One of the simplest and most radical things Occupy Wall Street does is to camp out every night in public. This kind of extended political protest is not new, though many may not realize the long history tent cities have in America. One-day protests can be ignored, but ongoing events, as we have seen, draw more and more media attention the longer they continue. On a practical level, the hundreds of sleeping bags and tarps that cover the ground each night are the heart of the occupation at Liberty Plaza. Without those of us who maintain a 24-hour occupation of the park, this new space for free speech and direct democracy could have failed weeks ago. Not only that, but the park has also become a community for many of the city’s homeless who cannot live in shelters and appreciate the services and safety in numbers provided by OWS. The occupiers’ community is a laboratory for all kinds of people to practice working and living together.
Like many tent cities of the past, our protest has experienced opposition from the government. Actual tents and necessary sanitary facilities have been prohibited by the private company who legally owns this publicly-mandated public space, and these rules have been enforced by the NYPD. As a result, our tent city– unlike tent cities throughout history– has very little protection from the elements. Tarps do not protect from the rain water that streams across the pavement and soaks sleeping bags, causing endless laundry expenses and threatening us with colds and hypothermia. Worse will come with the approach of winter. Our hope is that an understanding of tent cities’ long precedent as an important means of political protest will bring support for putting up the tents and sanitary facilities we need.
Recent tent cities around the world have produced political change: a 100-day tent city protest outside the Parliament Building in Kiev during the Orange Revolution in 2004 helped to restore the democracy of the Ukraine. A 600-day tent city in Sarajevo at the Marsala Tita near the National Museum in 2005/2006 protested the lack of government support for agriculture. Uprisings in Egypt and Spain in 2011 took to the streets and set up tent cities in public space to protect their 24-hour protest for democratic change from being shut down.
In America, too, we have used tent cities for a long time. The Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 planned a tent city as the first step in a larger plan to bring attention to economic inequality as a barrier to civil rights for poor people of all races. The campaign was about to begin when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated; it was delayed for a week and others had to take over leadership. Resurrection City was built by the Reflecting Pool in DC. Rather than tents, it had wooden A-frame huts where up to five thousand adults, teenagers, and children from poor communities of all races lived between May and June, 1968. It was very regimented; the residents had plastic id bracelets, they were surrounded by a fence through which media was only allowed for 2 hours each day, they all rose at 7 am each morning, and they were bused to daily marches and protests. A major problem was the rain; it rained at least 28 of the 42 days of the protest, and leaky shacks and muddy streets made conditions very uncomfortable. Many political and religious leaders supported the protests at first, but Congress became tired of the marches and rallies and the people became increasingly angry at the camp’s conditions and the lack of response from political leaders. Different sources are unclear on the immediate cause– some cite the expiration of the National Park Service’s 37-day permit for the protest, while others cite riots within the camp that the National Guard was unable to suppress– but on June 24 bulldozers flattened the camp and the people went home.
When the Continental Army of the new United States of America was discharged without pay in 1781, hundreds of veterans marched on DC and camped out to demand their pay. Congress fled and the US Army dispersed the veterans– and, in response, Congress made DC an exception to the law against using the Army for domestic policing. In the 20th century, the Bonus Army appeared. It consisted of World War 1 veterans and their families who marched in May 1932 to Washington, DC and set up a tent city to demand cash payment of certificates given to them for their service. 43,000 strong, their city had sanitation, well-laid out streets, and daily parades. In June the House passed a bill to grant the veterans their bonuses, but the Senate defeated it, so at the end of July, President Hoover told the US Army to evict the veterans. At first the veterans cheered the approaching soldiers, believing them to be marching in support of their cause, but when cavalry charged the veterans’ shacks, shouts of “Shame” were heard. Tear gas and vomit gas were used to evict the veterans and their families, and their shacks were burned. Another camp in 1932 was defused with promises from Mrs. Roosevelt. Despite the peace, organization, and just demands of these tent cities, the government betrayed them by sending the army against its own veterans.
Other tent cities, such as the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression, were motivated by necessity as much as by a desire for political change, as the homeless banded together to build communities and find shelter in a disastrous economy. The civil rights movement of the ‘60’s began similar tent cities, such as the Tent City of Fayetteville, Tennessee, which appeared after 345 sharecropping families were evicted from their homes after they voted in the November 1960 election. A ‘cold war’ between blacks and whites had been going on in the country since blacks had begun organizing and registering to vote in the past year, and when the vote results switched the county’s party for the first time since Reconstruction, things came to a crisis. All but 11 of the families found housing with supporters, and the rest (about 80 people) camped out in a tent city with food and tents provided by supporters. Even today, the name of the white merchant who donated the tents is kept secret for fear of reprisals. The tent city existed for about 2 years; the families eventually found new land and discrimination suits that had been filed in federal court were won.
Other tent cities:
In 1977 a tent city was set up at Kent State to protest the construction of a gym on the site of the 1970 massacre.
In 1984 the Campaign for Creative Nonviolence set up tents in DC to call attention to the plight of the homeless, but were prevented from sleeping in them by a National Park Service regulation against camping. The enforcement of this regulation went to a case at the Supreme Court, which upheld it, arguing that it did not violate the first amendment to prevent people from making their residence on public park land.
The longest political tent city in the country, to my knowledge, was the vigil in San Francisco against AIDS from 1985 to 1995. This tent city was supported by the local community and only ended after most of the original vigilers had died and 100-mile-an-hour winds and rain had flattened the tents of the remaining vigilers.
Other tent cities have appeared in New York City in the last 15 years, mostly in support of the homeless, at locations such as Tompkins Square Park and City Hall Park. These have been forcibly removed by police.
On the eve of 2012, we are trying again. Our purpose is slightly different from the previous attempts. We have built a training ground for the set generation of activists, a home for the homeless, and we have organized non-stop a conference between individuals who are willing to do what is necessary to provide a future for the youth.
We were not given a road map for success. We have to create our own. The tent-city at Liberty Square is what this is all about. We have coalitioned with forces in our community, to ensure that the progress of the people is not impeded by business, government, and enforcements actions.