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Nelli Kambouri and Pavlos Hatzopoulos, "The tactics of occupation: Becoming cockroach"

The tactics of occupation: Becoming cockroach
Nelli Kambouri and Pavlos Hatzopoulos

The global occupy protest movement is proliferating by “contagion, epidemics, battlefields, and catastrophes”.[1] Furthermore, it materialises and disperses in multiple ephemeral processes of transformation that construct a common for the multitude of protestors. The common produced by the global occupy movement is not a mutually shared opposition to the capitalist crisis, nor a collective identity (of the “indignados” or of the 99%), nor a consensual political project (for real, authentic democracy). The common does not even embody an identical strategy of occupying public space, but rather to a series of becomings that question established categorizations and taxonomies that normalize the production of subjectivities and the organisation of life.

More so, the common is not produced in a genealogical, linear fashion, evolving from past forms of mobilisation and protest but rather it emerges directly out of the exceptional material circumstances of crisis contagion and catastrophe that spread like an epidemic in different territorialisations.

In order to perform this argument, we will attempt to trace forms of becoming cockroach in the context of the global occupy movement.

@Syntagma square

We start with a snapshot of life at Syntagma square in Athens on June 29, 2011. This was the day of protests against the wave of austeriy measures passed by the Greek government in parliament.

“Since yesterday, June 28, we live like cockroaches in Syntagma square. We are sprayed continuously with chemicals by the Greek police regardless of what we do or what we say, but we persist. We leave Syntagma square for a while to catch our breath and keep on coming back. We rest a bit and return to the square. Even before the chemicals began exploding yesterday morning, we were just sitting on the pavement and the riot police stormed and arrested a person seating nearby. When we protested against the arrest, the riot police responded by arresting another passerby who was just exiting a coffee shop with a coffee in his hand. To be just standing close to Syntagma square seems dangerous and certainly suspicious. The arrests are being enacted to disperse the crowds, but we keep on moving closer to the square instead of leaving.

As we are becoming cockroaches we begin, without really realizing it, to adopt tactics of stasis, of perseverance and endurance, that were previously unknown to us. Chemicals keep on flying, sound bombs keep on exploding all around us making terrible noise and the crowds respond by not leaving, by remaining at Syntagma square. Becoming cockroaches and growing more and more resistant to the chemicals, our bodies begin to mutate. In gas masks, painting maalox on our faces, wearing sun glasses and ski masks, we persist. The figures in gas masks and maalox recognize each other even when they meet further away from Syntagma square.

Even now that the austerity law was approved in the Greek parliament, the crowds are not leaving, they are reinforced. “Let’s have an assembly now,” said someone in the midst of a cloud of chemicals. Like we did when we “staged the music concert yesterday”, he explains. Yesterday, we were cleaning and washing the square with water for hours to disperse the smell of the chemicals and then from a defunct PA system the Tiger Lillies played live on Syntagma square. Chemicals and sound bombs started to explode again all around Syntagma, but everybody remained on the square and kept on dancing.

The classic urban tactics of demonstration (marching in a linear fashion, protesting in front of the Parliament, dispersing after the end of the demonstration) or confrontation (like throwing marbles, stones, and molotov cocktails against the police and destroying symbolic targets like banks, multinational commercial chains etc. ) seem and are secondary in face of our tactics. Cockroaches do not attack, they do not make much noise, nor do they destroy something. But, we cockroaches are far more persistent and productive than other animals that are slowly disappearing.”

This narrative is not about a denunciation of police violence and oppression, neither is it a call for global solidarity with humans treated like animals by the police. Wearing gas masks to resist tear gas and other chemicals or adopting tactics of perseverance and endurance does not mean that we humans are forced to mimic an inferior specifies, or that we are reduced to acting like insects. In a similar fashion in Tahrir square, after 6 successive days of murderous suffocation by tears gas and other chemicals and of shootings of protesters with rubber bullets and live ammunition by the Egyptian security forces (from 19 to 24 of November 2011), Twitter user @El_Deeb writes: “#Tahrir has turned into a lifestyle, a way of living, a utopian city”. The refusal of the protesters in Tahrir to, once again, leave the square, their perseverance in the face of what was previously thought of as “unlivable conditions” produces the common.

Becoming cockroach is a process through which occupation is produced as common and where new possibilities are emerging for the propagation and expansion of the occupy movement beyond the confines of an urban square as public space.[2]

The global occupy movement rests on tactics of stasis, on a primary refusal to move, instead of march. From Tahrir, to Piazza del Sol, to Syntagma, to Zucchotti park, immobility embodies the desire of the protesters to dissociate their occupied public spaces from existing networks of power.

These tactics of stasis are not directly disruptive. They do not intend to block traffic or to close down the roads: to disrupt, in other words, the main networks of urban mobility. They are, instead, devised as a cause for themselves. Stasis operates through contagion and absorption: it constitutes the desire to absorb the entire everyday urban life into the occupy mode itself.

This is how stasis relates to existing organisation of urban space-time. In a way, the occupy protesters adopt a politics of asymmetry in relation to power. Their tactics are not intended to head on destroy the way that power organises the space-time of urban life, nor to attack it in some of its weakest chains (although this is also done by certain groups that are part of these protests). Occupied public spaces are intended to devour within their bordering all the existing activities and subjectivities which operate in the non-occupied city space.

The call to “occupy everything” does not, then, directly aim at the destruction of existing structures of domination, but at the production of an occupied zone within which multiple and often contradictory desires may co-exist. The following comment from the “Take the Square” blog is indicative of such a cohabitation and of the extent to which a multitude of occupying desires can co-exist on the same plane:

“i wanna occupy nigeria…..heart of africa……am so serious..i need help…i started a student coalition on climate change already…so u see whr am coming from”.[3]

In fact, for the global occupy movement the question of where one is coming from or where one is heading to is or should be entirely irrelevant to the actual act of occupation. What is more significant, here, is the fact that occupation sets the space where multiple becomings take place.

This space of multiple becomings is also digital. The entanglement of social media activism with the global occupy movement creates the conditions for a becoming machinic cockroach.

Machinic cockroaches

An experiment was performed in 2007 by a group of scientists in the Free University of Brussels. Scientists, there, created a set of tiny machinic cockroaches with the purpose of socialising with real cockroaches and of ultimately affecting their behaviour.[4] The machinic cockroaches were basically tiny robots, of about the same size with real cockroaches and programmed to exude the same smell so that they would fool the real ones into believing that they were real, too.

The experiment tried to test the predominant hypothesis that cockroaches find shelter on the basis of two criteria: a) how dark it is…choosing the darkest place available and b) how many other cockroaches are to be found in that spot. The researchers programmed the machinic cockroaches to prefer a less-dark hiding place than the ones available.

During the experiment all the cockroaches scurried around randomly for a while, but the robots eventually settled under the lighter, less shadowy spot — and the real cockroaches followed. The machinic cockroaches had tricked the real ones into following them — even to places where a sensible roach would never venture. In a similar fashion, the entanglement of the global occupy protest with mainstream social media is also a becoming machinic cockroach.

Take the story of the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page, for instance. In a recent interview, the administrators of this Facebook page, which played a prominent role in the initial mobilisations in Egypt remembers how “in early November 2010, the page disappeared through an organized attack from the state security electronic department…”. They flooded Facebook with complaints that the Khaled Said page violated Facebook’s terms and conditions”, the administrators of the page remember. And then they recount how “activists in Egypt instantly campaigned Facebook through mass e-mails and threats to boycott Facebook” and how they “immediately made calls to the Facebook headquarters in California” demanding that the page be put back online. The page was up again in a space of a few hours.[5]

Or take the story of Amira Yahyaoui, a cyber activist from Tunisia living in exile in France. The desire to prevent her blog from being blocked in Tunisia (the internet was heavily censhorship was heavy there from the beginning) prompted her to basically change the url of her blog on an almost daily basis. From “delle3a” it became “delle3b” and then “delle4a”, and so on, with Amira giving a tip in code the previous night of what the new url would be.[6]

In these cases, social media activism becomes a machinic cockroach, not only in the sense that activism adopts a tactics of perseverance and mutation with the primary purpose of remaining visible online, refusing to vanish under the power of censorship and control. More so, it adopts a tactic of contagion and absorption. It attempts to enact the “contamination” of social media platforms with data flows and activity that will ensure the peopling of social media. The global fascination with making “#tahrir” or “#ows”, or “#tunisie” and so on feature on the Twitter world trends list or preventing a particular FB page or group or profile from being taken down by Facebook or from getting trolled by organised user groups can be seen as an attempt to absorb digital flows at the borderline that an occupied zone is.

In effect, like a machinic cockroach can disturb the dark habits of a band of coackroaches, these practices disturb the personalised, a-political, banal social interactions that normalize Facebook and Twitter usages. This is not to say, that the dominant social media platforms do not try to resist machinic cockroaches or that they do not attempt to appropriate them.

The argument, instead, is that there is a radically new social media activism that is emerging via the global occupy movement. Radically different from previous practices of clicktivism, of enhancing and facilitating mobilisations, of collective articulating political demands, this new activism operates by attempting to transform social media platforms into occupy zones. Through a becoming machinic cockroach, Facebook and Twiter users and data flows subvert the original usage of these mediums, destroy their common sense functioning and re-claim them as a plane where occupation is propagated, where the contagion of occupy zones proliferates.

The reaction by social media monopolies to redefine and normalize these practices is ever present, but machinic cockroaches tend to reappropriate social media as planes of renewed struggle and of a continuous re-negotiation of their potential usages.

Conclusion? “From the Arab spring, to the European summer, to the American winter to…”

Overall, the occupy protest movement is not linear, synchronic, nor evolutionary. Its failure to produce a new permanent structure for real democracy or for organising future mobilisations or a new “species” of revolutionary subjects is also its strength. The occupy protest movement is, strictly speaking, not a movement at all, but a block of strange and unfamiliar becomings emerging in different locales.

Becoming cockroach embodies an ephemeral symbiosis of different life forms (natural and machinic) that are normally incompatible and even hostile. It is an ephemeral borderline phenomenon triggered by the political and socioeconomic crisis and by state and police violence in specific locales. Becoming cockroach is, however, just one block of becomings that takes hold of different life forms. It is of crucial importance to resist the evolutionary analysis of these becomings that inevitably lead us to questions about the origins and the direction of protests: “where did they come from?”…“what is born out of them?”. Occupy movements spread like contagion from one urban context to the next, from one social medium to another. They are always to be found in the “middle of a line” that does not necessarily lead to a new power configuration, a new species or a new medium, but rather to a new set of becomings.


[1] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (London: Athlone Press), p. 241.

[2] Ibid., p. 239.

[3] See http://howtocamp.takethesquare.net/2011/11/07/occupyresearch/.

[4] See http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1684427,00.html?imw=Y.

[5] See http://www.bostonreview.net/BR36.6/khaled_said_facebook_egypt_revolution....

[6] Personal interview with Amira Yahyaoui.