Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Field Guide to Occupation

The Occupy movement has heated up precipitously since we last posted here.  Last weekend saw a coordinated authoritarian crackdown on the occupation with fallout and confrontation continuing throughout the week.  That this coordinated effort occurred is not a surprise.  The writings of historians such as Fernand Braudel or JC VanLeur demonstrate how closely knit and mutually reinforcing the institutions of the market and state militancy tend to be in modern political economy, where any perceived threat to the market is usually confronted by the power of the state (see the Opium Wars).
[the Opium Wars in China were an instance of direct state-authored military intervention in the interests of the national market institution]

The root of confrontation might be seen in the peaceful but assertive act of occupation, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the act of taking or maintaining possession of a country, building, land, etc especially by force.  The fact that protesters are choosing to claim a public space and make their argument through an assertion of physical presence should not be watered down.  The state and the market both offer institutionalized and accepted modes of protest, including permitted gatherings, legal challenge, and ostensibly the choice to shop or work elsewhere.  Of course, their mechanisms for sublimating the authentic grievances voiced through these channels are so sophisticated as to render impotent accepted forms of protest.  The genius of the Occupy movement its ability to set new terms of engagement including the occupation of symbolically important public spaces- Wall Street, City Hall, campus quads, public parks, and the like- and the tactics employed to carry out those strategies- tent cities, kitchens, day marches, drumming, blogging, and internet broadcasting. 

Confronted with these new terms, the state has deployed a raft of tactics and strategies that look eerily similar to crowd control strategies for a heated soccer match between hated South American rivals.  These include border fencing, chemical and electrical weapons, mass arrests, and massed units of armed foot patrols dressed like storm trooper automotons.  While the Occupiers are interested in assertively stoking a conversation and forcing those they vilify to confront the fact that life is , in fact, nasty, brutish, and short, the state decides that this must not be.  And so they escalate the tensions in the interest of protecting the targets of the Occupy protests, deciding that if some heads are going to be cracked, or if some people are just going to be inconvenienced, better it be a host of protesters than those that keep quiet and go to work.

Brett Milligan at Free Association Design documented the material and spatial qualities of Occupy Portland before it was removed from Lawnsdale and Chapman Square in Portland.  The Atlantic has provided incredible coverage, including Alexis Madrigal’s typically insightful piece analyzing the roots of this systematic state violence against citizens.
[referees are escorted from the stadium during the 1964 soccer riots in Lima, Peru; In a game between Peru and Argentina a critical goal was disallowed; spectators rushed the field in protest and were subsequently gassed by the police, as they tried to escape they found the exits to the stadium were locked; hundreds died, crushed or asphyxiated]

We were compelled to offer a quick analysis of some of the equipments and tactics in use in the hopes of enabling an understanding of these landscapes of occupation.  The analysis is broken down in to three sections that aim to capture a variety of instruments in operations.  The hope is that while the analysis is far from exhaustive, it might offer a framework understanding the instrumental aspects of these tactics and equipments, and allow for a mapping of how to negotiate these contested landscapes.

Borders
Borders are a fundamental element of any landscape.  They not only establish the shape and size of a place, they also mediate the exchange between adjacent entities and spaces.  Borders in the Occupy movement are typically the pre-existing curbs of roads, the steps and exterior walls of adjacent buildings, or densely planted areas.  These intensify and mediate activity, becoming places of certain types of conversation:  proselytizing of passersby, or confrontation with bankers or politicians going to work.  The benign and commonplace characteristic of these borders tends to inflect these relations, limiting them to passive and verbal exchanges. 
["Police fences reproducing" by AppellateSquawk; these are used to enlarge a perimeter of state control in public space]

[the importance of enlarging and transgressing an aggressively established border become paramount for the most aggressive people on either side of the demonstration in Times Square, New York City; image courtesy of the National Journal]

The introduction by police of modular steel barrier fencing and their reinforcement by armed patrol units greatly amplifies the nature of these exchanges.  They become zones of heated confrontation and violence, drawing to it the most active members of both sides and provoking them.  Each side sees the border as an affront- for the protesters its mere presence is unfair, for the police the fact that they don’t get to put it where they decide it should go is an attack.  The use of human bodies as a border similarly works to escalate actions, creating terms that establish and sense of immediacy and demand there must be a victor and the vanquished in that moment.  The cops that are in contact with politicians, media, each other, and are able to make strategic decisions are clustered back from the border whereas the foot soldier reduced to helmeted actants reacting to their immediate surroundings are clustered along the lines.  Much the same occurs with the protesters, with those interested to turn their anger towards a faceless symbol through shouting or incessantly snapping photos or taking video move toward the line.  The border thus serves to reorganize a relatively flat and homogeneous field of actors along lines that radiate back from the borders in a gradient. 


Tents
The widespread use and destruction of tents has been the iconic strategy employed by protesters and police.  By employing camping equipment- sleeping bags, tents, tarps, stoves- which is procured from nearby, dispersed locations (homes and stores) the protesters are able to greatly extend the ability of their bodies to occupy an outdoor public space while still conveying the image of a tenuous and negotiated existence in that place.  A large scale bourgeoisie yacht-occupation of the marinas along Manhattan’s Hudson River side would hardly have the same effect. These dwellings require inputs of food, replacement materials, and waste disposal that extend the network out to local houses and business that have the needed supplies.  The landscape that is created- including the homes and stores supplying the equipment a
[the array of domestic equipments in Occupy Portland as documented by Brett Milligan before its destruction November 12th]

[a landscape where resistance goes to become anonymous; the landfill in Kearny, NJ may be a final resting home for many of the tents, bags, pans, and tarps that sustained Occupy Wall Street through the fall]

By confiscating and destroying this equipment and enforcing rules initially intended to criminalize the homeless and youth (no sleeping on park benches, no biking, drumming, or cooking) the state is able to dismantle the landscape and dissolve the immediate capacity of those people to continue occupation.  In this operation (after the people are dispersed) trucks are brought in from municipal yards capable of hauling everything away at once, and in a disorderly fashion.  The final resting places are other municipal yards- landfills- designated for the disposal of society’s undesirable material wastes.  This equipment is of course designed to be disassembled, stored, and reused.  The fact that the police employ large-scale and violent methods of disassembly and disposal is a symbolic act.  The landscape that is generated is one of large centralized municipal yards and dispersed local homes and businesses.  Materials flow from the homes and businesses and coagulate for a time in strategic sites, forming a sort of heterogeneous and horizontal settlement- a larger entity. This entity is then deconstructed wholesale and disposed of alongside restaurant waste and construction and demolition debris in a city landfill, where it will be mixed, covered over, and symbolically forgotten in the future.

Media
The instruments of media create an extensive landscape in the Occupy movement.  The images and audio they record engage a huge slice of the population.  The field devices including police intercoms, bullhorns, ipads, cameras, and video recorders can immediately distill the effects and extend the reach of the actions of each person nearby.  These instruments access a regional network of server centers which then offer the content to every person who access the internet.  That the Occupy organizers use these same networks to coordinate marches, disseminate tools and information, and establish principles is not surprise (and is detailed here by Alexis once again). However, these instruments are most powerful because of the potentiality they embody.  Because they are media devices they are both objects in their own right and can affect other objects.  They can be used antagonistically (coordinating police crackdowns, photographing officers incessantly) or defensively (the possibility of being caught can limit the irrational anger of authorities and protesters). 
[Image from a video tour Google put together of its server containers, screen capture by Stephen Shankland/CNET, image via Mammoth's "Preliminary Atlas of the Gizmo Landscape"]

[both bystanders and police use media recording devices as some occupy San Diego protesters are removed from Civic Center Plaza on Oct 14th; image courtesy of the National Journal]

In their immediate vicinity (whether on the ground or through digital space) these instruments produce desire effects, urging police patrols into action, enabling satellite occupations, or emboldening protesters to confront authorities or each other.  The effects can destabilize to chains of command as well as coordinate novel or reinforcing ground actions.  Insidiously, they also offer a level of removal from embodied events; police officers get an order from their telephones and execute it through the chain of command, protesters turn in to bystanders as people are brutalized with batons or doused with poison chemicals.

[The analysis is rather hastily assembled and we would love any additional information, insight, or correction to what we offer here.]

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