Ocupados / Occupations and Tent Cities

Image from Whittier La Casita Occupation. Photo by Sarah Jane Rhee

Recent transformative mass actions by indignados in Spain, unemployed young people in Egypt, and Occupy Wall Street in many U.S. cities have inspired many people, providing a hopeful alternative to a sense of powerlessness against monstrous corporate financial structures deemed too big to fail, to big to be prosecuted for fraud, and too influential to not get their way. In the U.S. Midwest, the occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol building by government workers drew international support.
Chicago’s recent Chicago Public School (CPS) teacher strike generated similar national reverberations of hope. This kind of activism has long been alive in some Chicago communities. Another recent example was the successful September 2010 effort to keep CPS from demolishing the fieldhouse of Whittier Dual Language School in Pilsen. In August 2012, students occupied the Little Village Social Justice High School (SoJo) on Chicago’s southwest side—built after a community hunger strike more than a decade ago—to protests replacement of the principal and elimination of AP classes and teachers. With support from a mobilized community, the principal was reinstated. In many ways, these occupations offer strategies to avoid being overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the problems we face.
How do we sustain our spirit of resistance and maintain positive energies to “keep on keeping on” for the long term against enormous odds? One way is to revisit models of past organized, creative, and sustained resistance to economic, ethnic, and class inequality to find options for action and inspiring models for resilience.
The exhibit Occupados/Occupations at Art in These Times will document recent historical moments of collective resistance. By providing a visual record of past spaces, communities, and concepts of collective, spatialized resistance, we hope to unite imagination and action today.
Some of these models may be better known than others, but they all fall within the category of people’s history. Several of these will be examined in this exhibit:

In 1960–62, black sharecroppers in Fayette County, Tennessee, built a tent city after being evicted from their homes for trying to vote.
The 1968 Poor Peoples’ March on Washington, DC lasted six weeks as a tent-city occupation of public grounds shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The 1969 occupations of Alcatraz island by Native Americans empowered other occupations like Wounded Knee and Pine Ridge in the 1970s.
In the 1980s, college and university students set up tent cities to demand that their institutions divest from apartheid South Africa.
In Chicago and other cities in the early 1990s, the organization Mad Houser built hut cities to ease homelessness through civil disobedience in the form of collective construction.

Jesus Macarena Avila, in his introduction to the exhibit he curated, “Espacios Ocupados: Defining 99%,” reminds us of the 1960s Spanish tradition of okupados, in which social activists and residents would take over abandoned spaces and use them as social centers. This exhibit originally brought together work of international and local latino/a artists in three Chicago neighborhood art spaces: Calles y Sueños in Pilsen, Maya Essence-Casa Guatemala in Lincoln Square, and North Branch Projects in Albany Park. In doing this, the exhibition linked artists’ work about indigenous and immigrant experience to places where these would have particular resonance. “Ocupados/Occupations and Tent Cities” will connect with this exhibition project in the hope of reigniting some of the energy it created with the including of seven works from the original show.
The exhibition will also address incarceration as a type of repressive encampment, like the Tent City Jail of Maricopa County, Arizona, assembled to deal with overflow of immigrant prisoners, and the current solitary confinement practices at the Tamms Maximum Security Prison in Illinois. No one built these spaces out of an imaginative desire to share space collectively. But they remind us of reasons for continuing to build alternative spaces and places of creative resistance. Processes of occupation can be messy and uncomfortable, but they can also be liberating and creative. They can become congregations of conversation and can create shared community space, which models a beauty that includes rough edges, divergence, and disagreements. They tend to generate models of organization where process is valued a bit more over a refined result.

Ocupados/Occupations and Tent Cities will be on view February 15 to May 31, 2013, at Art in These Times, 2040 N. Milwaukee Ave., Second Floor