What is the tent the symbol of?

Over the past ten days, tents have reappeared in the Montreal landscape. I’m not talking about the tents that serve as makeshift shelters for people experiencing homelessness. I am of course talking about the pro-Palestinian encampment at McGill University which recalls the tents of the Occupy movement in 2011 and the student movement in 2015.

A roof for nomadic tribes, camping equipment that has helped to democratize travel, the tent also represents precariousness when it becomes a temporary shelter for people without a permanent roof, or for refugees.

But what does the tent represent when it is pitched in public space, in an activist context?

I discussed it with Patrick McCurdy, associate professor in the communications department at the University of Ottawa. McCurdy is one of the co-authors of the work Protest Campspublished in 2013.

Professor McCurdy explains to me that the protest camp as we know it today finds its origins in the civil rights camps of the 1960s in the United States.

The activist encampment is the direct descendant, according to the professor, of what was called Resurrection City, in Washington, a demonstration whose idea was launched by Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This camp, which took shape on the famous National Mall, a month after the assassination of MLK, wanted to draw attention to the poverty suffered by the most deprived in American society.

For Martin Nadeau, lecturer in sociology at UQAM, there is also a link to be made between today’s camps and the first sit-ins of American students in the 1960s. “I also see a direct link with the movement opposing the Vietnam War and even with the bed-in like that of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, he adds. In all cases, we demanded a form of peace. »

The tent stimulates thinking

The tent – ​​and by extension, the camp – is part of the repertoire of contemporary mobilization actions available to activists. It is a democratic tool because it is easy to access. “Anyone can borrow a tent and take it into a public space,” notes Professor McCurdy.

While governments often prefer to dismantle homeless encampments which starkly embody the social crises of the day, the “activist tent” has carved out a place for itself alongside the sign and the yellow vest as a symbol of protest. . It invites us to think, to take a position.

“The tent occupies a physical space and therefore a space in our visual field and our mind,” emphasizes Patrick McCurdy. It is an intervention that forces us to stop and pay attention to a question. »

The tent is pacifist. It is associated with refugee camps and by appropriating it, activists send the message that they wish to put themselves in the shoes of uprooted people.

Martin Nadeau, lecturer in sociology at UQAM

A model of community

The camp embodies two things. It’s an activist tactic, but it’s also a way of living, even if it’s temporary. “The encampment is a form of infrastructure,” notes Professor McCurdy. We retire there to sleep and to eat. It’s interesting to observe how we organize ourselves in a camp. You have to find food, electricity, toilets. »

Beyond the material aspect of things, life in the camp also comes to embody an ideal for those who occupy it.

“It is often said that we live in a hyper-individualistic society, that we are witnessing the erosion of the sense of community,” notes Patrick McCurdy. However, the camps are villages, with a library, common spaces to gather, organize workshops, discuss. »

Is camp life a form of utopia?

“In our book, we devoted a chapter to what we called “alternative worlds”. Capitalist society encourages us to work, to be productive, to do our things. The camp is a physical space to stop and think about what could be different. »

Perhaps activists will be criticized for being too idealistic, but the camp is a space for these kinds of ideas.

Patrick McCurdy, associate professor in the department of communication at the University of Ottawa

“The camp aims to achieve a form of constructive dialogue,” adds Martin Nadeau, from UQAM.

“It’s a rite of passage and civic learning for students,” he continues. In the McGill camp, young people are taking a stand for something other than themselves. It is a stage of life and a form of democratic sociability. Who knows, maybe political careers will arise from there? »

For his part, the University of Ottawa professor notes that the demands coming from the pro-Palestinian camp in Montreal are precise. “We can disagree with the demands of the McGill camp, but they have the merit of being clear,” he said.

If they had written a letter asking “please can you discuss your investments at your next board meeting?”, the university could have ignored their letter. The encampment is a call to order. »

So far, the McGill encampment has not provoked any acts of violence. Built on the university campus, between two sessions, it does not block traffic and disturbs few people. His presence is a call to think about complex issues peacefully. The tent, a symbol of exchange and discussion? I like it.

What do you think ? Participate in the dialogue

reference: www.lapresse.ca

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