Resisting Occupation

by Peter Sigrist

Source: CBC

My support for the Occupy movement has changed. I still find it inspiring that people around the world are prioritizing democracy and human wellbeing over profit maximization. My reservations are centered on the idea of "occupying" public space.

The name strikes me as discourteous, calling up associations with military occupation. And despite all the eloquent words about tents as symbols that connect the movement with people in squatter settlements around the world, and the need for urban agoras where dissent can be staged, it isn't really fair to take over public space indefinitely, making it impossible for others to use it as they did before.

It's time for a different approach — one that demonstrates an improvement that resonates for people outside the movement. Convincing the public is essential, and the Occupy strategy doesn't offer a compelling vision. Camping in public squares draws valuable attention, but doesn't present a working alternative to the present situation. In the Occupy camps, people have accomplished remarkable feats of organized public service; the capacity exists to turn them into more practical ways of living.

Instead of trying to articulate a common demand, perhaps we can just keep developing and modeling public service that attracts, rather than alienates, those who aren't currently part of the movement.

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  1. Like what? Unless you know what the alternative is that you're suggesting, there really isn't much to this post. And the suggestion that occupy is making it impossible for people to use public space as they did before is silly; there are a lot of threats to people's use of public space, but the sum total of space occupied by the occupy movement is an incredibly small one. And aren't they the public anyway?

  2. Interesting. I hadn't through of this perspective, but I agree that these spaces are alienating now. The idea that tents in the occupy camps connect the movement with informal squatter settlements around the world is a bit offensive, especially if the 'occupants' have a choice as to whether or not they live in tents.

  3. I went to a talk by Andy Merrifield at University College London last October in which he argued that the "right to the city" slogan should be replaced by "occupy, resist and produce." He questioned whether "right to the city" was appropriate in light of the fact that "cities" are no longer well-defined, that the term has been co-opted and diluted, and that "right" implies asking rather than taking. Instead, he felt his was a new slogan that directly addresses the fact that in the last 20 years, the production of urban space has been predicated on "accummulation by dispossesion."

    Personally, I'm ambivalent. I felt a huge strength of the Occupy movement was to render protest visible and therefore bring real attention and discussion to issues of inequality and the future of corporate capitalism. Virtual activism has its limits - it often preaches to the choir and doesn't affect the mainstream. From an urban point of view, "occupying" directly addresses the issues of dispossession and privatization of public space; isn't it important to address these very spatial problems on the ground, so to speak? The reactions the encampments inspired have also made visible social issues that are normally obscured, including police brutality, the relationship between religion and social protest, etc. Some sections of public space may be taken over, but surely this is worth the larger goals (including protecting public space) and the new interactions the encampments have generated?

    On the other hand, I'm also wary of the confrontational and possibly violent connotations of the term "occupy" and am not in favor of Merrifield's slogan. I would rather find a slogan that emphasizes agency, inclusion and equity, without the undertones of anger and incursion. Ideas?

  4. As Nicholas Mirzoeff was just pointing out, many of the occupy's are being/have been evicted from spaces that seemed to be public but which were, in fact, private.

  5. Thank you for the insightful comments. In response to Anonymous, I mean continuing to develop the kinds of impressive public services — like free health clinics — that were organized in the Occupy camps. I also mean activism that builds public support for creating a more healthy and democratic society rather than maximizing profits.

    While I think the movement is making a very important statement, which I support, I don't think camping for long periods of time in public space is the best way of attracting more supporters. I've read articles and heard comments that describe Occupy as the left's equivalent to the Tea Party, and while that may be valuable in influencing political discourse, I don't think the movement is accurately characterized in this way. I think its values would be attractive to anyone who wants to live in a healthy democratic world.

    Katia, I agree about the way Occupy is bringing real attention to new ideas for improving our present economic and political system. I think it's important to address problems "on the ground" :) and I like your idea of having certain sections that can be used in this way without limiting the rights of people who like to walk their babies or pets in the park, have lunch on a bench or read on the grass. Returning to Anonymous, longterm occupation does make it impossible for these people to use the occupied space as they did before, and if they don't already support the movement, there's a chance it will make them less likely to.

    In cases of undemocratic privatization/exclusion (and even those that zunguzungu links to in the Mirzoeff post), I'm more likely to see the value in occupation as a temporary way of drawing attention to problems and new ways of building a better society.

  6. what alienates me is when 400 individuals out of over 312 million people of the united states have dominated such gross quantities of national wealth, power, resources and physical space that a smattering of parks which host disperate constituencies under a single banner in peaceful protest (a 1st amendment right, right to assemble and freedom to congregate) ARE CONSIDERED GREEDY AND INCONSIDERATE TO OTHERS NEEDS AND DESIRES

  7. I see your point, and definitely wouldn't call the protesters greedy. I just wonder if there's a better strategy than occupation of public space for long periods of time.


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