Why a Tent Protest Works for BabAlShams in E1 and not for Solidarity in the US
On the UC Berkeley campus lawn, tent dwellers posted banners. “Occupy Education.” “We are the 99 percent.” Helium balloons, tied with strings to the tops of the tents, helped to occupy another three feet of vertical space, while police surrounded the encampment and waited. This is a global image that you recognize.
Protestors occupying space; the patient arm of power waiting them out.
In Tel Aviv, where the ironies of “occupation” are unavoidable, the same scene. In Egypt; the same. The Berkeley balloons tell a story, with no great change in their wake: the occupy movements were about space. In fact, almost all acts of revolutionary effervescence are. Protest marches fill streets, stop traffic, and demonstrate a body-to-body accountability. The Civil Rights sit-ins were about occupying space, as were the efforts by American Indian activists to reclaim Alcatraz Island, or the billboard wars over Palestinian rights in San Francisco, New York, DC NY/DC metro.
It occurs to me, as I “go to work” by shuffling in my pajamas to my laptop and logging in to my institution’s webpage, that space has made fundamental changes, and that now (and perhaps always) space is the wrong way to go about revolutionary activities. Unless of course space is the thing in question. Very often, it is not. I propose that we find a way to revolutionize time, the same way we revolutionize space. We first have to understand time differently. Then we can reach back to Gandhi and rethink his actions in terms of time.
Time is not linear. It does not move in perfect circles, either. It coils and uncoils like a spring or a slinky. Consider your home. Home is the place where that rushing movement of the world outside stops, and time pauses to recoil. It is sleeping. It is cooking. It is in the shower where the phone does not ring and the water taps out a moment of rest. Time recoils here.
Time recoils and uncoils, like any resource we extend and retract, extend and retract.
Time, from the alarm going off to the rushed coffee to the rapid communication via nano- second emails and even-faster chats, texts, and tweets… exhausts time. Time has no home-moment to recoil.
This is how capitalism makes time linear: it simply prevents time from ever recoiling.
It stretches it out and out and out, straight. This is how former revolutions over time, like the struggle for an 8-hour workday or paternity leave, are slowly eroded and thinned by stretching. I know very few people who work as little as 8 hours a day, in spite of the many supposed rights and regulations made available to us. We simply cannot afford to work so little.
Time is our commodity, and we sell it 24/7.
We rush. We are always rushing, or anxious. If my time, the tissue of my life, is being stretched out like taffy, then who is eating it? And is occupying a public space an effective way to protest this consumption? The occupy movements may have illustrated a point, but their form did not force fundamental changes, because they focused too much on space and not enough on time.
What does power have to do but to wait? Time is on the side of power, because you have a job to get back to, and winter is coming and the cold will send you away. The occupy movement did not revolutionize time. It played directly into the temporal strengths of power, because it put the protestors in the position of waiting. This form of protest is like a hunger strike. It works only if you are willing to die, to actually look death in the eye and say, “Abolition of Time (which is what death is), I am ready for you.” And we’re not. We want to live, so why do we play this game of chicken with power, which has more time than we do to wait? We should be wiser about time.
Gandhi never proposed a radical transformation of space to resist British occupation.
He was fighting a temporality that came with colonialism.
Space was already on his side, with millions of Indians against only thousands of British colonists. What did Gandhi do? He walked to the sea and picked up salt. He walked and talked and abhorred taking the train.
Gandhi slowed time down, gave it a wheel for weaving homespun, for recoiling, for reaching into the past and pulling out a fabric for society. Gandhi didn’t talk about having millions of people storming the colonial administration buildings. He insisted on patience. Time, and waiting, were his weapons. What are we supposed to do when we are robbed, according to Gandhi? We are to let it happen. We are to wait until next time. The premise of Gandhi method of persuasion is rooted in the notion that the thief will come back, that relationships return, like slinkies, and that time requires a careful, intentional recoiling. If we are to act strategically in changing the world, we must consider time as a major component in our choices.
Time, after all, is the primary commodity we sell. It is also the primary commodity that the powerful consume.
Therefore, altering what the powerful do with their time, or think about when they are at home, is essential to effective revolution. Generating new forms of value for our time, meanwhile, is essential in tandem.
We need not occupy space unless it impacts how we occupy time.
If we occupy space by waiting, we might as well be waiting on the powerful at home. But if we can make the powerful wait on us then we have a chance at leveraging power. Power is manifested in the recoiling and uncoiling of time. When the powerful need time to recoil we can speed it up (interfere with their home space, speed up the rate at which their secrets come out, etc). When the powerful need time to uncoil we can slow it down (slowing our life rhythms, insisting on rest, etc).
SpaceTime in Action
I don’t mean to underestimate space or over-qualify the spatiality of movements like Occupy. Naturally space is important, particularly in settings where space is the thing in question. The Palestinian E1 protestors have built tent ‘settlements’ on their own land. Since this first E1 protest settlement, Bab Alshams, Bab Al-Karame and the most recent Manatir tent settlement, have popped up, gaining national and international attention, as well as the violent attention of the Israeli army and Israeli settlers. This is an effective spatial protest because the commodity in question is land itself. The effectiveness is also about time: unlike tent protestors in Washington DC who broke camp when the winter came, these protestors are already home, where time recoils. Their occupation of this space is an act of recoiling time.
They are not in a position of waiting on power.
The E1 protest indeed alters what the powerful do with their time. The powerful are, as we sit at the computer, dismantling Palestinian tent homes in the E1 area. They are not demolishing the illegal Israeli settlements erected as punishment for Palestine’s successful bid at the UN earlier this year. The world watches, and the ironies are captured. More than occupying space, which any protestor knows can only be temporary, the very activities of the powerful (the evacuation of the tent homes) is the new commodity of protest. Incriminating. Visible. This is not a hunger strike, and no one is waiting for power to do something. This is a feast, and power has been invited to act as usual, to incriminate itself.
Those of us in the US, whose commodity is not land but time, cannot simply mimic the Palestinian form of resistance in our solidarity efforts. They have land, we don’t. Online action only accomplishes something if it alters what powerful people do with their time.
And the occupy form of protest only matters if it alters what powerful people do with their time.
We must think through the fundamentals and leverage power with what we have, not with what we don’t.
Sleeping day after day in a tent does you little good if your commodity is time or money. You are not at home, you loose your moments to recoil. You are vulnerable to being out-waited. Filing a lawsuit that takes up hours of the powerful’s time, or preventing them from accessing their homes after work, are like the feast of Baba Al Shams-- an invitation to the powerful to do what they do best-- publicly.
Gandhi was not proposing a sit in of thousands. Gandhi was proposing a radical transformation of time. Revolutionary activities do not take time from us; they give time back to us. They take time from the powerful, time in which we could be laboring. Revolution is not a linear project. It always moves in a loop, it is a cyclical, rhythmic relationship. Time recoils in our legs like a spring.
Re-volution means turning back, recoiling. If it doesn’t radically transform time, it is not revolutionary.
Here research interests include:
Time, Planning, and Imagination
Empathy, Indifference and Solidarity
Institutional Violence, Materiality, Home Demolition
She has spent time teaching, studying and living with displaced people in Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine and Rwanda.