Student protesters occupy a tent camp as they demonstrate against the war in Gaza at Columbia University. Victor J. Blue for The Washington Post

It’s been a long time since a tent was simply a tent. Today, it almost certainly represents an issue, a problem, a population with which society would prefer not to contend.

The tents are unseemly. They need to be. They’re flimsy structures staked on uneven ground surrounded by the stately architecture of the academy, capitalism and power. Their flapping scrims of nylon and plastic clutter up the landscape and serve as a rebuke to the grandiosities of polite society. The tents shame countries, cities and individuals for their failures even when the voices of the activists fall silent, when the chanting stops and the sun sets. The tents are still there.

Most recently, tents have become fundamental to the pro-Palestinian encampments constructed in college yards and on plazas from New York to California. In the nation’s capital, an encampment has taken root on the campus of George Washington University, where a few dozen tents have been pitched on the street and in the courtyard. All of it encompasses a one-block span of downtown Washington over which police officers keep watch with modest interest rather than alarm.

The asphalt has been colorfully chalked with mantras about Palestinian liberation and small placards abound. “Full cease-fire in Gaza now!” “Will you free my Palestine?” “Dismantle the war machine.” A statue of George Washington has been graffitied with accusations of genocide along with the university’s culpability. The life-size sculpture has also been draped in Palestinian flags, its neck wrapped in a kaffiyeh.

But it’s the tents that take up the space. Their presence is a constant, ringing reminder of unrest and anger even when the student activists type quietly on their laptops or softly sing that “Palestine needs our love” or listen in silence as the evening’s schedule is ticked off over a bullhorn. An activist lists their demands for everyone to hear, which mostly means the folks watching and listening and holding microphones and cameras. He doesn’t mention the hostages being held by Hamas. But he wants the university to divest from “all corporate ties to the Zionist state of Israel” and to cancel all trips to “occupied Palestine” for research or study abroad.

Among many things, the use of the word “Zionist” sets off alarms for the many different people who hear it. Is it pure antisemitism? Or is it an attack on the Israeli government, whose senior leaders have expressed concern that the International Criminal Court will issue arrest warrants for them? Is it an assault on the right of Israel to exist? Or is it a demand that it not continue to exist within its current contours and constructs with the Palestinian people?

For some college presidents, there seems to be a belief that by ripping away the tents and clearing the courtyards, they are also expunging any hate and hurt from their campus — as if antisemitism lives in these makeshift shelters and not in the heart. They demand that the protests be polite, convenient and perfect, or in the words of Princeton University’s president, that the protests adhere to “time, place and manner” regulations. They call police to make arrests. They suspend students and declare them trespassers on their own campus. But the very meaning of a protest is to disrupt the status quo, to bring thoughtless momentum to a halt, to underscore precisely how imperfect the world really is.

On college campuses, the tents represent one of many truths. In addition to the savagery of Hamas on Oct. 7, along with the cruel holding of hostages, alongside the shames of antisemitism and Islamaphobia, Palestinian civilians are being killed by the thousands.

The tents are always telling us something that we don’t want to hear.

Under a freeway overpass hundreds of people live in a homeless encampment under a freeway overpass in San Diego in 2023. Melina Mara/The Washington Post

The tents of the homeless fill parks, clutter walkways and sprout in the shadow of freeway overpasses. So leaders of western states across the political divide have gone to the Supreme Court to have those tents declared illegal. Under current law, they can’t just summarily clear the tents if those who are living in them have nowhere else to go, if there are no beds at a shelter in their city. Officials in Grants Pass, Ore., don’t want homeless camps on their streets or in their parks. But asking the Supreme Court to allow them to remove the tents doesn’t remove the problem; it doesn’t make a weak social safety net any stronger.

The activists who settled into New York’s Zuccotti Park back in 2011 drew attention to income inequality, joblessness and the outsize political influence of financial firms. Occupy Wall Street spread from Manhattan across the country and around the world. The protesters marched and rallied but mostly what they were remembered for was rolling out their sleeping bags and setting up tented tarps and creating their own little squatters camp in the midst of capitalism’s Emerald City. They were belittled as jealous of the success of others, as anti-capitalist and as vaguely un-American.

In the midst of a city where money is considered the great equalizer, the men and women who slept outside under bright blue tarps through rain, wind and even a nor’easter were an insistent reminder of a society turned ugly and heartless for a cash payout.

And for more than 30 years, there was a lone tent in Lafayette Square, across from the White House. To be fair, it was really just a facsimile of a tent — an enormous umbrella and pieces of plastic sheeting — because actual tents are illegal. It was a singular place where a woman sat 24-hour vigil — aided by those who relieved her — in protest of nuclear proliferation. Concepción Picciotto was the woman who grew old sitting in that makeshift tent, handing out leaflets to advance her cause, being ignored, ridiculed and admired. She carried on until her death in 2016 because her cause proved just as stubborn as she was.

The tents house the people we don’t want to see. These humble structures that sit low in the valleys between skyscrapers and monuments, remind us of inequality, of the unpredictability of unfairness, of the ways in which capitalism and the American Dream don’t work. They represent one immoral truth out of many.

And whether leaders criminalize them, bulldoze them or ridicule them doesn’t matter. The problems endure because the problem is never the tent.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press.

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