The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

Urban Spaces of Protest

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Thanks for allowing me the day off on Monday. I spent the weekend visiting a friend in another midwestern city (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), but I’ll be back home this evening. For now, here’s an essay I wrote for a college class about the Arab Spring. 

from thepeopleslibrary.wordpress.com

photo of Zuccotti Park from thepeopleslibrary.wordpress.com

Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square as Spaces of Protest

In this essay, I consider the centrality of space in relation to both the Egyptian Revolution and the Occupy Wall Street protests. How do Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park differ as places of protest, and how does this effect their ability to enact change on a mass scale? Using Middle East scholar Asef Bayat’s theory of “spatialities of discontent,”[1] I compare the relative successes and failures of the Egyptian Uprising and the Occupy Wall Street movement from an urbanist perspective. I argue that change enacted by the Occupy movement is occurring at a slower rate than the swift political turnover manifested by the Egyptian Uprising because the former did not unite multiple strata of society in an important, central urban space. While I am aware that protests occurred elsewhere in the US and Egypt, for the sake of this analysis I have focused my research on the physical spaces of Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park as locations of protest.

A Framework for Analysis

In his book Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, Asef Bayat draws out the many ways in which citizens of the Middle East have advocated for change through protest, political organization, labor movements and religious institutions. While the book was written before the recent Arab Uprisings, it speaks to many of the issues that presented themselves during this time. In a section entitled “Street Politics and the Political Street,” Bayat outlines the ways in which various nations have converged around urban landscapes to enact social and political change. He writes in detail about the urban organization of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which he labels as “a nationwide, revolutionary protest movement in which diverse segments of the population […] massively participated.”[2] The ability to mobilize citizens from all levels of society has shown itself to be vital in organizing and carrying out large-scale change. Bayat goes on to describe the location of Revolution Street—a site of many protests during the Revolution in Tehran— as “a unique juncture of the rich and the poor, the elite and the ordinary, the intellectual and the lay-person, the urban and the rural,”[3] specifically highlighting the diversity that existed in that singular place as an exemplification of the revolution as a whole.

Building from that point, one of Bayat’s most useful contributions is his naming of the four distinct features that sealed the success of Revolution Street—features that we can look for in Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square. These ideal “socio-spatial” characteristics are as follows: 1) centrality—“spaces where a mobile crowd can easily and rapidly assemble,” 2) proximity—a place with “historical or symbolic significance,” 3) accessibility—“the locus of mass transportation networks,” and 4) flexibility—“a space that is open yet surrounded by narrow alleyways, shops, or homes that can offer respite.”[4] Overall, he summarizes, these features create spaces that possess “a distinct sociality, whereby solidarity is communicated.”[5]

But revolutions do not simply emerge into the world fully formed with support from the masses. Scholars of historical revolutions as well as organizers of present-day uprisings seem to agree on one point: It is usually an intellectual cohort of academics, seasoned activists and bright students whose philosophical rumblings merge together in the enunciated cry for change that will catalyze a revolution. Unsurprisingly, numerous websites and blogs attest to the highly organized nature of both the Occupy Wall Street protests and the Egyptian Revolution, right down to the locations of latrines and water stations at the sites of their demonstrations. If they hoped to see their radical dreams realized, though, the protest movements had to incorporate more than just a small contingent of agitated intelligentsia, and this is where the street enters in. “[The] political street,” Bayat writes, “signifies the collective sensibilities, shared feelings, and public judgment of ordinary people in their day-to-day utterances and practices, which are expressed broadly in the public squares—in taxis, buses, shops, sidewalks, or more audibly in mass street demonstrations.”[6]

The Geography of Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square

It all starts with the location of movements around urban centers, something the Egyptian Revolution and the Occupy Wall Street protests clearly had in common. The hearts of Cairo and New York City were the perfect intersections of every possible type of person, where a movement could—if it spoke to enough of them—gain unstoppable momentum. At the outset, these movements were already working with what Bayat labels the paradox of modern urbanity—“that not only can it engender cosmopolitan coexistence, but it can also facilitate communal identities.”[7] In this miniature form of imagined community, city-dwellers feel a sense of identity and pride based on their city—from the most downtrodden street person to the wealthiest socialite. Like Tehran, which is the focus of some of Bayat’s essays, both Cairo and New York City are geographically segregated by wealth and class, and yet they possess unique junctions in the form of stores, parks, streets and plazas where diverse people cannot help but cross paths. It was their varying uses of these sorts of public spaces that determined the Egyptian Revolution’s and the Occupy movement’s ability to gain broad and diverse support.

Undoubtedly, the Occupy movement faced far different circumstances than the authoritarian security-state climate on the ground in Egypt. Still, I believe both movements can be analyzed based on Bayat’s criteria of socio-spatial features that create successful revolutionary locations. Over all, the Occupy movement produced a smaller-scale fulfillment of Bayat’s criteria and thus less widespread appeal than the Egyptian uprising. First of all, compared with the massive roundabout that is Tahrir Square, Zuccotti Park did not attain the same level of centrality. Before the Occupy protests, it was just a small, privately owned but publicly available park in which Wall Street employees might enjoy their lunches. Originally, the Occupy movement had hoped to locate itself directly on Wall Street at One Chase Manhattan Plaza[8]—something that would have granted it Bayat’s badge of “historical or symbolic significance” as most Americans view Wall Street as the highest symbol of money and power in the US.  Instead, because the police anticipated this plan and blocked off the Plaza, the movement occupied a park a couple blocks away. Losing that prime spot was likely a hindrance to achieving more popular momentum and attention. Bayat describes the “epidemic potential” of protesting in a central space that “brings together the ‘invitees’ and also the ‘strangers.’”[9] Unfortunately, while the Occupy movement did anchor itself in America’s largest metropolis, the physical space it occupied did not quite attain the centrality of spaces like Chase or even Central Park, which would have better lured passersby and created more of a statement. Thousands of people did flock to the site out of curiosity, but word of mouth or social media likely brought them there, not a literal encounter with the space. Tahrir Sqaure had the advantage of being a pedestrian zone within a highly trafficked area. It is encircled by government buildings, hotels, the Egyptian Museum and the American University in Cairo,[10] drawing the attention of millions of passersby every day, yet maintaining a safe space. In addition, Tahrir had had some practice as a site of protest in years past, giving it a level of symbolic significance.[11]

from wikimedia.org

photo of Tahrir Square from wikimedia.org

Accessibility of the Protest Space

In terms of accessibility, both Tahrir and Zuccotti fared well because they are located in highly urbanized areas with multiple routes of mass transportation at their disposal. Tahrir Square sits “at the junction of the Metro system’s two main lines, thereby linking to Giza, Maadi, Helwan, and other districts and suburbs of Greater Cairo.”[12] Zuccotti Park is also close to several major subway lines in Manhattan, New York.[13] Bayat’s final criteria of flexibility and easy escape was readily met in Tahrir Square, which is intersected by six major streets as well as several more side-streets and alleys. The concentration of varied buildings nearby offered places to run or hide, should that have been called for. The interesting consideration that must be made however—especially when pulling Zuccotti Park into the picture—is that these were not necessarily spaces people wanted to leave. Since occupation was the main object of the Occupy movement and a vital piece of the Egyptian Revolution as well (although a shorter-lasting one), the availability of escape routes was only necessary as a last resort. At first glance, Zuccotti does not appear to be close to many sympathetic buildings that might provide shelter; it is in the Financial District of New York City, one of the prime targets of the Occupiers’ anger. However, once the encampment began, nearby businesses and churches offered the use of their buildings, bathrooms, water and other services, proving that help was nearby if needed. Thus, while Zuccotti Park proved to be a second-rate option, it still met many of the criteria Bayat calls for, and Tahrir fulfilled those criteria to the fullest. The differing powers of these spaces defined the public image of each movement and its ability to obtain widespread support.

Uniting the Protesters

Generally speaking, the collective occupations of space in Tahrir and Zuccotti was quite similar, partly based on the fact that these movements were drawing from common sources. They both utilized classic nonviolent tactics in commune-like formations complete with medical tents, kitchens and bathrooms. Both movements also used the time during their encampments to collaboratively develop demands for institutional change, but the principles they stood by were far-reaching and open-ended. W. J. T. Mitchell, a professor of art history at the University of Chicago argues that Occupy Wall Street’s “refusal at the outset to be pinned down to any specific demands […] is something it had in common with Tahrir Square, with its conspicuous insistence on an antiiconic, nonsovereign image repertoire.”[14] I agree with Mitchell’s observation about the “antiiconic” nature of their protests; the decisions of both Occupy and the Egyptian protesters to maintain amorphous leadership contributed to the resilience of these movements, especially against law enforcement. However, I would counter Mitchell’s claim about “unspecific demands” with a reminder that the Egyptian revolutionaries were, if nothing else, certain that they desired a massive overhaul of their government. The Occupiers, meanwhile, refused to even make requests in political terms, saying that electoral politics were “a farce” and that they “could not work within the system.”[15] These sorts of statements—and their projection during the occupation of Zuccotti Park— delayed the Occupy movement’s ability to receive backing from multiple levels of society.

Furthermore, despite Mitchell’s labeling of both the Tahrir and Zuccotti encampments as a “positive mirroring of that other form of the encampment that has become so ubiquitous on the world stage, the shanty towns and improvised refugee camps that spring up wherever a population finds itself displaced [or] homeless,”[16] the Occupy movement struggled with its relationship to the lower classes. This was a major loss for the strength and popular support of its message. Chris Zeese, an organizer for Occupy explains candidly in an interview for Chris Hedge’s book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, “We don’t want to become a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter. We’re a political movement.”[17] This statement served to justify a hierarchy of food distribution implemented during the occupation whereby protesters dedicated to the principles of the movement were served first and those who were “just squatting here for free” were served last.[18] How could the Occupy movement hope to receive broad-scale support if it openly placed an entire contingent of people at the end of the line directly at the location where the movement was launched?

Meanwhile in Egypt, anger over food shortages and food price inflation as high as 18.9%[19] was something that people from all walks of life rallied around. With a population that, like much of the Middle East, is experiencing the “youth bulge,” Egypt had a lot of restless and unemployed young people who easily gravitated towards a place like Tahrir. They assembled at the Square (using social media resources) in at least three distinct protest movements: April 6th, “We Are All Khaled Said” and Kefaya. They were soon joined by the religious and nonreligious, young and old, men and women, radicals and average citizens. This assembly of diverse people from all levels of society at Tahrir carried the movement forward, suggesting its overwhelming support from the majority of Egyptians. Images of Coptic Christians encircling praying Muslims and old women kissing soldiers became emblems of the broad-scale solidarity felt in that space.

On the other hand, the Occupiers usually presented as a more homogenous conglomerate of middle class, radicalized young people. Undoubtedly this is partially due to the media’s determination to peg the Occupy movement as “just a bunch of college kids mad about their student loans.” But these accusations are not entirely unfounded. During the Occupy Protests, some of the more visible organizers began to give “teach-ins” where they would discuss the issues that they had gathered around—issues like oppression, capitalism and corporate power in America. Despite the relevance of these topics for a wide variety of Americas, the use of a collegiate discussion forum prioritizes the experiences of educated individuals over the population as a whole. For example, activist Chris Hedges hosted a teach-in that was posted on YouTube in mid-October 2011 where he mentioned in the span of just a few opening minutes, a slew of novels and philosophical writings that one would only have been exposed to in a post-secondary education setting.[20] Unsurprisingly, the people nodding in agreement around him look predominantly to be part of that upper quartile of Americans who were privileged to receive a college education,[21] as well as white and middle class. In contrast to the constantly broadcasted images of thousands of Egyptians chanting in unison “The people want the downfall of the regime,” Chris Hedges words, while addressing nationwide oppression, would only reach the slice of citizens educated enough to understand his references.

Besides this appearance of academic elitism, the Occupy movement also faltered in its ability to unite other national players compared with the support that the Egyptian Revolution swiftly built from its Tahrir base. While the Occupy movement received words of solidarity and even visits from prominent individuals like religious leaders and popular musicians, it failed to garner official backing from political parties, labor unions or religious denominations. Given their anti-establishment tendencies, the original Occupiers probably would not have been interested in official institutional support. Nonetheless, barring the sort of broad endorsement that the Egyptian Revolution received from prominent groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, the occupation of Zuccotti Park remained a more fringe movement.

Conclusion

This is the paradox of urban protest spaces: they must at once birth movements and remain emblems that will sustain those movements beyond the original space. The shortcomings of Zuccotti Park —its lack of centralization, direct symbolism and engagement of a broad swath of people— reflect themselves in Occupy Wall Street’s national impact. While, it managed to be duplicated in short encampments in countless cities as remote as Walla Walla, Washington, the long-term change it hopes to make is yet to be fully realized. Considering the contrasting geographies of Egypt and America, the impact of centralized urban protests will undoubtedly translate differently. Egypt, while quite a populous nation, is still geographically a tenth of the size of the US.[22] Thus, the ability to permeate a message from an urban core swiftly across the country was easier in a more concentrated land. This magnified the successes of Tahrir and catalyzed the revolution toward fulfillment. Then again, as Middle East scholar Ahmad Shokr writes, “Tahrir did not deliver a complete revolution but it did awaken an exhilarating sense of possibility.”[23] The future for Egypt remains undecided. However, it is clear that Tahrir is a base from which the Egyptian people can mobilize to be deciders, as, for example, evidenced by the most recent rash of protests against the new President Morsi. As for the Occupy movement, it remains active, particularly through its website which has posted frequent calls to action and solidarity on many current events including Hurricane Sandy, the fiscal cliff and the fast food workers strikes.[24] Zuccotti Park may not have been a location that appealed to everyone, but we can rest assured that the dialogue and the activism it initiated will not fade away. In the end, it was the power of urban space and the diverse people who gathered there that birthed these movements. Now it is time to watch them grow.


[1] Asef Bayat, “A Street Named “Revolution”,” Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, 161-170, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bayat, “The “Arab Street”,” Life as Politics, 209-220 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009).

[7] Bayat, “Everyday Cosmopolitanism,” Life as Politics, 185-208 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009).

[8] Andy Kroll, “How Occupy Wall Street Really Got Started,” Mother Jones, Oct. 17, 2011, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/10/occupy-wall-street-international-origins?page=2

[9] Bayat, “A Street Named “Revolution”,” 161-170.

[10] “Egypt Unrest: Clashes Map,” BBC, Feb 3, 2011 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12340082

[11] Nathan Cherry, “Design for Revolution,” Planning, 77.4 (April 2011): 22-24.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Subway Map As of September 2012,” Metro Transit Authority, New York, NY http://www.mta.info/nyct/maps/submap.htm

[14] W. J. T. Mitchell, “Image, Space, Revolution: The Arts of Occupation,” Critical Inquiry, 39.1 (Autumn 2012): 8-32.

[15] Chris Hedges, illustrated by Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, New York, NY: Nation Books, 2012.

[16] Mitchell, “Image, Space, Revolution,” 8-32.

[17] Hedges, Days of Destruction.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Rami Zurayk, “Use your loaf: why food prices were crucial in the Arab spring,” The Observer, July 16, 2011, accessed online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/jul/17/bread-food-arab-spring

[20] “Chris Hedges speaking at Occupy Wall Street: Radical movements keep this country honest,” YouTube, accessed Dec 8, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8UW__mFMd8

[21] US Census Bureau, “Education Attainment by Race and Hispanic Origin: 1970 to 2010,” The 2012 Statistical Abstract: The National Data Book (131st Edition) Education: 5 (Washington, DC: 2011). http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0229.pdf

[22] The World Factbook 2009. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2009
https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html

[23] Ahmad Shokr, “The Eighteen Days of Tahrir,” in The Journey to Tahrir, ed. Jeannie Sowers and Chris Toensing, 41-52 (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2012).

[24] Occupy Wall Street website, accessed on December 9, 2012, http://occupywallst.org/

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