It is nearly a month since Anja Kanngieser‘s excellent Creating Alternative Worlds workshop at Royal Holloway, University of London. As ever, January was mostly lost buried under large piles of student essays and exam scripts that needed marking, so I seem to have dragged my heels in producing the report on the event that I promised at the time. In some ways, that promise now seems a little superfluous as both Alex Vasudevan and Sam Halvorsen have blogged very thorough and thoughtful reflections on the day. While I enjoyed all the talks presented at the workshop, there were two in particular that I have been thinking about since. Those were the papers presented by Nazima Kadir and Adam Ramadan.
Nazima Kadir spoke about her ethnographic research on the Amsterdam squatting scene. I was fascinated by her exploration of how protagonists in the squatting scene accumulate ‘squatter capital’ within the movement. She suggested that there was a refraction of dominant forms of social and cultural capital whereby individuals utilised those capitals to master and accumulate countercultural capital within the squatting movement. Sometimes individuals acquired authority and respect within the movement by performing ‘non-instrumental acts of bravery’. In this way, the movement privileged those who could demonstrate that they chose to be part of the squatting scene, rather than those who were so marginal that they had no option but to squat. She also recognised that individuals could accumulate authority within this (seemingly horizontal) social movement simply by demonstrating that they had useful practical skills and could be relied upon to perform the tasks they committed to undertake. This really resonated for me with a couple of recent interviews I have conducted for the Non-Stop Against Apartheid project. Two different former activists have recalled how they became centrally involved with the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s committee quite soon after joining the group because they had useful administrative skills that aided the group in running its office, mobilizing supporters, and providing legal support to arrestees. Having proved themselves relatively reliable, administratively, they were included in more directly political strategizing and trusted to represent the group at external events. Here again, proving themselves reliable enough to turn up and do what they said they would do, when they said they would do it, helped them to accumulate authority and respect within the group. Interestingly, and I must emphasize that I am not inferring anything about any of my recent interviewees, this is also how police spies like Mark Kennedy have managed to infiltrate activist groups over the years (as Katrina Forrester outlined in a recent article in the London Review of Books). Nazima’s talk and these recent interviews have set me thinking further about the role of administrative practices within the broader social dynamics of solidarity activism (and I’ll write more about that soon).
The second paper that intrigued me was Adam Ramadan‘s. Adam has recently published work on the Tahrir Square protest camp in Cairo, but his doctoral research was about Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. His paper at the workshop directly compared the similarities and differences between these two types of camps. Although I do not think that the Non-Stop Picket of the South African embassy in London can easily be described as a protest camp, it clearly has some similarities with these forms of protest – not least of all its long duration as a static protest. Adam’s paper reminded me that solidarity encampments outside South African embassies around the world (such as the Non-Stop Picket in London and the South African Liberation Centre in Canberra) were not the only form of anti-apartheid camps. Just as Palestinian political movements organised in the refugee camps in Lebanon and elsewhere, so the South African liberation movements trained exiled militants in camps located in the Frontline States across southern Africa. In the 1970s and 80s, these camps were often sites of intergenerational and class antagonism between young militants keen to undertake military actions inside South Africa and the older leadership who had spent longer in exile. If the duration of the Non-Stop Picket created peculiar temporalities through being ‘non-stop’, then the camps in the Frontline States were often marked by seemingly endless waiting. To study these two forms of anti-apartheid camps in comparison with each other could be a productive line of research in the future.
I’d like to thank Anja Kanngieser for organising the workshop in January and all the speakers for their thought-provoking contributions. Hopefully, many of us will come together again to collaborate on protest camps research before too long.