Responses from W. J. T. Mitchell’s class on Space, Place and Landscape:
Stephen Parkin, “Occupy Walla Walla”
Walla Walla is a sleepy town of 30,000 in far south-eastern Washington State. Its economy is primarily agricultural (mainly wheat and fruits, but increasingly viticulture and wine as well), though many in town are employed at one of the three colleges (a medium-sized regional teaching school, a small liberal arts school, and a community college), at the state penitentiary, or in the growing tourism sector. The town is just large and historic enough (it’s the first permanent White settlement in Oregon Territory) to maintain a slow-paced individual identity in spite of the relatively significant number of students (roughly 3,100 BA students and 13,000 at the community college out of 60,000 total residents in the valley).
We might not expect to see evidence of the Occupy Movement in rural, conservative territory, but Walla Walla–largely on account of the significant student body–hosts an active chapter. Like many medium-sized rural towns, Walla Walla’s cultural center is defined by it historic Main Street which runs for about 3/4 mile through the center of town. (The other social center of gravity is the Wal-Mart Supercenter and its accompanying recent commercial development on the outskirts of town). The Occupy movement, then, holds its demonstrations along Main Street; many protests gather at the cultural heart of the town (at the intersection of Main and First Avenue), while the Occupation (whose permanent physical presence was short-lived) gathered in a small park just over a block away.
In many ways, the above photograph captures much of the symbolic force of OWS. For one, the protesters are strongly identified with Main Street, the icon of contemporary populism (versus the techno-plutocracy represented by Wall Street and the intellectual elite represented by (esp.) elite universities such as the Ivy League). Another point to notice is the plurality of populist positions represented, which the media has gleefully reported as the lack of cohesive “demands” on the part of the protesters (thus entirely missing the reactionary variety of protesting, the protesting because of rather than for): the signs urge us to “amend the constitution,” “tax Wall Street,” “abolish government,” and “support unions.” What this eclectic variety of perspectives shares is its goal: to “save democracy” from putative encroachment by a variety of socio-cultural institutions, from banks and bureaucracy to teachers and unions.
It is also worth noting that the protesters in Walla Walla used tactics similar to those in other protests nation-wide, including peaceful, non-violent protest and the creation of an alternative community (complete with entertainment, food, etc.) in a public place. Furthermore, the demographic of protesters is similar to that of nation-wide protests, with students, aged civil rights activists, and (often unemployed) workers forming the majority of the movement.
In all, these photographs are not much different than those more commonly seen from the encampments in such places as New York, Berkeley, and Denver, except with the important addition that they reveal that such leftist populist sentiments are not merely an urban phenomenon, but have also erupted in rural, conservative, and agricultural communities as well.