- Protest Occupations and Thinking Tactically as a Democratic Practice
One of my most vivid childhood memories involves driving by the imposing fence protecting RAF Greenham Common, an English airfield that housed multiple cruise-missile silos. I gasped and stared in awe, not at the edifice of cold war militarization, but instead at the crowd of women demonstrating outside the fence with colorful tents and fluttering peace signs. This was the Women’s Peace Camp, what would become a nineteen-year occupation protesting the installation of US nuclear missiles on the base. What was remarkable to me about the camp in 1984 was the fact that the protestors had already been there for three years—an unimaginable length of time for a child. Although I knew little about politics, the cold war, or nuclear disarmament, witnessing the camp and learning of its longevity made me ask questions about what it means to be an activist and the nature of political action.
The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was my first experience with a protest occupation—an extended demonstration that performs political commitment through persistent presence. A recent example in the United States is the Occupy ICE camp in Portland, Oregon, established to protest the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency’s implementation of the Trump administration’s family-separation policy, and which takes its inspiration from Occupy Wall Street’s occupation of New York City’s Zuccotti Park. Other examples of protest occupations include a right-wing militia’s occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon to protest federal land policies in 2016, and the 1990 Kahnawake Warrior Society’s armed protest against a plan by the town of Oka, Quebec, to expand a golf course onto land claimed by the Mohawk Nation. Although the specific political issues differ, these lengthy demonstrations share a common tactic: using the labor and length of activist participation to provoke an affective response and inspire political action.
Protest occupations make use of what I call a “protest dramaturgy of endurance,” which performs activism over time.1 Examples include extended protests that perform physical, mental, and political commitments to a cause and enact an embodied persistence of belief; for example, camps, hunger strikes, long marches, or letter-writing campaigns. Unlike what Baz Kershaw terms a “volcanic” dramaturgy of protest, which relies upon brief, explosive, and disruptive actions to grab headlines and foster support,2 a protest dramaturgy of endurance employs extended or repeated actions to communicate perseverance in the face of opposition. Because the dramaturgy of endurance is focused on longevity and continuation, it only sparingly uses the carnivalesque. [End Page 453] The characters, costumes, puppets, dancing, and music that theatricalize protests with ludic gestus can be difficult to maintain over time, and therefore the dramaturgy of endurance relies upon continued presence and the repetition of labor necessary to sustain dedication to the cause.
While protest occupations are rarely theatrical, they are durational performances aimed at audiences of legislators, activists, and onlookers; as durational performances, they shape and frame time in their effort to provoke a response of affect or action. Edward Scheer describes durational art as that which contains “a specific construction of time, a deliberate shaping of it to effect a particular experience for the viewer or audience.”3 Endurance protests therefore share a dramaturgy with the durational works of performance artists like Tehching Hsieh and Marina Abramović, who have experimented with day-long or even year-long performances that emphasize temporality through aestheticized repetition. This focus on temporality and aestheticized labor can be tremendously affective, as my very strong memory of the Women’s Peace Camp attests. As I viewed it as a child, with its muddy grass and ragged tents and laundry hung out to dry, time was suddenly important, longevity unexpectedly exciting, and activist commitment newly visceral.
As I child, I had yet to identify with a political ideology, to sort myself into the kind of us versus them that shapes the antagonistic politics of today. It was the durational performance of the women demonstrators that appealed to me. I responded first to their activist tactic, rather than their political message. In turn, my affective response to their...