The purpose of the occupation movement and the danger of fetishizing space

by Peter Marcuse

The Occupation movement that is spreading across the country has a number of purposes, plays a number of different roles,  in the struggle for justice and a better life in our world.

A confrontation function, taking the struggle to the enemy’s territory, confronting, potentially disrupting, the operations at the center of the problem. It has the potential to disrupt Wall Street, by occupying space Wall Street needs to function; symbolically, hyperbolically, it waves a pointed knife over the heart of the economic beast. But it must be admitted that there is little push to actualize the potential; only in Oakland, thus far, has there been significant interference with the normal conduct of mainstream business. When neighbors complain about the noise and unpleasantness of Liberty Park’s occupiers in New York City, it is in their capacities as residents, not as business people, that they complain (see

A symbolic function, The occupations show the existence and extent of a demand for change of many sorts,  giving expression to and concretizing an inchoate but widely shared and deeply felt unhappiness about things as they are and the direction in which they are going,  actively involving bodies in a coherent movement, calling for change not only Wall Street but at Harvard, Columbia, Harlem, the Port of Oakland, Portland, Chicago. The symbolism ties in to the occupations in the Arab Spring, and a long history of social protest .

An educational function, provoking questioning, exploration, juxtaposition of differing viewpoints and issues, seeking clarification and sources of commonality within difference.  For Occupy Wall Street and many of the other occupations, the lesson is of the gap between the 1% and the 99%, often pushed to argue that not oly is the gap unfair in a distributional sense, but also in terms of power, that it is in fact the power of the 1% that causes the pain for the 99%, that the wealth of the 1% is the result of the deprivation and repression of large numbers of the 99%, not some unfortunate maldistribution of society’s wealth for which no one is responsible.

A glue function, creating a community of trust and commitment to the pursuit of common goals;

It provides a way of coming together in a community for those who are deeply affected and concerned. The close physical proximity to each other, the close working together over time, the facing together of common obstacles and hardships, the very need to endure the difficult conditions  of living together and meeting daily needs in an environment needing to be significantly reshaped by their own hands day in and day out, fosters strong reciprocal trust  and mutual support.

An umbrella function, creating a space and a format in which quite disparate groups can work together in pursuit of ultimately consistent and mutually reinforcing goals, without issues of turf or competition inhabiting their common action. In this sense, it constitutes a political umbrella, an organizing base for an on-going alliance, not just a temporary coalition, of the deprived and discontented. It provides others a non-threatening way of joining together in marches, demonstrations, petitions, campaigns, in part by the very fact of being open to multiple  demands, not forcing priorities among them, seeing them as pats of a single agenda, and not creating a separate organization.  Look, for instance, at the range of organizations endorsing Occupy Wall Street’s recent actions; it is hard to recall any previous occasion that has brought so many together for a common purpose.

An activation function, inspiring others to greater militancy and sharper focus on common goals and specific demands. The movement is concerned to expose the role Wall Street, the 1%, play across a whole host of concerns around which there has already been active mobilization: housing, health, employment, culture, inequality, non-participatory democracy, racial and ethnic and gender discrimination. Wall Street by shining a light on, attracting attention to, the relationship between the 1% and the 99%, dramatizing inequality and the abuses of power, giving intellectual and symbolic substance to the critique of the prevailing economic and political system., and thus to encourage them to act as part of a common front against a system as to which they have a common interest to change.

And to activate not only symbolically, and not only as an umbrella for others’ activities, but by direct support of those activities: providing space for meetings, facilitating cross discussions among supporting groups and interests, organizing marches or rallies or other events in support of those whose actions lead to the shorter term but directly attainable goals, the non-reformist reforms, that point in the direction to Occupy’s own ultimate goals of change.

A model function, showing, by its internal organization and methods of proceeding, that an alternative form of democracy is possible and the process of change need not involve a reversion to hierarchical command structures of some previous revolutionary movements. It thus creates a possible alternative model of organization, not so much of spatial organization as of social and political organization, ways of living together, diversity, democratic decision-making, mutual support, self-help on a collective basis.

The use of Liberty Park and the purposes it is being asked to serve also raises a number of important questions about the nature and uses of public space but the actual use of the park as a physical  model is limited, and is rather effective to raise issues than to present the model of a solution (although conceivably, as suggested in the Open Letter to Sheldon Silver, a positive attitude of the City towards is actual current use might forward the discussion substantially.

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What role does space – and the physical occupation of a specific space – play in each of these aspects?

Only in the confrontation aspect is a physical occupation of a central specific space critical, and even here, at least thus far, more in a symbolic than in a direct fashion. At Liberty Park in New York,, there is a physical proximity to Wall Street,  but the actual physical interference with Wall Street’s functioning is very limited, affecting more residential than business functions (see Open Letter below), sometimes almost apologetic, and strictly contained. Ultimately, “occupy ” would suggest the physical occupation of the space Wall Street occupies, displacing its principals, , but that meaning is really not on the table at this point.

Except – the confrontation is being provoked as this is written. While rational ways of avoiding confrontation are possible, including some that might in fact meet the requirements of both parties, that does not seem to be happening in New York City  right now.

A recognized physical presence in a known space at a known and symbolic location can strengthen the movement’s symbolic role. Location generally near the seat of economic power, can be important as a characteristic of such space, but for the space to perform a symbolic function it need not necessarily be occupoed around-the-clock and need not be in only one location over time. Exposing Wall Street can be done in many ways, in multiple spaces, at many times. Again, if, as at the time of this writing, the established powers choose to confront the around-the-clock nature of the occupation and thus symbolize its challenging nature, they will in turn have given even the continuing nature of the occupation a symbolic importance that might otherwise not have been central to it.

A constant spatial setting can significantly increase the glue holding together those sharing similar concerns, and in a sense the more that shared space is threatened, the tighter are the bonds tying that community together. Here the effort at permanence, the round-the-clock commitment to the space and to each other, can be very strong. But it is the social interaction that the budding community defends when it defends the space, the space being only its most visible and most threatened manifestation. For purposes of offering a political umbrella to other groups, having tents near each other is very useful, but other spatial and communicative arrangements may also serve that purpose, and perhaps even better than the by what is possible in only an occupied space.

Both the umbrella and the activation functions of Occupy Wall Street require space Staging activities, both for collective action and public demonstrations of unity and mutual support, and probably require a single larger and well known accessible area to work effectively. For such activities, which could be well served at a primary site site such as Liberty Park , although not necessarily requiring that space around the clock. But the incubator has other requirements, a space that permits quiet planning activities, out of the glare and hub bub that an encampment such as Liberty Park constitutes, a place for committee meetings, drafting of press releases, communications facilities, perhaps educational activities. Those functions could also be performed at a site separate from the Staging Site, but linked to it in convenient fashion.

None of the above suggests that the establishment and defense of occupied space is not important for the Occupy Wall Street movement, but only to suggest that the concern with the occupied space is a means to an end, and only one means among others, not the end itself.  There is no necessary inconsistency in using many different means at once, depending on circumstances.

With one exception. Exploring the possibilities of alternative models of organization can, in some cases, interfere with the pursuit of the other goals of the movement. Making decisions affecting a group democratically is an end in itself, with major public and political implications. Any critique of existing arrangements that cannot persuade that alternative arrangements are possible will not attract many adherents.  Thus demonstrating alternative ways of acting politically is important for each of the other values the Occupy Wall Street movement espouses. Yet it can also interfere with their pursuit under some circumstances, and can distort priorities if not carefully considered. Specifically, the defense of the permanent and round-the-clock occupancy of a specific space can lead to a fetishization of space that make  the defense of that space the overwhelming goal of the movement, at the expense of actions furthering the broader goals that that space is occupied to advance.

Three examples:

1. Confrontations with the police and negotiations with authorities are an inevitable accompaniment of movements such as Occupy Wall Street, and certainly what the major media highlight. Both relations with the police and with municipal authorities require planning, coordination, strategic decision-making, sometimes the ability to change plans quickly and to leave the other side in the dark as to what will happen. The transparency, debate, deliberation, that true democracy requires is inconsistent with the most effective handling of such situations. Model democracy and effective activism must be weighed gains teach other in practice. The best models for short-term decisions are not necessarily the best models for making democratic long-term decisions.

2. Take Back the Land is a militant housing movement concerned with keeping occupants in properties on which banks are foreclosing. One of their strategies is keeping their owners in occupancy, even when foreclosure has been completed, or putting new residents in foreclosed homes banks are keeping empty awaiting a rise in prices. They call such homes “liberated spaces” not “occupied spaces.” They find it more natural to speak of occupying the spaces of the banks, the 1%, and displacing/eviing them; when the come into possession of such spaces, they would rather call them “liberated ” than “occupied” .

3. A metamorphosis of meaning emerges in some occupations. The space being occupied gets to be taken not as an occupation, in the military sense, of an enemy’s space, but rather as the creation of an alternative space.  Oddly and quite without planning, the renaming of the occupied space in New York City reflects this shift: occupying Zuccotti Park, named after a prominent real estate lawyer and power-broker in the city, is taking over a part of Wall Street’s space, a park located in the heart of the enemy’s territory. Occupying it is displacing its intended functions, de facto if not de jure. Changing its name and calling it Liberty Park gives it a different meaning; it becomes a liberated space, a space of hope, in its management, openness, users, political and social role, a model for an alternative. That it in fact takes the enemies space and builds its opposite within it is dramatic double victory, but the displacement it represents, the victory in a struggle, can get lost in thed internal effort to develop a truly democratic organization of the space that has been won. Yet the model building need not in fact be located there; any space properly configured, open and accessible, would do: a quarter, a university, an armory, a public building, another park, a private space, a corporate headquarters, a university, would have done as well.

There is more than word play involved here. The danger in focusing too much attention of what happens to a specific space occupied by the movement is that the big picture gets lost. Attention is devoted to what goes on in that space, to how the occupants pitch their tents, survive the winter, deal with intruders, ward off the police –  yes, also in how they make decisions, but only as one peculiarity of those particular folk. But that isn’t the big picture, the measure of the importance of the Occupy Wall Street movement, its real significance. That rather lies in what others do, unrelated to the physical space the movement itself occupies. When the New York Times headlines an article in its Business Section: “OCCUPY MOVEMENT INSPIRES UNIONS TO EMBRACE BOLD TACTICS,(1)” or the New York Post finds it necessary to attack Occupy Wall Street with a front page headline, “OCCUPY MY JOB: PROTESTERS PUT FOLKS OUT OF WORK” by recounting how  a waitress at a Wall Street cafe was laid off because business was bad,(2) or students stage “occupy rallies” at Columbia and Harvard, and new occupations spring up day after day after day across the country, those are the measures of the importance of the movement. What particular site is actually occupied, by how many, for how long, is important, but not the main point.

Occupy Harlem concluded its initial meeting by starting a search for a store front in Harlem where it could make its base. Multiple locations in a city might be very possible, perhaps some outdoors for big events, some indoors for others. Perhaps a two-site solution, linking a larger, centrally-located, open site with a nearby indoor, more organized site, would work. Occupiers themselves are exploring such and other alternatives, and have shown the imagination with which they can handle problems. It is their impact on their supporters and on the struggles in the world around them that is in the end the real test of their effect, not how long or how well they can defend a particular space in town.

The particular space being occupied should not be fetishized, should not become the prize, the conquest of which is the goal of the movement. It is only, for most aspects of the movement, symbolic; the rise and fall of the movement should not be linked to the extent of the physical occupation of a given space. The spaces sought for occupancy are not the prize for which the battle is being fought, but rather a terrain on which that battle takes place, and a more or less important source of support to facilitate the achievement of objectives more important than the command of a particular piece of ground.

Peter Marcuse is Professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University in New York. Visit his blog here:


  1. By Stephen Greenhouse,  November 9, 2011, P. b 1.
  2. November 2, 2011, Late City Final edition.

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