restricted access 13. “Bring Tent”: The Occupy Movement and the Politics of Public Nature
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C h a p t e r 1 3 “Bring Tent”: The Occupy Movement and the Politics of Public Nature Phoebe S. K. Young In the initial poster campaign that served as a catalyst for the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) in 2011, the central objective remained an open question : What is our one demand? Those drawn to participate shared a sense of outrage with economic inequality and alienation from the political process but generated little initial consensus on a list of specific reforms for which to agitate. The form of protest, however, was precise; instructions indicated a date, a place, and a single instruction: “Bring Tent.” The tactic took off in ways that surprised both organizers and observers. At the height of its initial wave that fall, Occupy encampments sprouted in hundreds of cities in the United States and beyond, with at least fifty substantial and lasting tent protests in major urban areas from the original location in Lower Manhattan to Oakland , California.1 The ultimate impact of the movement continues to be a matter of debate, and yet from the moment Occupiers made camp, they activated a series of potent cultural associations. For protesters, the tent might have promised nothing more than basic practical protection from the elements and simple visual testimony to their intent to stay. In the months that followed , however, their chosen shelter became a more complicated symbol than they may have anticipated. It kindled deep and often contradictory historical references that altered the course of the movement. In the end the 288 Chapter 13 tent became both medium and message, and the cause came to focus on the right to occupy. It is possible to read this as a shift from substance to form, as a diminishment or distraction, as if the tent diverted attention from Occupy’s substantive political challenge. Examples of this interpretation abounded. Some wished that Occupiers would abandon their disordered camps and articulate a more legible message, as more traditional marches or media events might do. The tent also served as a vehicle to deride the protesters as a bunch of white, wealthy tree huggers left over from the Battle of Seattle (the 1999 demonstrations against the World Trade Organization) with nothing better to do with their North Face gear. For others, tents associated Occupiers with handout-seeking homeless people and thus an urban nuisance rather than a legitimate assembly. Yet to dismiss the tent as merely a superficial manifestation of more authentic underlying causes and demands would miss much of the history of OWS. The tent was not a superfluous oddity. It sat at the heart of the movement’s political approach, what it did and did not do, why it worked, why people reacted, and why it eventually got shut down. To focus on the tent entails thinking about the entanglement of nature and culture it evokes, even though few observers explicitly placed it in meaningful relation to any traditional setting in nature. The tent cities of OWS appeared worlds apart from the idealized vision of woods and wilderness that camping out usually connotes.2 The tent, together with its association with nature and the outdoors, is key to understanding the scope of the movement’s resonance in American political culture. We have to ask why, in this particular social movement, the tent appeared simultaneously obvious, audacious, and natural. Why did it capture public attention and the movement’s focus? This essay argues that it was precisely because the tent evoked ways that the outdoors has served historically as critical space for negotiating civic belonging and national identity. There are three modes in which the tent has historically made meaning: political, functional, and recreational. Whether deployed as political pressure device, functional means of travel and habitation, or base for natureoriented recreation, a tent lays claim to public space and identity. The multiple frameworks, however, tend to overlap, collide, and create ambiguity. If leisure camping appears wholesome and innocent, homeless camping might suggest danger and disorder. Camping out for a political cause might slip all too easily into reminders of one or the other, depending on the type of gear displayed. In any frame of reference, camping tacitly draws on historical “Bring Tent” 289 narratives about individualism, freedom, and America as “nature’s nation.” The preeminent example is the National Park System, which exemplifies the use of natural spaces for establishing national identity. When Americans camp in Yosemite or Yellowstone, they render places of wild nature as national culture...