A pedestrian browses protest posters at the Occupy Wall Street sit-in at Zucotti park in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
It’s been a year since the Occupy movements of 2011, and like other participants, I’ve been thinking about their legacy. In Spain, Greece, Britain and the United States, relatively small numbers of protesters made a big noise about the evils of capitalism; to me, though, the movement’s lasting gift was embodied in the very word “occupy.” The protests occurred in spaces where they did not belong, taking place in plazas (New York), on church steps (London) or in commercial squares (Madrid), where protesters had no right to assemble. The Occupy movements dramatized questions about public space—who owns it? who can use it?—and provided some surprising answers.
In America, in principle, there should be no “public” problem. The First Amendment to the Constitution reads in part: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” Over the centuries, this right has been refined and hedged, but it still hews to the opinion of the Supreme Court in 1875 (in United States v. Cruikshank) that freedom of speech is “an attribute of national citizenship.” This guarantee is broader than in the unwritten British constitution, which accords freedom of speech mainly to those speaking in Parliament, and more precise than the vaguely worded right to assemble accorded citizens in Spain or Greece. Across the board, though, freedom of speech and assembly is defined in terms of the relation between citizens and their national government.
However, the rights that nations give, cities can easily take away. In New York City, for instance, you need permission from the local authorities if more than twenty people gather in a park, or more than fifty bicyclists parade on a street, or if the speakers use amplified sound. Washington, DC, requires permits for twenty-five people to assemble on the National Mall; a march along the streets can be permit-free only if it involves fewer than 100 people and keeps to a single lane. Today, London is more draconian than either New York or Washington as a result of the anarchic riots that occurred six months after St. Paul’s Cathedral was occupied; political protesters are now lumped together with looters as threats to public order. Local freedom has been ambiguous in Madrid and Athens, since many of the police themselves have spontaneously demonstrated against austerity cuts; still, crowd control through the use of tear gas or water cannon is a decision for local authorities to make.
Tents and sleeping bags were the “weapons” with which the Occupy movements tested each city’s limits on freedom of assembly. When allowed, legitimate protest is usually framed by the idea that protesters will pass through public space, not dwell in it—the march rather than the camp. (The occupation of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 violated this norm on a much larger and infinitely more tragic scale than the camps set up last year.) The Occupy settlements were clever, however, in exploiting two ambiguities in the notion of public space.
The first is an ambiguity in the distinction between “public” and “private” in urban areas. In 1961, New York City passed a zoning resolution that allowed a new building to become very tall if the developers agreed to make space at the building’s base open to the public. Which has meant that Zuccotti Park—in the very belly of the Wall Street capitalist beast—must be open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, to the public, though it’s still privately maintained. By camping in this park (which is really a plaza, since it’s tightly knit into the surrounding street fabric), the protesters raised the question of who controls such space: the police or the building’s owners? While the authorities dithered, the Occupiers occupied.