Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street Movement: Reclaiming Public Space

From Celebrate People’s History: The Poster Book of Resistance and Revolution

In times of revolution and social turbulence even the walls speak up and shout out: George Orwell wrote of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, "The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud." In Oaxaca after the extraordinary commune of 2006 was overthrown, the city was everywhere smeared with the gray paint that covered over the revolutionary slogans. Repressing the revolution necessarily included repressing the voices of the streets and the words on the walls.

A revolution is a moment of waking up to hope and power, and the state of mmd can be entered into from many directions. If revolutions often prompt posters to appear, the appearance of posters, murals, and graffiti may foster revolution or at least breath on the cinders, keeping the sparks alive until next time-which is why gentrification and repression often seek to create silence as a texture. In one case memorialized by an early work of Angeleno painter Sandow Birk, a property owner in the San Fernando Valley shot two Latino teenagers in the back while they were spray-painting; he claimed self- defense.  He was clearly a vigilante, but what he was defending was not his own safety but his own reality against theirs.  Billboard defacement by groups such as the Billboard Liberation Front takes back the public sphere from corporations and gives it to the radical imagination.

                When the walls wake up, they remind us of who we are, where we are, whose shoulders we stand on; they make the world a place that speaks to us as we travel through it, that tells us we are not alone, others have gone before, and hope remains ahead. This is the vitality that street posters serve, now as much as ever. If graffiti at its most basic is tagging - "I exist, I am here," a subversive statement for the young who are hardly allowed to exist - then the posters Josh MacPhee has organized tag the city for Emma Goldman, for Grace and Jimmy Boggs, for the Zapatistas, the Oaxaca Commune, the Highlander Folk School. They say: we existed, we exist, you are not alone, the past is alive and breathes life into possible futures.

For the past decade the romance of the Internet has made many--too many--think that it is itself a public space, one that can and has and will replace the public space of cities, of streets, boulevards, squares. But what we learned from the Seattle uprising of 1999 or the Zapatistas is that virtual space is only an auxiliary to the place that matters, which is still public space, the space in which we coexist, bodily, with strangers, the democratic space in which revolution has always unfolded, the spaces of our actual bodies. Revolutions are geographical in part; they liberate the actual space in which we live our lives, as well as our spirits; you can live differently first, but the space in which it is possible to do so matters. The streets still matter.

The demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 were among the early global actions organized by e-mail and Internet postings, but they mattered because people showed up from Korea and France and the West Coast, they put their bodies in the way of the meeting to sell the world, they risked and hoped and stood up and sat down together. Democracy must be embodied, which is why it always has a geography. This is why street posters matter today as much as ever.

More than a decade ago I wrote:

Only citizens familiar with their city as both symbolic and practical territory are able to come together on foot and accustomed to walking about their city, can revolt. Few remember that "the right of the people freely to assemble" is listed in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, along with freedom of the press, of speech, and of religion, as critical to a democracy. While the other rights are easily recognized, the elimination of the possibility of such assemblies through urban design, automotive dependence and other factors is hard to trace and seldom framed as a civil-rights issue. But when public spaces are eliminated, so ultimately is the public; the individual has ceased to be a citizen capable of experiencing and acting in common with fellow citizens.  Citizenship is predicated on the sense of having something in common with strangers, just as democracy is built upon trust in strangers. And public space is the space we share with strangers, the unsegregated zone. In these communal events, that abstraction the public becomes real and tangible.

Such events require the actual space and a public that can and does exist in it, and the gestures that cultivate such places and sensibilities keep alive something profoundly necessary.

We are in an era of eroded public space, eroded for at least three reasons. One is that an increasingly large number of people, at least in the United States, live in zones where public space was never part of the design: they live in suburbs, car-based spaces where you can step in your car, punch the garage door opener and then drive straight to the parking garage of your office and mail, avoiding being outdoors altogether.  Another is that more and more people even in the old public space of cities are hurried and harried and move through such spaces obliviously. They have forgotten what these places have been and how to live in them. Just as foods that are considered delicacies in one culture are deemed disgusting and offal in others, so it is with public space: occupied as an act of gracious well-being in many parts of Europe, consigned to the homeless in many American cities. When we neither recognize nor prize what these places have been or can be, they lie dormant though like seeds that germinate after a rain, any great social deluge can reawaken them. Finally such spaces are more policed and controlled in this era when the First Amendment is often consigned to a protest pen at political conventions and other key moments in the history of democracy, surveillance cameras proliferate, and new technologies of repression develop. Yet civil society and by extension democracy depend on public life - a life that is being throttled by these things, reawakened by others, from farmers markets to the Latinoization of many neighborhoods.

These are all reasons why Josh MacPhee's long campaign of putting his series of radical history posters up around the country matter. They are a small gesture, perhaps, but small gestures accrue, and democracies and revolutions are made up of the myriad gestures of the small. I have long thought of pedestrians, of people who walk their cities and know them, as keeping alive a confidence and familiarity that has great potential in crisis and revolution. These posters do for the walls what those walkers do for the streets: keep alive some power and some hope in the public sphere.  Just as individuals accrue into civil society, so these individual commemorations of bygone heroines and moments cohere into the radical past on which a radical future can be built.

-Rebecca Solnit
June 2010

1 comment:

  1. it seems that a particle is missing in this sentence, around the abstraction: In these communal events, that abstraction the public becomes real and tangible. It could be completed as "in that abstraction the public becomes real and tangible", "that abstraction, the public, becomes real and tangible" or "that abstraction of the public becomes real and tangible'. What do you think?