by Peter Marcuse
The Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City occupied what was then Zuccotti Park, now Liberty Park, (1), as one of its very first decisions. The choice was made at a meeting of the inchoate movement in Washington Square Park, realizing that that park was inappropriate for their purposes for a variety of reasons, debating between Zuccotti Park and one other location, (2) and Zuccotti was chosen as the better because of its location, size, and configuration. That it had a complicated legal status, part private, part public, only surfaced afterward, but then it proved helpful to the continuance of the occupation after it was already begun.
A huge amount of attention has been focused on that space since, both symbolically and physically. What kind of role the occupation of that particular space plays, however, is a subject that deserves clear and careful analysis, and will be a hotter (or colder!) issue increasingly with the passage of not so much more time. Would the occupiers dig in for the winter, there? Would their abandoning the site, whether voluntarily or because forced to do so by state action or impossible weather conditions, be a major defeat for the movement? Should alternative spaces be considered? What is the real role of occupied appropriated space in the movement, anyway? Is it essential, necessary but not sufficient, interchangeable, secondary, a distraction, in view of the goals of the movement?
What alternatives to a last-ditch effort to survive a physical endurance contest and an increasing legal threat of forceful eviction might be considered? Many are already being explored by various of the occupiers and their allies. What follows details one plausible possibility.
The idea would be to maintain the use of Liberty Park as an assembly and staging site for Occupy activities, but open a linked site elsewhere, in a suitable structure, to act as a headquarters for the organizing and informational, educational, and political activities of the movement. Liberty Park as a Staging Site and symbolic anchor and a Liberty Workshop elsewhere as a Political Incubator. It would not be difficult to disaggregate the activities by the characteristics of the space needed for their conduct, and Liberty Park would meet the requirements for some admirably, for others only with difficulty. While some architectural or planning solutions may help, i.e. using fewer larger tents instead of multiple smaller ones, there are limits to how far such adjustments can go, and a better solution might well be the use of two sites, one for larger assemblies and rallies and staging for marches, the other for the use of smaller groups and administrative and technical and organizational activities.
For analysis, the different functions of the Occupation movement might be separated out – for further discussion of these see: The Purpose of the Occupation Movement and the Danger of Fetishizing “Space”; but in brief, there could be:
A confrontation function, taking the struggle to the enemy’s territory, confronting, potentially disrupting, the operations at the center of the problem;
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;
A glue function, creating a community of trust and commitment to the pursuit of common goals;
An activation function, inspiring others to greater militancy and and sharper focus on common goals and specific demands;
An educational function, provoking questioning, exploration, juxtaposition of differing viewpoints and issues, seeking clarification and sources of commonality within difference.
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.
Thus: ONE OCCUPATION – TWO SITES.
What then are the requirements Occupy Wall Street has for a physical space? What criteria are relevant to the choice?
They may be divided into criteria for
1) Size and configuration,
2) Accessibility of location,
3) Symbolism, and
4) Availability, subject to consideration of legal constraints.
Liberty Park, it so happens, meets each of these needs, but with limitations.
1) Size and configuration:
It is large enough for many activities, and an appropriate size to provide a sense of community and boundedness to the occupation – the glue functions, but too small for other activities, the umbrella functions– expanded assemblies, for instance which have often been held at other locations such as Washington Square Park, or rallies and marches, which have begun at Federal Plaza. And it is not large enough for simultaneous diversified activities, the educational functions, such as some of the educational activities the Occupation undertakes, small organized discussions, speakers – the umbrella functions.
Further, whether the site is protected and secure, primarily in terms of inclement weather, is a factor, and Liberty Park is fine in good weather but poor in bad. The worse the weather, the more does simple endurance become a time-consuming, energy-demanding, activity, at the expense of political activity and organizing. The model function of the occupation may then become limited to decision-making on house-keeping functions (walkie-talkies for the security patrol, allocating space for different activities, hours of operations, etc.), rather than political or activist plans outside the site. questions. Dual locations, offering different levels of amenity and protection, for use at different times, may be a partial answer.
2) Accessibility of location:
Clearly it is central to what Occupation is trying to do that it can bring people together, both its own participants and strangers who may be influenced by their physical involvement: the umbrella and activation functions.. That means it must be accessible, and by mass transit. That means a central location. Liberty Park is very accessible, but so are other large parts of the city. Further, Occupiers are activists, and encourage participation in active expressions o f critical support. Their target is Wall Street, more generally, the financial 1% whose disproportionate hold on power they are challenging. A location near the center of that power, in the belly of the beast, so to speak, is this very desirable. Marches need a destination; being near an obvious target facilitates their strength. Coupled with its symbolism, lower Manhattan or mid-town would seem ideal locations.
The confrontational function of the space, even in New York city, is not (at least a yet) a major factor in its location, except symbolically; so far, its disruptive potential has been deliberately down-played. The very name of the first movement is symbolic of its activational function, , using the designation of a space, Wall Street, as standing for the activities which are, among other places, contained in that space. (A warning on spatial fetishism in next post.) If the Occupation is indeed one focusing on the concentration of economic power, it was a sensible choice not to locate in possible alternative sites, such as near City Hall or Federal plaza, which represent at least to some extent power still subject to existing democratic processes, or near residential open spaces or educational institutions, which at worst are secondary supporters of economic power, not at their center.
A vacant site, whether open space or building, is obviously eminently desirable. Inevitably, there will be some displacement; a general assembly and a baseball game cannot take place at the same time at the same place, and the amount of displacement should be minimized. The decision might also take into account who and what is displaced, frequency of use, need met by use, alternatives available. Social arrangements, such as voluntarily limiting the drumming at Liberty Park to specific hours, can also be helpful. Absent political or legal roadblocks, Liberty Park might meet the criteria of availability very well.
But legal and political factors do have to be taken into account. The complex situation at Liberty Park, with its mix of public and private ownership and control, was serendipity for the occupiers. It is unlikely that, in a private market economy and with large investment interests in real estate, that ideal locations can be found that do not raise issues of rights of occupancy and exclusion, including by physical force.
The extent to which such limitations are confronted directly, and how, are a matter of strategic choice for the Occupation. They involve not only questions of freedom of speech and (too infrequently notice) freedom of assembly, but also of the availability and uses of public spaces in the city, the contributions and purposes of public space as such, questions relevant to recreational needs, community gardens, environmental health, peaceable enjoyment. Few desirable locations are likely to be free of such issues.
If a two site solution seems worth considering, the role of each site can be spelled out. It would be important to keep a direct and on-going presence at Liberty Park, for the advantages outlined above, particularly it symbolic and by now historic importance. There is no reason negotiations might not provide for a stable, non-confrontational use, with agreement on hours of use, types of activities, etc. The sophistic arguments against its use need to be firmly put down; see the Open Letter to the signatories of a letter of complaint to the Mayor about its continued existence.
For the second, the Incubator, site, it is of course most desirable that a single secure site be established, linked to the Staging Site. Empty factories or warehouses, college campuses, office building atriums, churches, large empty store fronts, might be possibilities. There are already spaces near Liberty Park being used for things like committee meetings (apparently 60 Wall Street’s atrium is one). Quite off center Occupy efforts are also in gestation, e.g. in Harlem, and in the center of Columbia University’s campus, but focusing (it’s too early to tell) primarily on university and academic/pedagogical issues); perhaps a thousand occupations will bloom, each with a sectoral or issue focus of its own. It would then be important to keep the role of Wall Street as a symbol of the concentration of economic power and its role in each sector prominently in view. The imagination of the occupiers has proven fertile.
What does seem clear is that Liberty Park is one site of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but not its be-all and end-all. Only the imagination (and the balance of power!) limits the possibilities.
Peter Marcuse is Professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University in New York. Visit his blog here: http://pmarcuse.wordpress.com
- One border of what the map now shows as Zuccotti Park is Liberty Street, and the park itself was originally called Liberty Park. After the ground which it occupies was acquired by Brookfield Properties, Inc., it was renamed Zuccotti Park, after Brookfield’s chairman, former chair of the New York City Planning Commission and now a prominent real estate lawyer in New York. The occupiers, preferring to call it Liberty Park, are in fact reverting to its historically accurate name, which happens to be also symbolic of their view of the appropriate adjective for an important public space. ↩
- The events are described in detail in an excellent account in The Nation’s issue on the Occupations. ↩