The “Other Media” of Occupy
Creativity is one of the most distinct features of protest camps like Occupy Wall Street. Different from marches, strikes, or demos, occupations and encampments are unique in that they are place-based sites where people both protest and live together. In our book, Protest Camps, we argue these sites offer protesters a place to come together and share knowledge and experiences. These camps often become imaginative laboratories for experimenting with media, communication technologies, and protest tactics.
Media and communication innovations were everywhere in Occupy camps. They came in digital, analog, and mixed forms. From the well-documented practice of the “people’s mic” to Occuprint’s street-site printing presses to the live streaming of general assemblies, Occupy encampments became a space for experimenting with new forms of and for communication. Whether making pizza box placards or wearable tents, people found creative ways to get their messages across. In doing so, they engaged with all kinds of objects that populate protest camp sites. In this piece, I look beyond taken-for-granted media devices to examine two of these “other media” objects—tents and tear gas—to find out what they might have to tell us about media and communication in the Occupy movement.
Tents are perhaps the most prominent object of protest camps that communicate in a number of ways. Most basically, they act as signboards. Whether affixed with banners and posters, or painted and drawn on, the surfaces of tents bear the messages of a movement and its multiple perspectives and participants. Slogans about the economy, greed, inequality, and capitalism were scattered across Occupy encampments. Messages drawing attention to issues of race and class offered both external communication and internal critique faced back at the movement, such as Occupy Toronto’s Women’s Space Yurt that reminded campers “I am your equal.” In some cities, including Occupy Melbourne, protesters responded to legal prohibitions on erecting tents by wearing them instead. Becoming walking tent sign boards, they took to the streets dressed in messages. For example, two at Occupy Denver read, “Wall St. Gambles and the 99% pay” and “We the People Not Artificial Persons” painted in a U.S. Constitution calligraphy.
Many historical examples show how protest campers have created visual signs using language and images that challenge and reimagine land rights or border controls. The American Indian Movement’s encampment at Occupy Alcatraz declared, “This is Indian Land,” and on inspiration a few years later, Australian aboriginal activists stuck a sign in the lawn of parliament declaring their own “Aboriginal Tent Embassy” as a means of confronting unjust laws against aboriginal land rights. In 1970s Germany, anti-nuclear protesters declared themselves a “Free Republic of Wendland,” and in the United States, the “Minnehaha Free State” was born in a 1998 anti-road building protest camp. More recently, the 2007 Heathrow Climate Camp offered a walk-through airplane door reconstruction that invited campers to “Exit the System,” and an Occupy London tent declared itself the “Republic of Tentistan” where “All British Law Is Null and Void.”
Another way tents communicate is inscribed in laws around freedoms of speech. In the United States, courts repeatedly have upheld the status of tents as a form of protected symbolic communication. However, when tents move from being symbols of protest to being usable infrastructures for sleeping, eating, and other forms of recreation, prosecutors trot out “reasonable time and place restrictions.” For example, in a trial for Occupy Fort Meyers, “fake sleeping” was deemed an acceptable mode of protest, while real sleeping was outlawed. The court ruled it was in the city’s interests to close the park at night and prohibit “protracted lounging” at all hours. In other words, when tents remain only as symbols of protest, they can be permitted to communicate. However, when the tent moves from being just a symbol or signboard to offering actual shelter, it begins to be seen as a threat to public order.
As many Occupiers faced first hand, one way to clear out or evict a protest camp is use of tear gas. The substance often has been a weapon of choice for dealing with protest campers. In 1932, the government called in supplies from the Chemical Warfare Service for the National Guard to disperse veterans living in Hoovervilles that had been constructed on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., during the “Bonus Army” protests for delayed benefits owed to World War I veterans. In 1968, Resurrection City was evicted using tear gas in a middle-of-the-night raid. Causing choking, burning, vomiting, and eye watering, tear gas was designed in World War I to degrade soldiers’ willpower and lure them out from the trenches, allowing for more aggressive forms of gassing and artillery fire. Today tear gas continues to serve similar functions, controlling dissent through physical force and psychological terror.
While commonly referred to as gas, tear gas is actually released as a fog or a spray made up of tiny droplets of moisture. Once released, tear gas mixes into the atmosphere, becoming part of the air. This atmospheric aspect of tear gas draws it into an important relationship with our understandings of communication systems. In classic models of communication, air is often the communication channel through which a message passes, moving from sender to receiver. What happens then, when this communication channel becomes filled with tear gas? How does tear gas disrupt or reshape the message? Is tear gas a medium? Is its canister, left discharged and discarded on the street, a media artifact?
Part of what makes tear gas difficult to analyze both medically and politically is its ephemerality. This ephemerality is what adds value to photojournalists' pictures of the cloud or spray caught in flight. At Occupy Wall Street, a video of women aggressively pepper sprayed while penned in a plastic cage went viral, adding momentum to the movement. In Davis, Calif., a police officer dubbed “pepper spray cop” was remixed as a social media meme after releasing pepper spray directly into the faces of students peacefully sitting in a row. In 2013, nearly two years later, the iconic "woman in the red dress" pictured at Istanbul's Occupy Gezi became recirculated and remediated as a symbol of police brutality, appearing throughout the nation, stenciled and stickered onto the urban surfaces of the city.
The tear gas canister is also a common object at protest camps. Remaining as physical evidence, it leaves traces of stories of what this supposedly “harmless” weapon can do. Canisters litter streets and squares after evictions and other confrontations. In “A postcard from Occupy Oakland,” journalist Hunter Walker tells the story of photographing a discharged tear gas canister on the street:
A man stood nearby the charred metal. We weren’t sure if touching it would further irritate our still burning skin.
“Those are mine, I’m just letting them cool off,” the man said as we poked at the canister.
We snapped a picture and went back to the front line.
“Everybody’s taking them, you’ve got to act fast,” the man said smiling at his conquest.
Along with bits of the Berlin Wall, pieces of barbed wire from Auschwitz, and snipped bits of fence at Greenham Common, Occupy protesters take home these material mementos. While the scales of violence in each context differ profoundly, in each case these objects become a miniature archive of trauma, survival, or perseverance, a personal treasure.
Other times, people photograph and document the branded labels of tear gas canisters. These photographs serve as pieces of evidence that map out the manufacturers and governments that are exporting tear gas. As part of the Global Justice working group, Occupy Wall Street activists began the task of “tracking tear gas,” providing information on major exporters and details about how canisters travel as a commodity. Likewise, advice on how to resist and respond to tear gas circulated through tweets and the streets (to borrow Paolo Gerbaudo’s phrase). Homemade masks and eye-wash remedies travelled around the globe, creating another meaning of tear gas channels. For example, an Occupy flier that circulated around the Wall Street encampment continues to travel across social media, offering an infographic of home remedies against the effects of tear gas.
Tents and tear gas are just two of the significant objects that shaped media practices and communication in the transnational Occupy movement. “Other media” objects, including fences, walls, and barricades, also became places of and for communication. Returning to the foundational roots of Communication Theory—the medium and the message—can help us look beyond taken-for-granted media devices and practices. In addition to smartphones, Facebook pages, and livestreaming laptops, communication at protest encampments involves all kinds of other technologies—from tents to tear gas. Without thinking about these objects, we cannot understand what it means to occupy.