Micro-blogging: Urban Space and Protest Conflict

Oct 25 2011

A few days ago, I got into a discussion with a friend about how the Occupy Wall Street protests are “jamming up the city” (NYC). She felt like they shouldn’t block traffic or occupy the bridges, doing so, she reasoned, hurts other people and goes beyond their right to free speech/ expression.

I took a moderate pro-anarchist stance and said they shouldn’t aim to disrupt infrastructure, but the protests are important, and if they happen to block traffic or cause noise, then so be it.

The discussion turned toward the conflicts the protesters have with the police. The renegotiation of the contested space (via shouts and cameras and newspaper articles and pepper spray and arrests) is constant. My friend believes that the police sympathize with the protester’s goals and ideas, but are committed to doing their job to maintain order. This cognitive dissonance is driving the police toward wits-end (plus the city is running out of overtime money).

Be that as it may, I was more interested in the urbanist aspects of the whole thing, and of course I dragged the discussion into a talk about Urban form.
Essentially, the conflicts with the police come down to the fact that the protesters cannot protest on the scale they desire while obeying all of the various laws and regulations, the infrastructure cannot possibly bear it. To resolve this, the protesters have developed a “we don’t need permits and sanctions, it’s a goddamn protest” mentality.

The average, middle class, fair-minded police officer, in turn, is doing his/ her best to protect everyone and their interests. (Lets ignore the corrupt superior officers, the biased media for a minute, and the rich “1%” who influence them both).

I’m not suggesting that the city should have been designed with such a bloated scale that it could accommodate such rare occurrences, but I am pointing out that these skirmishes are to be expected. Urban space is all about negotiation, and the city is doing everything it can to close down the discussion, leaving only the language of physical bodies to sort out who has the right to be where.

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