How to occupy spaces to advance your cause
This page was created using insight following a learning circle held by the HUB on the subject, during which members of activist groups shared their learnings relating to this means of pressuring institutions.
Some groups wished to remain anonymous.
The Ecotheque is a university student collective whose goal is to create cooperative, participatory, environmental, inclusive and horizontal projects by following the three pillars of the group: education, art and militant action. In other words, the idea is to create a common knowledge accessible to students who do not necessarily have the opportunity to encounter this type of content due to the unidirectionality of their programs, among other things.
Divest McGill is an environmental justice campaign that has been fighting for 10 years to get McGill University to recognize the urgency of the climate crisis and withdraw its investments in the fossil fuel industry. It is also a group of more than a hundred students who, over the years, have done an enormous amount of research, popular education and mobilization on the subject.|
The Fairy Creek Blockade is a nonviolent direct action from the frontlines of what's colonially called British Columbia. The people who participate fight to protect the remaining 2.7% of ancestral forest in British Columbia from logging. Beginning in August 2020, thirty individual forest defenders from across the South Island, including neighbouring communities, came together to set up a roadblock one thousand meters above sea level on the western ridge of Fairy Creek, in Pacheedaht territory.
Since then, a community of Indigenous youth, elders and gender-diverse people have led the full-time outreach work. The blockade received support from future Hereditary Chief Victor Peter of the Pacheedaht and the Union of British Columbia Chiefs (UBCIC). Blockades have united under the #laststandforforforests at four main locations and several pop-up locations.
To escalate pressure
- The occupation can be combined with other tactics: a student strike, hunger strike etc.
- In some cases, occupation may be the first tactic chosen (e.g. in Fairy Creek, occupation was the first tactic advocated)
To democratize its environment
Often, the idea behind an occupation is not only to put forward demands on a specific issue (eg, a university's divestment from fossil fuels), but also to redefine where power should lie; should it belong to the administration of the school or rather to the student body which decides to occupy a building and establish a direct democracy?
How Do You Hold an Occupation?
Choice of Location
- When selecting a location, find out what the implications and challenges of occupying it may be. For example:
School: security is present from the beginning of the occupation.
Forest: police presence is not necessarily assured from the beginning of the occupation. Police will ensure an increased and regular presence if an injunction is filed against the occupiers. In the event that an injunction is filed, the police will make arrests and will not hesitate to use violence.
Direct Democracy and Functioning
More often than not, an occupation will include general assemblies so that the group can include collective decisions concerning:
- their demands
- the roles of different committees
- the food
- the activities that will take place during the occupation
- its duration, etc.
A meeting usually includes: an agenda and procedures allowing for the flow of exchanges and decision-making. These can be explained to participants at the start of the meeting. In order to be legitimate, a meeting sometimes includes a quorum, or a minimum number of people present so that the meeting can begin.
Each group chooses which decisions will have to be taken in assembly and which decisions will be taken organically and autonomously, or by a committee. It may be decided that the decisions taken in assemblies cannot detract from the constitution of the group. For an example of using general assemblies, see: information on assemblies at McGill
The occupying group may choose to form working committees. Committees do not necessarily need to have a coordinating person. Many groups choose instead to have 1-2 people per committee who ensure that tasks are completed on time (bottom-liners). Here are some examples of committees and their roles:
|Care Committee||Responsible for thinking about practices that promote the well-being of the group. See below for further resources and reflections on care in the context of an occupation|
|Food Committee||Responsible for ensuring food supply. This committee may find volunteers to cook meals, for example.|
|Equipment Committee||Responsible for finding equipment (tables, tents, fabric and ropes for banners...) and taking inventory of them.|
||Responsible for finding processes to ensure the security of participants (conserving anonymity, encrypted communication, etc.)|
Adapt the occupation to the circumstances
An occupation is also an opportunity to organize conferences, workshops, screenings and training. The content and time of these activities can be decided in assembly, but the group can also choose to organize the calendar in an autonomous and participatory way, so that anyone can organize an activity.
Provide a Study Space, Quiet Space
This would be relevant for occupations of campuses, for example, where students may want to complete school work whilst supporting the occupation.
Enables greater transparency and inclusion of new members.
Seek Support from Allied Groups
To maximize solidarity with the occupation, contact allied groups (or develop trusting relationships with future allied groups). For example:
- teachers' unions
- employee unions
- student associations
Care of People in the Occupation
- For people who had to leave the occupation, consider a circle of support that is made available online
- For people who are on the site of the occupation, provide a rest area
- Keep communication channels going with those present at the occupation to check if everyone is well.
- Write down the legal information that will be useful to you for the occupation and make it accessible.
Provide a policy on sexual violence
- “Sexually Based Violence (BV) is any form of violence committed through sexual practices or by targeting sexuality. This includes unwanted gestures, words, behaviours or attitudes with a sexual connotation, expressed directly or indirectly, including by a technological means. -National Institute for Scientific Research
- It is crucial to think about a policy on sexual violence before the occupation begins. If your group does not currently have a clear policy, here are a list of resources for victims of sexual violence in French and English , plus resources for persons who perpetrated this sexual violence in French and in English. See the following example of a harassment policy: AFSA harassment policy
Create safe spaces to encourage criticism and the sharing of problematic behaviours
- The care committee, for example, could create an anonymous feedback/criticism/comments box, the content of which could then be shared at the assembly or with targeted people.
- The committee could decide to offer in-person support in order to be an attentive ear to people who need to share anything in a non-anonymous way, without necessarily being comfortable speaking in front of an entire assembly.
- Pay attention to the minimization of the importance of care work and the tendency of several activist circles to place the burden of this work on women, transfeminine and/or LGBTQIA2S+ people.
Provide psychological support
An occupation can be a moment of enormous stress where a heavy mental load can weigh on members. Some groups like to have an external resource person available to all participants who want it.
Obstacles to Horizontality
Horizontality refers to the active creation of nonhierarchical relations through decision-making processes.
When negotiations are held with a body of power (school or business administration, government, etc.) there is a danger that the members of the negotiating team will accumulate more information, and therefore power over the rest of the group.
To reduce the risk of the negotiating team hoarding power:
- Share information on the issue by distributing documents and workshops
- Open role rotation of these positions to everyone
- Consider the negotiating team as a simple channel of communication between the administration and the assembly; the role of the negotiating team is not to make decisions in front of the administration, but to report the decisions of the assembly.
- Some occupations bring together a hundred people, while others bring together thousands. In the second case, it is more difficult to organize popular assemblies which bring together all the members.
- A method of decision-making when the number of participants is large may be to organize strategic meetings in small groups open to all participants. People who decide to spend less time in the occupation and not take part in decisions will be free to do so. When applicable, it is of course necessary to follow Indigenous leadership in relation to the occupation.
Anonymous person who experienced the occupations of nuclear power plant construction sites with Clamshell Alliance
|| In criticizing the occupations carried out by the Clamshell Alliance, the person proposes what might have measured the success of an occupation. The success of an occupation would be measured by:
1. Going to a site, staying there and blocking construction.
2. Use direct democracy and make community a priority; where self-confidence and initiative are reinforced among participants. Ideally, the idea of an expropriation ( is possessing someone of property) would be advanced.
Testimonies collected during the sharing circle
|Emergence of the idea and preparation
||The idea of an occupation arrived in a big brainstorm. Occupation was within the possibilities, but not the ultimate goal. A comrade proposed to go on a hunger strike, which for us was the most intense action we could do for the disinvestment of our university. When we saw that [another university] was carrying out an occupation, we decided to organize not only a hunger strike but also an occupation to support the hunger strikers. This was organized within a week or two.|
|Occupation of an industrial zone
||We are organizing in a former abandoned industrial zone where no occupation has been organized, but we are working to frequent it and reclaim it. There have been camps of homeless people, which have multiplied during the pandemic. We've had nice collaborations between the people who came to clean the land but who did not live there, and those who lived there in tents / small trailers). Then the police intervened and there was a resumption of work. This is where the group made petitions, demonstrations, art actions, blockages against the resumption of work etc.|
|Escalation of pressure tactics
||The occupation was the first step for us. There has been no escalation of pressure tactics, although there have been demonstrations, actions and petitions in support of the occupation.|
|Democratization of space
||Several narratives about why our group made an occupation exist. One of the reasons is that our group has existed for about ten years. In the past few years, we have done occupations, but also internal pressure with the management as well as education of the student body. Quickly this year, the idea of “democratizing” our university became more and more interesting, and our occupation was part of this desire for democratization. We wanted to open up the occupation space, make it participatory, and make decisions collectively in general assemblies.|
|Interaction with the police in the forest
||For about 8 months, people occupied the forest without concern- the only police presence was bi-weekly police visits. No electricity or running water; latrines, gas and campfire heating were used. Then the logging company filed an injunction. That's when the police arrived, and the arrests were daily. Support for arrested persons has been set up. People could spend several hours or even days in cement structures or trees intended to delay their arrest.|
|Holding space in a university
In the context of our university, the lobby was stormed in less than an hour. We brought all our equipment there as quickly as possible, taking it out of our cars which had parked in front of the entrance. We set up our tents, making sure we could be comfortable. Daily life was punctuated by meetings with security and university officials. Every time we had to make a decision and meet with security or university officials, we held a general assembly. We also organized activities and conferences. These activities were held while two people went on a hunger strike.
||Many student associations went on strike during the occupation; so many people were available to ensure a presence on the scene. Contact with student associations and the teachers' union was made beforehand so that they positioned themselves for the divestment of fossil fuels. '|
||Different working groups - care committee, food committee, equipment committee, safety committee etc. were developed. People weren't taking the lead, just bottom-liners to make sure things got done. We did not have an intense response from security or management. We had also set up a study area. We had daily general assemblies as well as a board of tasks to delegate. It was a good way to include new people and have a transparent operation. Some days were very busy with workshops, but even when the days were freer, finding time for more formal meeting times was difficult. Moreover, we didn't know everyone: how do we trust the people who join the space? How do we make more difficult discussions (e.g: escalation of pressure tactics) accessible to new people?|
||On the first day, security warned occupants of the fire danger of staying in the space overnight. Another incident was that an employee set an alarm to disturb the occupants for about an hour.|
|Negotiations and horizontality
||The more the occupation advanced, the more difficult it was to maintain horizontality. The people who were going to negotiate with the administration were of course those who were most aware of the progress of the negotiations. Even if these people reported the negotiations to the meeting, some information could not be fully disclosed. When you are in a position to negotiate, you have to be honest with both the assembly and the administration. The role of the negotiating team is not to make decisions in front of the administration, but to report the decisions made by the assembly.
It wasn't that bad for week-long negotiations, but it's unclear whether the horizontality would have held if the negotiations had stretched out over time. To form the negotiating team, positions were opened. On the other hand, as soon as it fell into technicalities (finances, carbon indicators...) it was more difficult to include everyone.
Another important aspect: the administration had difficulty understanding the principle of horizontality of the group. They thought that some people who took more leadership were spokespersons for the movement, when they were not.
||We try to prevent people who have been in the occupation longer from having more influence and power, but this is difficult to prevent completely. When we started having a headquarters, as well as 2000-3000 people at the occupation, it was even more difficult to keep our horizontality. To get organized, we had strategic meetings in small groups. Everyone could join, without obligations. It's difficult to integrate people who are present for only 2-3 days in decision-making. We also followed the leadership of Indigenous elders on site.|
|Integrating care in the face of police repression
||So many people joined in that it was hard to keep track. We had an arrest support list. We had a support circle accessible online for people who had left the site. For those who were on the site, we had established a "Rest and relaxation" camp where people who wanted to take a break were invited. Massages were provided. Some people emerged from the occupation with police-related trauma. It is important to communicate with our circle of friends who were present at the occupation.|
||The question of care was not our strength, among other things because the occupation was carried out at the last minute. There was a space in the assemblies to give comments, criticisms and suggest improvements. We had people on site who could be met privately if folks didn't want to talk about something in a large group. Also, it took us 2-3 days to realize that we didn't have a process for sexual violence. We had an outside resource person for psychological problems. Very stressful, a lot of mental load. We held a debriefing after the end of the occupation to freely discuss care issues, among other things.|
|Ensuring the safety of certain people
||Several young Indigenous people had been arrested a few weeks before: so a key goal of the occupation was really to keep ourselves safe and to have as many people as possible keep the young Indigenous people safe. We used a mass messaging tool (for example, to broadcast an invitation to come to the occupation as reinforcements because of white supremacists who might be there). Our police liaisons are white settlers to ensure Indigenous and racialized people do not interact with the police. Throughout our occupation, we have also realized the importance of songs and celebrating and organizing film screening evenings.|
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