The year 2011 has seen a blossoming of protest camping. First there was the tented city in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, then the Indignados in Spain, then the youth protests in Israel, then Occupy Wall Street in the USA. Now in as many as 950 towns and cities across the world people have taken to the outdoors and set up tents as part of a global revolt against neo-liberalism. On the face of it, camping does not seem like the most likely tactic to bring about the transformation of power relations in society. But it has frequently played a role in movements for change.
GMore than a century ago, in the context of a financial crisis, thousands of people camped outside the British Embassy in Persia to demand greater democracy and limits on the power of the Shah. Protesters had previously sought sanctuary in a mosque but were threatened with violence by the state. They gave speeches, studied constitutionalism, and learnt from one another in their own ‘open-air school’. Persia’s first elections took place before the year was out.

A more recent example of protest camping took place in the 1980s, when parts of the peace movement established permanent camps outside military bases. By far the most famous was the women’s camp on Greenham Common in Berkshire which blockaded, annoyed and hounded the government and military for more than ten years, until (and after) the missiles were taken away.

Another round of protest camping began in February 1992, when a group of travellers decided to camp on the proposed site of the M3 motorway over Twyford Down. They were soon joined by environmental activists. Together they remained there for the next 10 months. When an alliance of NGOs and activists began making preparations for a campaign at another site – Oxleas Wood near Greenwich – the government got scared and announced that their planned road project there would not be going ahead.

Campaigners kept building the movement and organised protest camps against preparations for the extension of the M11 in Essex and other roads in Newbury, Newcastle and Glasgow to name only a few. Tactics borrowed from anti-logging activists in North America and Australia such as lock-ons, sabotage and tripods (three poles attached together with a person at the top), fused with home-grown ideas suggested by parts of the climbing community, to stretch both the wits and the budgets of the authorities in their efforts to remove them. Due to the heightened publicity and expense, the roads project became untenable. In 1996, the government decided to abandon its plans and axe plans for 77 new roads. The protesters’ efforts had paid off.

Perhaps the most well known recent movement based on protest camping began in 2005 at a purpose-built non-hierarchical eco-village in Scotland to coincide with that year’s G8 in Gleneagles. At daily consensus-based meetings young activists politicised by the Iraq War rubbed shoulders with direct-action old hands from across the world. This was quickly followed by a switch in focus from the summits where decisions were made to the places that CO2 was emitted. And so preparations for the Camp for Climate Action (Climate Camp) began.

The Climate Camp concept rolls in to one the main characteristics of a training camp, autonomous space and sustainable community. Most importantly, the focus is action – either there or thereafter.

The first Climate Camp took place in summer 2006 on land close to a coal-fired power station owned by E.ON called Drax, followed by protests at Heathrow Airport (2007), Kingsnorth Power Station (2008), City of London, Blackheath, Vestas Wind Turbine Factory and Trafalgar Square (2009) and RBS headquarters in Edinburgh (2010). As part of wider campaigns, plans for a third runway at Heathrow and a new power station at Kingsnorth were eventually shelved, while policing was somewhat reformed following the public outcry against the police violence at the 2009 City of London camp.  But the movement wasn’t only present in England and Scotland. Climate Camps – or their equivalents – were established in countries including Wales, Ireland, the US, Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, France, Germany, Belgium, India, New Zealand, Australia, Ghana and the Ukraine.

Recent protest camps are not the exclusive preserve of the green movement. The No Borders camp at Calais challenges immigration controls both ideologically and practically. A protest camp at Dale Farm in Essex this year helped catapult the issues of racism against the  traveller community onto the front pages and resist bailiffs attempting to evict the site for longer than would have otherwise been the case. In the USA a protest camp outside the George W Bush’s window instigated by Cindy Sheehan (a mother whose son had been killed in Iraq) was a factor in the turning of public opinion in the country both against the war and against Bush.

Then of course there is Egypt, whose 2011 Tahrir Square camp to some extent inspired the current ‘Occupy’ movement. In an interview for New Internationalist earlier this year, activist Gigi Ibrahim called it ‘a mini-example of what direct democracy looks like. People took charge of everything – trash, food, security. It was a self-sustaining entity. And in the middle of this, under every tent, on every corner, people were having debates about their demands, the future, how things should go economically and politically. It was fascinating. It was a mirror of what Egypt would look like if it was democratic.’ It is likely that anyone who has participated in the recent wave of ‘Occupy’ camps would be able to recognise this sentiment.

So it can be seen that protest camping can play a role in bringing about social change. Camps can be spaces for people to debate and learn from one another on a large scale, outside of the structures of authority and hegemony that shape ordinary life. But while the awakening of critical consciousness is central to effective struggle it is not enough. Only by using camps as bases from which direct actions are taken which undermine the interests of the ‘haves’, are such camps successful in their aims.

Gigi Ibrahim put it thus after the downfall of Mubarak: ‘if the struggle wasn’t there, if the people didn’t take to the streets, if the factories didn’t shut down, if workers didn’t go on strike, none of this would have happened.’ As the 99% takes on the ‘global Mubarak’ of undemocratic global institutions and financialised capitalism, it is crucial that we heed those words.

Tim Gee is the author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen. This article first appeared in the ‘Occupied Times of London’, published this week.