During the Second World War, the indigenous people of the South Pacific experienced an upheaval: suddenly their islands were flooded with naval airbases. It wasn’t all bad: the big aeroplanes bought exciting new things: food, clothes, medicines. The people grew to like it. When the war ended, the troops were gone, but the people wished the big aeroplanes full of fantastic goods would come back.
So they did what they thought would summon them. They built runways, performed military drills and fashioned air traffic control towers, where they sat wearing headphones of wood.
Unsurprisingly, the big aeroplanes never came back. It was never about the headphones or the military drills? Yet how were the cargo cults to know this? By all appearances, these trappings summoned the big aeroplanes and all of their bounty.
In activism, we sometimes find ourselves in a similar position. The most egregious example, perhaps, is the occupation of public squares. It stems from the uprising in Egypt early this year, where millions of Egyptians occupied Tahrir Square until they toppled their government and achieved regime change. Admittedly, things have not exactly got better for the Egyptians since their regime change, but the formula appears to go like this:
- Camp out in public square
And so Tahrir Square became something of a meme. In the months that followed, conscious attempts were made to copy the great Tahrir Square occupation. In Spain, they camped out in Puerto del Sol. In Greece, Syntagma Square. The UK made several attempts: on March 26th, the word went up to turn Hyde Park into Tahrir Square. People camped out in Trafalgar Square for several weekends. A picnic was held on the steps of the Bank of England that was called an occupation.
What do these things have in common? None of them led to a revolution.
Then there is the example of the ongoing occupation of Wall Street. The people have been there for weeks, now, and are gaining vast popular support. Comparisons to Tahrir Square have been made, of course. Unlike Tahrir Square, Occupy Wall Street is unlikely to lead to revolution: perhaps that was never their goal at all–the occupation has been described as its own demand. There is hope, of course. There is always hope: the occupation could genuinely be used as an organising space to build a better world if it so chose, but it will need to go beyond camping in a public square. The numerous copycat occupations springing up across the States are as unlikely to breed revolution as any of the other squares.
So what is the difference between these occupations and Tahrir Square?
As MagicZebras points out, it’s not about a bloody square. We are a cargo cult, pitching tents in public squares in the vain hope that it will summon better times.
Part of the problem is location. Tahrir Square was prominently placed in front of governmental offices, a visible statement of “we’re here and we’re watching you”. In contrast, many of the other square occupations, including Wall Street, have been tucked away in minimally-invasive places.
Another problem is numbers: millions of people were in Tahrir Square, in contrast to the thousands who camp out in the larger derivative square occupations.
Another big difference is the conditions from which the occupations sprung up: Tahrir Square happened after days of lively protesting and rioting, while all of the others, save Syntagma Square, happened in conditions of relative peace.
In contrast to organising camps such as Climate Camp or the Greenham Common Peace Camp, square occupations are often not used as a springboard for proximal direct action. This is a shame: Occupy Wall Street easily has the numbers and the proximity to do some serious disruption of trading, yet they have not. While its utility as a collective living space and a demonstration of communal spirit is admirable, it could do so much more.
And I wonder, then, if it is hamstrung by attempting to be like Tahrir Square. In Tahrir Square, their presence alone was disruptive: millions of people, refusing to leave until the government they despised had gone. In Wall Street, the protesters now have mayoral approval to stay as long as they like. Time will tell if they seize this opportunity and escalate. It is certainly the best way to move forward, if their ultimate aim is to fix a broken system.
In short, then, we must stop with the Tahrir Square cargo cult. Tahrir Square was perhaps unique: a product of its conditions. It was certainly not just occupying a square that caused revolution, and we may need to let go of the romantic notion that going camping will overthrow governments. For our own motivation, we must be realistic about what we can achieve with an action, rather than dreamy aspirations. Failure is ultimately disheartening.
We are unique. We are not Tahrir Square, and nor should we try to be. Let each action be a response to its own circumstances, with conscious awareness of our own strengths and limitations.
We are not Tahrir Square, and nor do we need to be.