Critical Spatial Practice

Carl Fraser, Architectural Researcher


Protest

Inherently acts of protest take place over a number of different scales. As activists take to the street they instinctively respond to the urban landscape, facilitating events at the human, architectural, urban and sometimes global scale. Typically activists utilise tools[1] which allow them to fluidly move through these scales as they attempt to access or inform those operating within spaces of power.

This extract explores the role that protests play in this moment of rapid social and political change that we are currently living through. At their core, protests are a vociferous expression of discontent. These actions take many forms, but protest occurs because the existing mechanisms of representation do not allow participants to effect change or inform powerful decision makers. As such, protests which are public acts of collective self-expression. By manifesting discontent in accessible, public platforms or spaces, we claim space, and by claiming space, we facilitate an agency that is of value in its own right.

“...we are concerned with the logico-epistemological space, the space of social practice, the space occupied by sensory phenomena, including products of the imagination such as projects and projections, symbols and utopias...The practico-sensory realm of social space.”

(Lefebvre, The Production of Space 1974)

A protest is a publicly visible performance that expresses the frustration of a citizen body who feel that their opinion or experiences are marginalised or undervalued by the establishment and their elected representatives. As a result, this way of acting is implicitly a critique of the limitations of the enfranchised systems put in place to facilitate citizens and their needs. It highlights a fault-line in the franchise of citizen representation. They are socially, politically, economically and spatially contextualised acts, and as such, their efficacy is always integrated into the temporal moment in which they occur. However the multiplicity of these actions is often undervalued.


Context

There is a key contemporary fault-line that runs from the Global Economic Crash 2007/8, through the European Sovereignty Debt Crisis 2010, into the Austerity Measures employed by government (2010-12). In this context of irresponsible financial practices left unregulated by politicians, leading to financial collapse; restrictions were placed on ordinary citizens – most noticeably the wholesale cuts that were made to public spending[2]. As a result, we saw the resistance; the popular protest bubble that followed (2010-12[3]). These moments all culminate in a change to the status quo. A realigning of the established norm into a new and unknown area of daily practices, both by citizens and their representatives.

In addition, the 4/5-year election cycle ensured that in the decade since the Global Economic Crash, the voting population had two opportunities to express their disdain with the decisions being made by incumbent politicians. As a result, the hegemony of the time struggled to maintain their power and political validity. This is observable using powerful nations as exemplum. Incumbent politicians in the USA, UK and Germany were largely “centralists” who were incorrectly considered to be of the “left” (due to their party affiliation as opposed to the policies that they enacted). This dissociation between the historical position of their parties and the position of its incumbents was paved by Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhart Schroder. These politicians of the “left” had realigned themselves to adopt the global economic strategies of the “right”, Clinton had his “Triangulation”, Blair his “Third Way” and Schroder had his “Neu Mitte”. Each a euphemism for embracing free-market capitalism under the false guise of modifying the politics of the left.

Due to the cyclic nature of our political systems, when the new financial strategy in response to the Global Economic Crash was being formulated; there were incumbent “centralist” politicians in power (Barak Obama[4], David Cameron[5] and Angela Merkel) who had relinquished the argument of the traditional opposition as they were now politically aligned with the economic policies of those who had caused the crash. No one wanted to comprehensively change the faltering economic system. Their focus was to simply put in place a number of superficial changes which were incapable of thwarting the return of such a crisis in the future[6]. At the same time, citizens were looking for alternatives, they found the policies of the establishment lacking in the ability to facilitate them.


Resistance

Initially, we saw action and a degree of traction maintained by liberal or socialist ideologies who were pushing back strongly against the economic consolidation that has occurred over the past 20-30 years within mainstream politics. Generally considered as being of the political “left”; these newly formed alliances were testing new forms of political representation. These are probably best typified by Occupy (global), PODEMOS (Spain) and SYRIZA (Greece). One was a strategic occupation of significant public spaces. The second, an active non-vote/ non-confidence (15-M) movement which developed into a political party. The third was a coalition of parties on the left into a singularity in order to galvanise disparate opposition into power.

Although the fallout from the Global Economic Crash and European Sovereignty Debt Crisis was widespread, it was particularly destructive in Spain and Greece[7] as their financial and thus social and political systems went into collapse. In more economically robust systems which did not collapse, such as the UK, (which also has a long culture of protest) these economic crises led to a series of proposed austerity measures; which culminated in government proposing cutting their spending by 20%[8]. As a result, protests sprung up across the demographic spectrum. Our opinions on the acceptability or necessity of protest actions is embedded in our own socio-political position, and as a result, the popular protests which manifest in the UK (2010-12), such as the Student Tuition Fee Protests[9], Occupy London Stock Exchange (LSX), the August Riots and the Off-Duty Police Officers[10] March, are a signifier of citizen’s demand for better alternatives.

These protests are significant because they are all (a) well attended, (b) address a wide number of social and political issues and (c) use a diversity of spatial tactics. If analysed as a whole, they highlight the problematic shift in politics, and the effect that it has on us as citizens. If we look beyond the hegemonic assessment of protest events, judging their efficacy by “success” or “failure”. We can instead look to the value of, and what we can learn about our systems of representation from these acts of dissent, they provide a litmus test to representative structures within our societies.


Significance

It is significant that these protests were well attended, as it shows the degree of popularity of the issue being raised and the size of the fault-line. Furthermore, attendance characterises the events themselves. The first Student Tuition Fee Protest attracted 50,000 participants, but they were not all students, there were many in support who believed in the principle of free or affordable education who decided to take part. Similarly, the longevity of Occupy LSX allowed a diversity of protesters to take part. As a result, there were a large number of important social, political and economic issues discussed at the daily General Assembly and other structures used for the exchange of ideas. Although the August Riots were sparked by the contentious death of a young black man at the hands of the police in a racially sensitive community; most forget the peaceful march organised by his family as a request for greater information from the police. Instead, we remember the outbreak of violence and the decision that people made to cause material damage and to loot their own communities. We also allow the hegemony to side-line the narrative of disenfranchisement and anger as well as opportunism that meant that the action was to be repeated over 1000 times across England. The Off-Duty Police Officer’s March was the largest action by police since 1918[11], (despite not being able to protest with the other unionised workforces who withdrew their labour collectively on a different day) the importance of their message ensured a high attendance, highlighting the changes being implemented and began the discussion around how they would fundamentally change the nature of the policing in the UK for future generations.


Space

The spatial tactics used, speak of the continued relevance of protest, the value within the actions themselves (beyond the importance of the political issues that the actions raise). The public sphere is under threat and is thus continually changing. Without an accessible public sphere, representation can easily be quashed. The public sphere first emerged in the revolutions of the 1840s with the freedom of the press, new constitutions and a model for popular political participation. Today, the spatial forum, publicly accessible space, is increasingly privatised or privately managed with narrowing definitions of permitted activities. However, the act of protest challenges this trend and the tendency to normalise it.

The Student Tuition Fee Protests are a clear example of the practice of protest developing through the implementation, repetition and expansion of a typology of protest (the dérive which soon developed into “cat and mouse”). Each of the four protests that define the micro-movement allow us to see the emergence and subsequent development of a particular approach to protest which takes place in publicly accessible space. This series of four protests is characterised by decisions made by activists whose actions are instantaneously disruptive to the structures of the existing spatial status quo which are prevalent in the areas in which they choose to operate. As the parliamentary vote on raising tuition fee approaches, each protest event becomes increasingly tactically astute as the participants target increasingly significant spaces and transform them into platforms of antagonism.

The 9-month protest camp that was Occupy LSX allowed participants to explore a myriad of different social practices which were expressed using a diverse range of methods. As this is a settled protest camp, the nature of the activity which takes place is defined by that longevity and thus it has qualities as an emerging series of protest practices. What can easily be overlooked is that the longevity of Occupy LSX is predominantly due to two key factors: location and the utilisation of a variety of tools for engagement. The camp is spread across land owned by different organisations with contradictory strategies to opposing the occupation. These disparate strategies of engagement gave the camp an efficacy which other protest actions struggle to create. It was the rare mixture of continuity of participant and diversity of ideologies which were explored under one umbrella organisation facilitating a series of actions. The longevity which becomes manifest, means that the camp allows us to explore the idea of two opposing philosophical notions of the public. The first is the status quo, that of the pre-existing condition, simply accessible space. Then there is that which is only created within and during the camp which is a more inclusive and expansive exploration of the role that publicly accessible spaces have to play in society.

The August Riots are a significant series of events. Although there are a multitude of incidents, and each event which characterises these 4 days of public disorder is different; what they all have in common is the way in which the actions are organised and executed. Not just in their use of encrypted social media applications to co-ordinate meetings (often between relative strangers), but in their methods for claiming space, most noticeably utilising the vacuum created by the “loose Kettle” employed by law enforcement, which often left the sites of looting and destruction as post-apocalyptic enclaves for hours after the initial ingress. Their methods are instantaneous, defined by the pace of change, developing nuances of engagement as there is a growth in momentum, ferocity and specificity within an intense time period.


The Off-Duty Police Officer March took place towards the end of the Austerity Protest Bubble. This protest embodies the shift in the ideology of participants, their expectations and approach to claiming space. The protest itself raises many philosophical questions around the nature of policing and the rights that key service providers can or should expect in contemporary society. The spatiality is (somewhat ironically) muted. These participants are limited in the tools available to them in claiming space during their act of dissent due to their uniformity and standing in society. The performance of protest is thus restricted to spectacle as unaffiliates attend in mock support displaying a lack of wider solidarity, creating a juxtaposition to the solidarity expressed by those officers marching off-duty with those policing their route.


Status Quo

Today, the lurch to the political “right” that now dominates the democratic process is typified by voter actions with have led to poorly conceived realities such as Brexit (UK), the election of the demagogue Donald Trump (US) and the formation of the Visegrád Group (within the EU). These new realities highlight perhaps the most pervasive fault-line in the role of representative politics. Concurrently in the background, the continued autocratic tendencies that define Putin’s rule of Russia is met with China’s abolition of term limits and a lifetime appointment for Xi, cementing a problematic; a vacuum of effective representation for citizens globally.

These recent changes highlight the importance of the role of mechanisms which operate outside of this problematic (democratic) franchise. Organised protests are a tool which cross a multitude of scales, a tool that allows citizens who feel disenfranchised or disenchanted to pursue the maintenance of citizen’s rights and representation and engage by drawing upon actions which facilitate their “right to the city[12]”. This is not just an approach to daily life which transgresses different fields of action (work, leisure and love) as experienced through the city. It is the idea that citizens have rights to spaces and the mechanisms with which to change society, without the engagement of their representatives. However, the hegemony can easily be dominated by those who employ more pervasive methods of societal change. You see this implicit realisation in the formation of groups such as “Momentum” and their efforts to inform the political consensus on a number of scales, from the streets to the parliament; through their affiliation with the Labour Party (UK). Similarly, the #MeToo movement through which a straight line can be drawn from street activists in 2016 to elected representatives in 2018 (USA) who are all strategically opposed to the demagogic populism of Trump and the realisation that political norms which have not become law can be abused and undermined. What these changes highlight are a scale of spatiality. Trajectories which connect a wide array of spatial protest actions.

We can take the example where an instinctive desire to protest on the public space outside of a building which is the workplace of a powerful representative can be seen as the manifestation of the human and architectural scale of the right to the city, with the decision or attempt to propagate this type of activity across a number of landscapes as operating at the urban scale. Thus the shift from the instinctive to the strategic is often a clear marker of engaging at different scales and the possibilities that it can facilitate.

Those involved in protest are participating in a structured approach to pursue better alternatives and are engaged in the struggle for validity which necessitates identifying and acting at the appropriate level of organisational structure. Action must be instigated simultaneously at a number of scales for an alternative practice to remain relevant to informing the social, political and economic sphere if it is to realign the accepted hegemony and to maintain its viability as an alternative practice.


Notes

[1] Spatial tools such as marching, obstruction, dissemination, withdrawal of labour, boycott are readily available to those without tools of democratic enfranchisement.


[2] The “Austerity Measures” resulted in around 20% cuts to government public spending across all sectors.


[3] The protest bubble was also influenced by events outside of the Western World, perhaps of most significance was the attempt to challenge the status quo in a number of countries, now collectively referred to as the Arab Spring (2010-11).


[4] Obama is considered on the left by many who are opposed to his policies in the USA. However, if you compare his policies to others in Western nations with strong economies his is very much in the centre. Most noticeably proposing strategies akin to a welfare or National Health Service which are established staples in other economically developed western economies.


[5] Although Cameron was leader of the Conservative Party, his politics were centralist. There is no clearer sign of this than the referendum that he called on membership of the European Union. Cameron intended for the UK to stay in the union. The referendum was ultimately a failed political strategy, organised to quell the growing opposition to his centralist policies by dominant forces in his party, by offering those to the right of him a referendum that they would lose, his powerbase would be bolstered. As a result of Cameron’s flawed political strategy, he resigned from office after the results were confirmed.


[6] To ensure that the same economies were quickly returned to their AAA credit rating, a number of restrictions were made on the liquidity that banks required to be able to loan. However, these were not at a level which would overt a similar crash occurring.


[7] A similar financial fallout occurred in Portugal and Italy, but they both (belatedly) lurched to the right as a result.


[8] In 2010, in his spending review presented to parliament in June, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne unveiled the biggest UK spending cuts for decades, with welfare, councils and police budgets all being restricted.


[9] The proposal to raise student tuition fees in the UK first came from a review commissioned by the Labour government in 2009. The Coalition government (Conservative and Liberal Democrat) elected in May 2010 announced its intention to radically reform higher education and student finance. In November 2010 the new government outlined plans to raise the cap on tuition fees in England from 2012 to £6000 and up to £9000 "in exceptional cases".


[10] Since 1918 the UK police force has not been permitted (by law) to unionise. This act came about after the mass disturbances that followed as a result of police officers going on strike over pay and conditions (in 1918 and 1919). The threat of mass disorder was seen as too high a price to pay for the political liberation of this core service, leaving today’s officer’s in an indeterminate position when it comes to acts of public self-expression. As a result, police officers can only protest when they are "off-duty".


[11] 20,000 police officers attended the march. The police force lost the right to unionise when they protested in 1917 and 1918 and general chaos broke out. Although the protests themselves allowed them to negotiate better working conditions.


[12] A concept first defined by Henri Lefebvre in the late 1960s, this has gone on to be a powerful conceptual approach which quantifies the potential for the efficacy of protest. “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”

© 2020 by KONESH

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