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The term camped (acampada) is used in Spanish to define the act of lodging and staying in an open-air place for recreational purposes. However, this concept has been generalized in social science literature to refer to a form of political action based on the permanent occupation of a physical space as a method of citizen mobilization. The wave of pro-democracy protests that took place in 2011 triggered an expansion of this strategy to the point of becoming an outstanding action within the political repertoire of civil society. The citizens of different countries have made use of this form of mobilization as a way to express themselves in a politically active manner to claim settlements, reforms, or amendments of the political system. Thus, acampadas have become somewhat generalized as a means of political action by the civil society that has been theorized since the 1980s by authors such as Habermas (1996), Keane (1988), and Arato and Cohen (1988) as a nongovernmental space that seeks to influence the political context through nonviolent methods. The acampada has a double dimension since, in addition to being a method used to put pressure on states and introduce new issues into public opinion, it also implies the self-organization and putting into practice of democratic experiences within the public space.
On 19 May, 2011, the Washington Post featured on its cover the massive mobilizations that had been taking place in Spain since 15 May and which has become known as the 15M movement or the indignados movement. The cover showed a large photo of the main square in Madrid, La Puerta del Sol, where a permanent occupation had been established by hundreds of citizens demanding “real democracy now.” Acampadas had become widespread in dozens of Spanish cities and received the attention of media around the world, thereby contributing to generalize the term acampada in the English-speaking world to denote a form of political expression by citizens. This type of political action had already taken place in other contexts and since 15M it has expanded elsewhere.
The occupation of public spaces is a classical form of political pressure by social movements, but their transformation into permanent settlements (i.e., acampadas) represents a novel element within the “classical” political repertoire. States are challenged by demonstrators who use this resource to create alternative spaces for resistance, deliberation, and participation. Throughout history, there have been a number of well-known occupations, such as the acampada in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, which ended with harsh repression and the deaths of several thousand demonstrators. Acampadas have also been common in Spain at different times, although perhaps the most significant were those carried out in the 1990s, a decade in which this political repertoire was also used in Latin America (Adell 2011). However, it is from 2011 onwards, and the emergence of what has come to be known by social movement theorists as “the global moment” (Glasius and Pleyers 2013) or “global wave” (Flesher-Fominaya 2014), when this form of mobilization was seen to become more generalized. The year 2011 saw the Arab Spring, 15M, and Occupy Movement follow closely one after the other, while mobilizations such as Gezi Park (2013) or the Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution (2014) took place soon afterwards. In all of these cases, the acampada was used as a form of expression and political organization.
Acampadas as a Protest Repertory and an Organizational Form
Acampadas are both a repertory of protest and an organizational form (Flesher-Fominaya 2014). In other words, they are not only a means of exerting external pressure on the political system, but are also defined by a series of internal structures and logics. The acampada as a physical space and permanent settlement is linked to a series of political structures such as general assemblies or committees for organizing actions that include communication, IT, legal action, and infrastructure. In the case of 15M, for instance, the general assembly arose as the governing body where all key decisions and political proposals were debated with the aim of reaching a consensus. The dynamics of participation were seen as equally important as (or perhaps more important than) the results in themselves.
Acampadas as a Political Laboratory of Participation
Theorists who have examined acampadas highlight one feature above all the others: the promotion of horizontal dynamics and their open commitment to experimenting in decision-making processes. In spite of the contextual and cultural differences in the acampadas, efforts have been made to foster alternative forms of carrying out politics inspired by egalitarian deliberation among their participants and the rejection of traditional forms of representation. In this sense, theorists such as Kaldor and Scheuw consider that these movements are “projects of collective re-imagining of democracy,” while others highlight the fact that acampadas represent democratic “incubators” (Postill 2013; Gerbaudo 2016) or their role as laboratories of political experimentation (Feenstra et al. 2017). The assemblies established within the acampadas are defined by the principles of non-hierarchy, inclusion, deliberation, and the search for consensus (Maeckelbergh 2011; Simsa and Totter 2017). In addition, they are characterized by being spaces that seek to promote reciprocal learning, the exchange of information and experiences, as well as the construction of shared knowledge (della Porta and Mattoni 2014). These characteristics explain why, for those who participate in them, acampadas constitute highly transcendental life experiences and even “schools of democracy,” in which alternative modes of collective action are promoted together with the search to provide alternative meanings to the crisis (Tormey 2015). Hence, as observed by Pleyers, activists “consider democracy not only as a claim but also as a practice” (2012, p. 1).
Acampadas as Physical but Also Virtual Spaces
Another distinctive feature of the acampadas, as highlighted by the theorists, is that, in addition to their important physical presence in the squares, there is also a strong digital component both in their organization and in the dissemination of their actions. In recent decades, the technological advances and the potentialities they offer have been exploited by activists who make use of a wide range of digital tools. The organizational possibilities of social networks, the ability to work through collaborative digital tools, as well as the option of broadcasting assemblies and actions via live streaming are resources widely used in different acampadas and help to generate a close connection between the physical and the digital space, while also contributing to generate a greater impact on the mass media (Gerbaudo and Treré 2015).
The use of acampadas as a means of expression and political organization spread to countries in different continents in just a few months in the year 2011 (della Porta and Mattoni 2014; Castells 2015). To mention but a few, that year this form of expression emerged in Cairo in January, in Madrid and in dozens of Spanish cities in May, and in New York in September. The occupation of squares as a form of action has multiplied since then in places as different as Cairo, Athens, London, Moscow (whose similarities and peculiarities are studied in Glasius and Ishkanian 2018), Hong Kong, or Istanbul. In general, they were present in hundreds of cities around the world where permanent occupations have been firmly established by layers of citizenry seeking to promote processes of deliberation and consolidate new ways of doing politics.
As several studies have examined, these acampadas do not expand by simply following a process of “copy and paste” or by carrying out identical occupations in terms of messages, specific claims, or results, given that each one adapts to particular circumstances and contexts (Kaldor and Selchow 2013; Glasius and Pleyers 2013; Romanos 2016). In nondemocratic contexts, the conditions and immediate objectives are clearly different. In Tahir Square, for example, the mobilizations have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people, and this form of action has not been able to take place under the same conditions as in democratic countries. As stated by Glasius and Pleyers, “On the surface, the Arab revolutions and Russian protests, which demand democracy, contrast with Western protests pointing to the structural limits of representative democracy” (2013, p. 9). However, in spite of the differences according to context, the multiple acampadas share not only the fact that they are a very specific political repertoire (based on occupation), but also their understanding as a space in which to foster political experimentation in accordance with the aforementioned characteristics.
The researchers who have studied this type of mobilization in the field highlight acampadas as an experience in which the participants try to influence (and even challenge) the status quo by breaking with the classic forms of power and hierarchies. The participants seek to delve deeper into the different ways of participation and overcome the representative logics (Tormey 2015). The generalized disaffection with regard to the representative structures leads to the propagation of acampadas as “schools” or “incubators” of democracy, and theorists highlight how their participants defend the capacity that occupations have had to generate a process of “awakening” and rising political engagement (Glasius and Ishkanian 2018). Likewise, they also underline their capacity to have generated, in the places to which they have spread, a strong resonance in the mainstream public opinion (Kaldor and Selchow 2013). As contemporary events (that are also generalized in very diverse contexts), it is difficult to evaluate the general effects produced by acampadas. However, it is quite possible that these experiences have served to foster, in Melucci’s terms, new “cultural codes” that challenge and broaden traditional concepts and perspectives of society as a whole (Melucci 1989). Future studies will be able to assess the impact of the acampadas in different places.
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