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Exit the system’ Crafting the place of protest camps between antagonism and exception

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Exit the system’

Crafting the place of protest camps between antagonism and exception
Word Count: 9158
One of the more prominent features of contemporary political mobilisations is the political camp site, the activist encampment or protest camp. From peace camps in the 1980s to Anti-Road camps in the 1990s, on to “no- border” camps and Anti summit mobilisations in the 2000s, temporary and more permanent campsites have been created across the western world as essential part of protest campaigns. A series of ‘climate camps’, that started off in the UK in 2006 and has occurred in various countries since, are the most recent addition to the tradition. Protest camps can been understood as merely instrumental in that they facilitate protest in remote locations where alternative forms of housing are not readily available. However protest camps have often meant more than bringing protesters into place. Indeed they have been implicitly or explicitly constituted as alternative worlds, set antagonistically against the political status quo of the sourounding world. In this sense protest camps have been theorised as places ‘out of place’ (Cresswell 1994; Cresswell 1996) and as spatial expressions of political dissent (Hailey 2009). The borders of protest camps hence often describe lines of demarcations between the space of the camp and the political status quo.

Although protesters sometimes (ironically) allure in such a way, protest camps are not factually outside the political status quo. While the borders of a protest camp can be and often are heavily fortified, policed and defended, they are not inter-state borders. The status quo continues to be valid in protest camps; its laws, regulations and institutions are applicable. This raises the question of the ontological status of the antagonism that the protest camp expresses. If there are not actually political autonomous spaces, are protest camps merely artificial, exceptions to the status quo?

This question connect protest camps to the wider discussions on camps that have permeated political theory, law and geography in recent years. In Agamben’s (1998) notion of the camp as the ‘nomos of modernity’, the relation between the camp and the political status quo in its legal order is clearly defined. While the camp is an exception to the status quo, it is ontologically the ‘matrix’ or ‘paradigm’ of the status quo. The legal and juridical structures, regimes of human rights and rule of law, that govern the status quo are, according to Agamben, somewhat secondary, based on what rules the camp: the unconditional power of the sovereign.

In this paper I discuss protest camps in the context of this thesis. I will firstly look into a history of protest camps from the development of leisured camping in the late 19th century and then focus on protest camps as they have occurred in the last 30 years. It becomes obvious that protest camps are often used as ways of influencing and changing the politic status quo, by way of confronting it with a spatially expressed antagonism. I will further reflect on theorisations of the camp as the ‘nomos of modernity’. While empirically focussing on penal camps, this discussion has touched upon camps that are more comparable with protest camps, applying Agamben’s theses to tourist spaces. They are often seen as places where an inversion of the logic of the penal camp takes place. Tourist spaces are understood as cultural spaces, exceptional to the status quo but ontologically minor to it. As such they fulfil certain functions towards the stabilisation of the status quo. However such a position of a protest camp would be detrimental to the aspirations of many protest campers, who set up the camps to change the status quo.

In the last section, I discuss empirical data from a series of protest camps, in the context of two domains of their workings: internal governance and education. A set of conclusions can be drawn. Firstly, negotiating the antagonistic character of a protest camp can be understood as a balancing act, in which the camps need to be antgonistic towards the status quo without becoming an integrated exception in Agamben’s sense. Secondly, the evidence suggest that over the years of the development of protest camps, a learning process has been taking place, within the UK but also, increasingly transnationally, how to best achieve this balance. Thirdly I will argue that the development of protest camps as an increasingly visible form of social movement activity brings new challenges for protest campers. While this development might suggest a higher relevance of protest camps as a form of political action and in fact their potential institutionalisation, such a normalisation puts new pressure on protest campers who want to ‘exit the system’.

Protest camps

“For what noble cause did my son die?” To put this question to the American president Cindy Sheehan decided to visit Bush’s family ranch in Crawford, Texas in August 2005. When she wasn’t received by the president, she put up her tent and started a protest camp on the road leading to the farm. She was soon joined by other Americans who opposed the war. ‘Camp Casey’ grew, expanded and spread into a network of peace camps all over the US. The camp had become the starting point of the growing organised resistance of Americans against the war in Iraq (Hailey 2009). Opposite of the house of parliament in Westminster, Brian Haw has camped since 2001 in protest against UK policies and war in Iraq (Parliament Square 2010). Mass protest camps in Britain are mostly associated with the peace camps of the 1980s. No unlike Camp Casey, the women’s peace camp of Greenham Common emerged and developed spontaneously out of a singular protest event against the deployment of Cruise Missile on the adjacent US military base. It was closed only in 2000, 19 years after the first campers had arrived (Greenham 2010). In Faslane, Scotland, near the base of the submarine fleet that carries the British trident nuclear warheads, a peace camp founded in 1982 is still in place, contesting the military with regular blockades (Faslane 2010).

Throughout the last three decades protest camps have become a permanent and visible feature of protest movements beyond these most visible examples. In the 1990s numerous camps have been taking place across Britain, often associated with protests against road building, like the Newbury Camp and the Pollock Free State. Other camps have been erected and maintained in order to prevent quarries in national parks (Urban75 2010). More recently British campers have followed the example of European human right campaigners and organised a series of ‘no-border’ camps in defence of the rights of migrants and refugees, often protesting at the sites of immigrant detentions-camps. Other than many of the protest camps of the first two decades ‘no-border’ camps were however never meant to be permanent or long lasting. They were instead erected for a limited amount of time, to be recreated at another site of protests in the following year. These camps are hence less intimately connected to a particular place of contestation. They have become more of an organising devise, a mobile way of protesting and organising across various spaces (no border 2010). In this principle they are not unlike the camps that were erected in the last decade to coincide with meetings of global policy makers, like the G8 or global financial institutions, for example the G8 protest camp near Stirling in 2005 in Scotland (Harvie et al. 2005). Those ‘summit’ protest camps are short-termed, existent for the time of the leaders meeting and constructed like a counter-event. The most recent ‘climate camp’ movement, has applied the same principle, opting for the organisational form of the camp without focusing on a particular place more permanently. The climate camp exists in two forms now: on the one hand it continues to exist in particular places, on the other hand there is a climate camp organisation, operating in meetings over the year, pratically like a social movement, running under the name of the camp (Climate Camp UK 2010).

Given the diversity of what is understood as protest camps, it is little surprising that a variety of perspectives can be taken to explain and understand them. On the most basic level protest-camping can be understood functionally. Protest camps allow people to protest over extended periods of time in distant and remote places that do not have the infrastructure to house large amount of visitors. At sites like Greenham Common or Faslane, no infrastructure was in place to house protestors and camping was hence functionally necessary. The occurrence of protest camps in summit protest can also be explained partly by the fact that these summits did not take place in large cities after the massive disruptions caused by protesters in Seattle 1999, Prague 2000 and Genoa 2001. In remote locations of recent European G8 summits like Evian (2003), Gleneagles (2005) and Heiligendamm (2007) protesters needed to be housed and large scale camp cities were erected in all cases.

Beyond the functional aspect of geography the place of the protest camp has also been understood as a geographical expression of political conflict. In reflection of the protest camps on the 1980s Cresswell (1996) has argued that protest camps were ‘places out of place’, where the ‘heretic reading of space’ of the campers, meets the attempts by their oppononent to put them out of place, to marginalise them. In Greenham Common which was for most of its existence a women camp, the women did not simply protest against nuclear weapons. They also protested against a patriarchal status quo that in their view enabled the military confrontation in the first place. The space of the camp, as a women camp, provided a direct challenge to the status quo beyond the contestation of nuclear weapons by building an alternative world. The status quo, represented by conservative media and politicians retaliated against this form of critique in their attempts to marginalise the protesters in the camp. Rather than considering and arguing politically, the women were portrayed as deviating from accepted norms of hygiene and sexuality which was to undermine the validity of their political critique (Couldry 1999; Cresswell 1994). Despite such experiences of marginalisation, it seems obvious that the women themselves were actively searching a place beyond the boundaries of the status quo, and in this sense, a marginal space to create an alternative world. The woman peace camp of Greenham Common posited itself in direct antagonism to the world, questioning not simply the deployment of nuclear weapons but the status quo of the surrounding body politic per se (Cresswell 1994; Couldry 1999).

Equally, anti-Road protest camps combined practical protest aims with a critique of the status quo via geographical expression (Pepper 1991; Pepper 1996). Routledge (1997) argues the 1990s camps were constituted by ‘imaginary communities of resistance’, including various sub-cultural identities and lifestyles (Cresswell 1996; Hetherington 1998), or ‘tribal politics’ (Bauman 1992) as much as agents with interest in particular aspects of political change. The ecological and wholesome living in sites like the ‘Pollock Free State’ in Glasgow was posited against the surrounding civilisation (Seel 1997). The camp was meant to stop and blockade the building of a motorway, but it equally became an attempt to rebuild society in a better way. Resistance culture meant, as one participant had it, “We are living it, rather than just talking about it” (Routledge 1997, p.371).

The political-cultural reading of the place of camping, that posits it as antagonistic to the space of the status quo links protest camps to the modern camping tradition. In the early 20th century the ‘Wandervoegel’ movement developed from the initiative of Berlin school teachers, who deemed the experience of nature as central to children’s development and developed organised camping in Germany (Hetherington 2000; Giesecke 1981). Concurrently, organised camping appeared in the American summer camp movement and in scout-camping in Britain. As Smith (2006) explains, these camps were often ‘counter-modern’ in spirit, reflecting ideals of nature, authenticity and simplicity. Camping activists understood these ideals to be lost in modern life. The camps were meant to allow for a contrasting experience to modernity, especially for the youth, to which such experience was deemed important. Smith argues in respect of the American summer camps,
[…] the people who operated these camps understood […], that it was the contrast between the everyday world of a child’s life and the camp world that had the potential to help children develop (Smith 2006, p.71).
Organised camping was pursued for two main reasons. Firstly, its aim was to educate participants, to ‘develop them’. Secondly, more implicitly the camps answered to modern man’s sentimental relationship to nature and romantic longing. It addressed and expressed the modern feeling that something was wrong with civilisation; that it somehow had a corrupting influence on the human being and that a thorough simplification of life - its re-creation along basic principles - could cure some of this influence. In the camping movement ‘re-creation’ was understood literally. This notion of re-creation implicitly involved a critique of the ways modern life was organised and the camping movement can hence be understood as an early counter-culture (Cresswell 1996; Hetherington 1998). The ‘self-making’ of education continues to be related to the world-making of politics. The scout movement is according to its current charter, aiming

to contribute to the development of young people in achieving their full physical, intellectual, social and spiritual potentials as individuals, as responsible citizens and as members of their local, national and international communities (Scout Association 2009).

Self and world making as employed in the organised camping invites arguments about the best ways of achieving it which is a political question. Soon after their invention, summer camps and scouts movement were criticised for having authoritarian threads (Kneights 2004). And indeed the critique of modernity was never a domain only of the left. The German Wandervoegel, despite some anti-authoritarian underpinnings in its foundational period, were fully integrated into the German Empire’s nationalistic frenzy in the build up to the First World War and later merged into the Hitler Youth Organisation (Giesecke 1981). General Baden Powell, who invented scout camping in Britain, called out to his scouts for the re-creation of the British Empire in proto-fascist rhetoric:
Remember, whether rich or poor, from castle or from slum, you are all Britons in the first place, and you’ve got to keep Britain up against outside enemies, you have to stand shoulder to shoulder (quoted in Rojek 1993, p.40).
In Britain by 1925, the ‘Woodcraft Folk’ splinter group separated from the scout movement because of the latter’s militarism and since developed in its own way (Davis 2000). Its underlying motto: ‘for social change’ resonates deeply in today’s protest camps.

Arguably the spatially expressed political antagonism of contemporary protest camps against the status quo is build into the modern camping tradition. However, given the political diversity of camping, from apolitical tourist camping to variations of left and right wing camps, it is crucial to understand better the nature of the antagonism that constitutes the camp space.

The camp as exception

Affirmation of an explicit antagonism expressed in the spatial architecture of the camp can be found in contemporary protest camps. The recent climate camps have operated with this notion when a large cardboard sign at the entry declared that participant would ‘exit the system’ (See picture 1).

( (Picture 1 Climate Camp 2007 near Heathrow Airport, sign saying ‘Exit the system’)
Generally the borders of the camp allow an experience of the political antagonism created by the camps in very tangible terms. In many of the camps the border consists of two checkpoints, one controlled by the police and the other controlled by the protest campers. On the side of the police this involves searches of everybody entering the camp, often using recently created terrorism legislation. On the other side the ‘checkpoint’ consists of volunteer campers introducing the newcomer to the rules operating inside the camp. The camp borders somewhat resemble international borders in this respect with the crucial difference that the camping space has been carved out of the status quo without actually leaving its legal and political realm. Inside and outside do not simply stand side by side like in the international system. Police often try to penetrate the camp. Searches on the outside of the camp are just one means to this. Others involve helicopters and police units entering the side in surveillance and control. The camps are not protected against such intrusion simply by merit of their antagonism, or their physical power to prevent an intrusion. Indeed laws and logics that operate within the status quo protect them. Campers sometimes use squatter’s rights to claim certain their campgrounds, protecting themselves against immediate eviction. Other times the protesters rely on checks and balances exercised for example by the media against police controlling logics. Often the camps are the result of extensive negotiations between local authorities, police and protesters, with local councils conducting health and safety checks on sanitary and food infrastructure in the camp. In this sense the antagonism between inside and the outside is to be seen as either symbolic or exceptional. The camps are not actually separated from the outside; they don’t form their own body politic; rather they are arguably playacting at it.

This insight links protest camps to a broader discussion about the camp that has been triggered by Agamben’s notion of the camp as the ‘nomos of modernity’. Following Agamben the camps express the extreme and unique moment of sovereign power in so far as within them the rule of the law is suspended. As an exception to the regime of the status quo, the camps establish the sovereign power that is located both inside and outside the rule of law.

From this perspective, the camp -- as the pure, absolute, and impassable biopolitical

space (insofar as it is founded solely on the state of exception) -- will appear

as the hidden paradigm of the political space of modernity. (Agamben 1998: 78)
In Agamben’s view the regime of the camp is at the same time the exception to the status quo and its underlying principle, and hence arguable located on a different ontological plane. The rule of law of the outside is an artificial world, enabled and superseded by a reality of sovereign power that is fully realised in the camp.

Such theoretical reasoning has received increased attention recently, arguably to support the political contestation of prisoner camps as they re-occurred in the political-juridical structure of western democracy (Minca 2005). The most notable example is the Guantanamo Bay Camp X Ray (Butler 2002). Equally in transnational context of European immigration regimes camps play a crucial role in controlling and tracing human mobility. Empirical research has shown however that the camps erected to control migration into Europe often function contrary to the intentions of the sovereign power that erects them. In allowing migrants to form transnational support networks and to establish safe routes camps become part of what could be called a counter-regime of autonomous migration (Holert & Terkessidis 2006; Panagiotidis & Tsianos 2007). Camps here become sites of political contestation of the status quo. For these authors Agamben’s reading of the camp is hence insufficient.

Amidst the debate about the camp, very little attention has been paid to the voluntary, tourist camps, the camps that come about because campers make them. Clearly it is problematic to equate the different kinds of camps. Loefgren (1999) attempts bridging the divide. For him the camp occurs in relation to mobile living, mobile practices, e.g. in the form of housing of actual nomads, but also of a variety of temporarily mobile groups like soldiers, migrants, refugees, tourists in need some sort of shelter while on the road. In the context of increased mobility (Sheller & Urry 2006; Hannam et al. 2006; Cresswell 2006) the camp becomes a more frequent occurrence.

Loefgren finds it ‘tempting to name the 20th century the era of the camp […]’ (Loefgren 1999, p.256). The camp comes in two categories for him, on the one hand: holiday or tourist camps, and on the hand the ‘more menacing ones.’ Despite the categorical difference, he states that they have an

element of a common structure – the idea of large scale, detailed planning and control, self-sufficient communities with clear boundaries. Management experiences, as well as blueprints of Tayloristic planning are in constant circulation between the different kinds of camps (Loefgren 1999, p.256).
Arguably Loefgren describes a modern, architectural logic that combines the camps in their diversity. On from his insight, Hailey (2009) has offered a ‘guide to the 21st century space’ of the camp. He orders his introduction of a variety of empirical camps into the three categories of autonomy, control and necessity. Autonomy describes camps of choice, linking tourist camps, musical festivals and protest camps in one category. The category of autonomy confirms the aforementioned overlap between the camping tradition and protest camping, whereby Hailey differentiates further between protest camps defined by antagonism and camps that operate with a previously formalized autonomy.

Control relates to ‘strategic camping areas regulated by systems of power’ (Hailey 2009, p.15). Hailey lists military and paramilitary camps along side camps of migration control in what could be criticised particularly in respect of the notion of the ‘autonomy of migration’, discussed above. Control is not absolute and limited by autonomy, even in the camps erected to control.

Necessity, finally relates to camps of relief and assistance, where Hailey lists refugee camps. Empirically comparing the camps, communalities seem to emerge between all his categories as he argues that ‘[t]hese designations […] are not exclusive, and overlaps occur’ (Hailey 2009, p.16).

This is an indication that camps can be theorised beyond their empirical diversity and the categorical differences that exist. Agamben (1998, p.21) himself has allured to the parallel between the ‘bio politics of modern totalitarianism on the one hand, and mass society of consumerism and hedonism on the other’ indicating that his notion of bare life and camp applies equally in the ‘total meaninglessness of the society of the spectacle’. Following on from this Diken and Laustsen (2005) have used Agamben’s reading of the camp in the tourism sector. They argue that in the circumstances of hedonist holiday places like Ibiza, the ‘tourist site is a camp’ (Diken & Laustsen 2005, p.102), equalising the tourist to the figure of the ‘homo sacer’, the bare life to which camp inmates are reduced in Agamben’s camp. Contrary to their promises of autonomy, in the tourist camps any liberation or autonomy becomes an illusion. ‘In the holiday camp, the rules are suspended rather than destroyed. (…) transgression does not suppress but suspends the rule.’ (Diken & Laustsen 2005, p.104)

Following this reading tourist camps are like Agamben’s camp on a different ontological plane than the reality of the status quo outside of it. They are an exception to the status quo, however in an inverse sense. The ontological status of the camps is less significant than that of the status quo. This inversion of Agamben’s argument in the field of voluntary camping is indeed a frequent reading of tourism spaces, and broader, the tourist experience. Wang (1999), leaning on Turner (1977) has in this way affirmed the ‘fantastic feeling’ of a tourist communitas, in which normal social roles and hierarchies are suspended. Tourists may experience such exceptional moments, only to return to routine afterwards. Other authors have noted such functionality of tourism to the status quo more critically. Adorno (1991) has marked the difference between ‘free time’ and ‘freedom proper’, in which the former is part and parcel of the cultural industries’ functionality in capitalism. In the notion of ‘rational recreation’ (Rojek 1993) this critique has pointed towards the way in which the exceptional experience of the tourist space/time affirms and strengthens the political status quo, functioning in the way of a safety valve to release social pressure towards system change.
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