Materialities of Protest: Tarpaulins and Tents at Occupy Wall St.

Laura Shipp is a Second Year Geography undergraduate at Royal Holloway. She is particularly interested in Political Geography and is currently undertaking dissertation research surrounding emotional geographies and perceptions of security in everyday circumstances. Following on from research carried out on an undergraduate fieldtrip to New York, she considers the ways that protest camps can entangle objects, change their associations and recreate their meanings.


My own photo of Zuccotti Park along the Occupy Wall Street Tour in late March.

My own photo of Zuccotti Park along the Occupy Wall Street Tour in late March.

In September 2011, Zuccotti Park, Lower Manhattan became overtaken as the home of Occupy Wall Street. A unique ephemeral environment was established which can only be described as a protest camp. From this picture, the park now has no physical marks of the camp’s existence and yet it had contained a temporary city with its own newspaper, food supply chain and Wi-Fi (Chappell, 2011).

Feigenbaum, (2014, pp.35) defines protest camps “as place-based sites of on-going protest and daily social acts of ‘re-creation’ largely describing both the situated-ness of such camps to their location but also the significance of seemingly banal process within them”. They are spaces where people coalesce and imagine a different social world, often in contention with the state (Frenzel et al., 2013). In make-shift bedrooms, kitchens and meeting places, objects have significance and become bound in new narratives. The meaning and use of objects evolve to fit exceptional environments which alters the legacy of the objects.

With an aim to put focus on some of the seemingly banal objects that became entangled with Occupy Wall Street I used two slightly abnormal methods for the study. The first was a tour of the main sites of Occupy Wall Street and an oral history from Occupy tour guide Michael Pellagatti. The second method was the Interference Archive which stores ephemera and news articles to create an animated story of social history (Interference Archive, 2015)

From what I found, the tarpaulin and the tent seemed to have an importance. Fundamentally, protest camps must negotiate the task of providing basic necessities to its occupants whilst getting across its message; this is partly done by occupying the space through thick and thin. Tarpaulins provided shelter required from the first week of the camp, as shown in the picture below.

Michael’s photograph of Occupy Wall Street encampment in its first week occupying Zuccotti Park (Source: Michael P. Pellagatti).

Michael’s photograph of Occupy Wall Street encampment in its first week occupying Zuccotti Park (Source: Michael P. Pellagatti).

The tarpaulin’s crowning moment, however, was Day 6 of the camp when a storm was forecast to hit Manhattan. After much deliberation, a human-tarp shield was erected around the equipment and the camp physically weathered the storm from under it. Michael stresses the prominence of this instance, claiming it as the “genesis of the movement”. It transformed the camp’s population from strangers with similar frustrations to a group dedicated to its cause. From this process, they were able to create both strong ties in that place as well as maintaining the resources they needed to survive as a protest (Nicholls, 2009).

My Photograph of archived Wall Street Journal article showing Occupiers of Zuccotti Park surviving the winter weather.

My Photograph of archived Wall Street Journal article showing Occupiers of Zuccotti Park surviving the winter weather.

The tarp has another significance, physically representing the struggles faced by the homeless population of New York. Often they are used to create makeshift bivouac shelters, retaining heat on city streets (Newman, 2014). They are the difference between life and death. Using those same items, the Occupiers were a visceral reminder of difficulties and people who may otherwise be ignored. What Ehrenreich (2011) argues is that not only are the two related, but Occupy Wall Street took up the cause of homelessness as its own, as a problem that is not dissociated with the greed of the 1%. As time passed tents became more prolific at the camp. The picture below shows the camp the week before its eviction.

Michael’s photograph of the Zuccotti Park encampment in Mid-November, the week before the eviction (Source: Michael P. Pellagatti).

Michael’s photograph of the Zuccotti Park encampment in Mid-November, the week before the eviction (Source: Michael P. Pellagatti).

From the outside they may have seemed like a sensible shelter for the protesters. From Michael’s perspective, however, they broke down the unity that came from living in each other’s company. The name of the park became sullied with incidents of sexual harassment and drug use (Moynihan, 2015). Without ensuring the security of its occupants a protest camp cannot provide well-being to them. These things are needed in order to create a ‘home’ and therefore sustain the camp (Frenzel et al., 2013).

Overall, the materiality of protests has many entanglements which can reconfigure their meanings. The role of the tent in dividing the camp shows how objects can become entangled within a protest camp in ways that can undermine them but also produces opportunities for objects to be unintentionally constructive, like the tarpaulin. What is so different about protest camps is their ability to politicise “the embodied practices involved in sustaining the protest camp as a home space” (Frenzel et al., 2013, pp.464). Through this process they connect the domestic to the political and give them the ability to influence each other.

Laura Shipp, Royal Holloway, University of London

Sources and Further Reading

Chappell, B. (2011) ‘Occupy Wall Street: From a blog post to a movement’, NPR, 20 October [Online]. Available at: http://www.npr.org/2011/10/20/141530025/occupy-wall-street-from-a-blog-post-to-a-movement Accessed: 19 May 2015

Ehrenreich, B. (2011) ‘Throw them out with the trash’, Tom Dispatch, 23 October. [Online] (Available at: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175457/tomgram%3A_barbara_ehrenreich,_homeless_in_america/) Accessed 17 May 2015

Feigenbaum, A. (2014) ‘The disobedient objects of protest camps’, in in Flood, C. and Grindon. G. (eds.), Disobedient Objects, London: V&A Publishing pp. 34 – 44.

Frenzel, F. Feigenbaum, A. and McCurdy, P. (2013) ‘Protest camps: an emerging field of sociological movement research’, The Sociological Review, 62, pp. 457- 474.

Interference Archive (2015) ‘Our Mission’, About, (Available at http://interferencearchive.org/our-mission/) Accessed 2 March 2015

Moynihan, C. (2015) ‘Occupy Wall Street, the tour’, The New York Times, 2 April. [Online] (Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/03/nyregion/occupy-wall-street-the-tour.html) Accessed 2 April 2015

Newman, S. M. (2014) ‘Policy and plastic tarps: Surviving winter while homeless’, Next City, 21 November [Online] (Available at: http://nextcity.org/daily/entry/homeless-winter-survival-chicago-mayors-policy) Accessed 25 May 2015

Nicholls, W. (2009) ‘Place, networks, space: theorising the geographies of social movements’, Transactions of the Institiute of British Geographers, 34(1), pp. 78-93.

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One thought on “Materialities of Protest: Tarpaulins and Tents at Occupy Wall St.

  1. Reblogged this on Landscape Surgery and commented:

    This post was written by Royal Holloway Undergraduate Laura Shipp, based on her field work in New York as part of her second year this March. I think she’s a strong contender for future Landscape Surgeon!

    Like

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