically=96and often carry legal consequences=96medical, psychological
and legal support is sometimes provided within action infrastructures,
taking on forms such as =91well-being spaces=92 and medical caravans.
Beyond these forms of preparation, training and debrief, action
infrastructures of protest camps often include a number of formalised
and informal discursive spaces, whether planned workshops or everyday
conversations around a camp fire. Here camp participants develop and
exchange arguments that reflect on and justify their actions,
sustaining the energy and focus needed for future confrontations with
political adversaries.

Camp Communications Infrastructures

While thirty years ago peace camp newsletters were often hand-written,
mimeographed and distributed by post, today mobile phones come
pocket-size with cameras and short-run video capabilities. Laptop
computers and wireless internet access has enabled temporary
autonomous media stations to be set up at protest sites, such as those
run by Indymedia at Noborders camps, Climate Camps, and Global
Summits. These offer live updates of text, photo and video, keeping
both protest campers and the broader public informed. Likewise, some
protesters seize and appropriate corporate and state-run media tools,
such as Oaxaca women=92s take-over of channel 9 during the teacher=92s
rebellion. At their best, these media stations create spaces for
democratic, participatory news-making and skill-sharing, from which
people offer a diversity of perspectives and outlooks.

Much has been written about alternative media and the role it plays in
relation to social movements. However, little of this writing
discusses how activists=92 engage communication technologies and produce
media at the physical sites of protest. We propose to discuss protest
camp-based communication practices and media, including media stations
and the making of promotional materials, press releases, newsletters
and documentary video. We view each camps=92 media as part of a broader
historical trajectory of activists=92 new media practices, expanding our
focus to pre-internet and pre-digital cultures to argue that today=92s
communication practices and infrastructures are heavily shaped by past
movement cultures as they came into contact with new devices and
platforms.

Governance Infrastructures

How are camps run, how are decisions made? Often protest camps act
politically as democratically run spaces. At times camps create clear
infrastructures in the form of neighborhoods and spokes councils based
on principals of horizontal decision making, while others are run less
formally and spontaneously. Some of the larger camps develop further
differentiation, creating roles in specific specialists groups like
media teams, conflict resolutions committees and mediators. Generally,
there is a wide variety of governance infrastructures observable in a
variety of camps. These infrastructures are developed according to
needs, largely based on national, geographic, economic and cultural
contexts. They are frequently based on participants=92 prior experiences
with self-governance, and indeed camping.
While many differences exits between camps, it is possible to observe
learning processes trans-nationally and over time as they occur both
between camps and across different social movements. This makes it
possible to identify successful approaches on how to run a camp. We
argue that the formalisation of internal governance infrastructures is
a key signifier of the =91maturing=92 of the organisational form of
protest camps. Likewise, the importance of internal governance and its
related infrastructures seems to increase when protest camps act less
instrumentally as a tool to support action, and more towards larger
goals of alternative world-building. In these latter camps, internal
governance is explicitly organised as a form of radical democratic
action, becoming a distinctly advertised quality and justification of
the protest camp.

Alternative world building / Emergent political spaces

Protest camps are political spaces of high intensity, where democracy
can be experienced and experimented in a live form. Often camps are
only set up instrumentally to support action in remote locations,
sometimes they occur spontaneously without a plan. But even in such
cases, we can identify the emergence of four infrastructures,
domestic, action, communications and governance. Highlighting these,
we show the development of material cultures of protest, combined with
new ways of living as they are formed in and by the camps experience.
Concurrently we often found evidence of the development of strong
collective identities within the camp, which triggered the creation of
internal democratic processes. These processes are challenging and
surely not always pleasant. They tend to create insider and outsider
dichotomies between different camp participants, depending on their
level of involvement. Indeed, internal divisions and conflicts are the
key to understanding protest camps as alternative worlds and places of
radical democratic experiences.

These experiences of alternative cultures and governance cannot be
made in the regular political process. In the regular democratic
process the pains and potentials of participation are limited by
institutions that formalise the decision making process. Moreover
politics is institutionally separated from life. Protest camps enable
the development of alternative ways of housing, feeding, entertaining
and living together, alongside innovations in political actions and
democratic processes. This is why protest camps are more than just
ephemeral places or instrumental strategies of particular social
movements. They are laboratories of radical, tangible democracy that
more often than not help to imagine and build blueprints for
alternative worlds.


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