Space Matters!

Our latest post is by Katie Walkiewicz,  currently an IPRH fellow and a graduate student in English at UIUC.  Following on Jim Barrett’s recent post on “Their Depression and Ours,” Katie takes up the Occupy Wall Street Movement , a movement, potentially, of the unemployed — the political development that turned the miseries of the 1930s into a movement for social change.   The “Occupy” movement is unfolding as we write, and Katie documents the ways it connects to the central humanities issues of space and place, memory and and the possibility of communication.  Occupy Wall Street New York seems to be a new development in the vernacular culture of protest — the use of private corporate spaces like Zuccotti Park to make lively arguments about the much weakened state of our public sphere.  I encourage readers to submit more documentation of  your local “Occupy” events and comment on Katie’s thought-provoking piece.

— Susan Davis

Early Tuesday morning, November 15,  Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the clearing of Zuccotti Park in New York City. As police officers dismantled tents and the park was cleaned, concern grew that this could be the beginning of the end for Occupy Wall Street.

As the Occupy Movement this fall and the protests in Wisconsin earlier in the spring have showed us, space matters. Throughout 2011, public dissatisfaction with privatization, wealth inequality, and persistent unemployment has continued to increase, and the responses have been deeply spatial.

When I visited Madison earlier this spring to protest in solidarity with public sector workers of Wisconsin, I was awestruck by reconfiguration of the seemingly inflexible space of the capital building—its austerity as a symbol of state power muted. The formality of marble floors and wrought iron banisters faded behind the notes to Governor Walker and children’s illustrations papering the walls of the first floor; alcoves were transformed into spaces for child care, sleeping, and a medic’s station. The sterile formality embedded in the architecture had been displaced by new uses for the space, and the sheer number of bodies inhabiting it. One had to look hard to notice the architectural detail hidden behind hundreds of people, their banners and signs, and the swell of noise from megaphones and drums echoing in the rotunda.

As someone academically invested in the study of space and power, I am partial to spatially-privileged readings, but I do not think it is a coincidence that the most prominent acts of collective resistance in recent U.S history have emphasized occupation, duration, and community building, standing on contrast to rallies of momentary spectacle. Instead, these protests have been more inclined toward an activism of lingering, as evidenced by the Occupy tent cities—forms of protest that are a qualitatively different form of expressing public dissatisfaction, as they privilege building relationships between individuals and promote a sense of more protracted visibility and stability.

In his IPRH blog post earlier this fall, Jim Barrett reminded us that we are not only in a moment of severe economic crisis, but one that limits the ways in which we, as individual citizens and 99 percenters, can respond. Unlike the 1930s, we live within “the ideological strangle hold of neo-liberalism.” In response to the diffusion of neo-liberalism, however, has grown a movement rooted in the material and the physical that anchors democratic resistance in shared spaces. Neo-liberalism has literally restricted and choked off access to public space over the past few decades. Even within this clasp, however, workers, students, activists, and disaffected citizens have shown that there is room for (a) movement, so long as we are willing to move our bodies into shared, physical space.

Despite my excitement at the current level of mass mobilization we see across the country, I can’t help but notice that the rhetoric surrounding claims to public space echoes that of white “Boomers” who occupied Native land in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) appropriating the space for white settlement at the end of the nineteenth century. The emphasis on occupation and the use of the term “occupy” echoes, if only unintentionally, over 500 years of colonization of indigenous peoples in the hemisphere. It invokes a relationship to land that, in the present-day U.S., is deeply related to a spatially-driven history of oppression. Some local efforts, like the one in Albuquerque, have highlighted this problem by terming their movement “(Un)Occupy Albuquerque,” but the emphasis on spatial takeover we see in most places is not as sensitive to the history of violence associated with the term.

In New York City the clearing of Zuccotti Park did not weaken the movement—if anything it reinvigorated protesters  as they reach the two-month anniversary of their original march through Lower Manhattan. For some, there is the sense that the physical space of Zuccotti is no longer necessary for the movement, that a network built on personal relationships fostered in the General Assemblies and smaller caucuses and the use of various social networking and new media sources has shifted organizing from a spatially-anchored model into a new form of protest.  What this will look like is still up in the air (rather than on the ground in the park). The movement’s objective has been to change the status quo in the U.S., which includes the occupation of areas and people outside the parameters of large urban centers. Perhaps the loss of Zuccotti Park as a highly symbolic but centralized space will ring in a new phase of protest that looks to the wider network of communities, neighborhoods, and rural and suburban spaces that are also touched by imperial and corporate occupations.

Katie Walkiewicz

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About Susan Davis

I teach in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois.
This entry was posted in Theme: Humanities Respond to Crisis (2011-12), Yearly Theme. Bookmark the permalink.

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