Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I went camping pretty frequently. It was sometimes boring, getting dragged out to nature by car and by ferry, but I stored up some pretty good memories from those outings—waking up early in a tent and walking out into that dewy, piney air; the light filtering through the ceiling of evergreens; drinking a plastic mug of watery hot chocolate heated up on a portable gas stove; hearing the rain spatter against my tarp as I huddled in a sleeping bag. There’s something invigorating and almost spiritual about going to a place where your iPod and your cell phone and your parents’ Prius are dwarfed by mossy trees and rocks that hulk over you indifferently.
Now that I live in New York City I hardly ever go camping, and that’s sort of a shame. I’ve thought about heading out to the Catskills or something, but the process of renting a car and driving through the hellish bridge-and-tunnel traffic is pretty terrifying. I thought I was one of the few New Yorkers who missed camping, but several weeks ago a crowd of passionate, mostly young people pitched tents in the middle of a park in lower Manhattan as part of a political protest.
I was a little confused, at first, as to what the “message” or “demands” of this movement were, because every time I went down there I was confronted with a lot of confusing signage. But it became clear to me yesterday, as protesters clashed with cops and dismantled barricades in response to Tuesday's court ruling that park owners could legally bar them from having tents in the square, what these dissidents felt so strong about: They’re just fighting for their fundamental right to camp wherever they want.
Is camping a fundamental right? Why shouldn’t it be? There are over 41,000 acres of open public spaces in New York City—parks, nature preserves, cemeteries, beaches, and so on—and yet you aren’t allowed to camp on any of it. The land just sits, unused, and yet if you try to set up an unobtrusive little camp on any of it the cops will move you off of it. “Open to the public”? More like, “Open to the public, except if you like camping, then you can fuck off!”
Restrictions on the use of land have had an ugly, freedom-killing history since the days when the palefaces told the Native Americans to get the hell off “their” land. Square foot by square foot, the bureaucrats and administrators have been cordoning the land off into smaller and smaller sections and assigning narrower and narrower purposes to them. The days when you could live, hunt, gather, bathe, and enjoy yourself as you see fit on a single strip of land are pretty much gone for good. Fortunately, these “Occupiers,” as they call themselves, are fighting back by using civil disobedience to tell the Man that, you know what, we can camp here if we want—this land is our land!
The court order—which stated that the protesters need to take down the tents because they didn’t qualify as “free speech”—just highlights exactly what the issue is. If you enjoy camping, if you think you have a right to camp on land that’s supposedly “public,” then you need to be down at Zuccotti right now, because the powers-that-be are stripping away your basic rights. No wonder so many people stormed into the streets and subways threatening to start a full-blown riot yesterday. The right to camp is important to a lot of people!
I can’t claim to be a regular visitor down at the “Occupation,” but I went a couple of times back when it was still peaceful, and those people were clearly experienced outdoorsmen who knew how to camp out in style—they had a kitchen, a group of volunteers to keep the camp clean, even a generator powered by an exercise bike. They had a solid supply of sleeping bags, air mattresses, tarps and tents, and inside the tents some of the camping enthusiasts were drinking, getting high, and—so I heard—fucking each other. Just good old-fashioned outdoor-vacation fun, although they never seemed to build any fires, and I thought that was always one of the best parts about camping. Maybe they’ll have some fires during their next occupation. I don’t think they’re going away.