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06.01 De-contextualising protest

The purpose of protest is to disrupt existing social, political and economic constructs. This underlying principle is key to understanding the contested territory of the public realm; where the gathering of a self-defined group expresses the opinions of individuals whose only other recourse to ‘dēmokratía’ – and the rule of the people; is the now rather ineffective voting system.

In the wake of this socio-economic landscape; and fuelled by the global economic crash and the resulting Eurozone sovereignty crisis; the occupy movement spread across the globe as a spatial embodiment of the disaffection that many feel with our current method of producing space, society and finance on an unprecedented and de-politicised global scale. In essence occupations are actions constructed to raise questions regarding the decisions made by powerful institutions in the hope of changing them.

06-01However, within our current socio-economic context these mechanisms of change or disruption are significantly curtailed. The strategy of pre-emptive public realm control has come to be such a powerful force that it negates many of the spatial possibilities of protest. As such the de-spacing of the ‘occupy movement’ protesters by law enforcement officials on the streets of London on 15th October 2011 highlights the normality of spatial protest marginalization. By creating spatial constructs (most notoriously Kettling); to divert the occupation movement away from the identified contested territory of The Stock Exchange and Paternoster square, public space is redefined. St Paul’s Cathedral and the adjoining highways become the new, undesired contested territory. This reactionary shift by the protesters has effectually unearthed the nuances in the laws surrounding the use of public space, particularly how these laws deviate in implementation through time.

Paternoster square designed built, and rebuilt with the rhetoric of a public space is privately owned, managed and regulated by the Mitsubishi Estate Company. Their remit does not extend beyond their desire to propagate their mandate of real estate development and property management, as such protest; or any acts which deviate from this aspiration will not be considered or condoned on their premises. St Paul’s Cathedral (and its churchyard) is also private property; but is owned by the Church of England, who have to consider how their actions are interpreted by a general population who they do not wish to disenfranchise. As such an occupation which proves to be divisive (in terms of popular opinion) is unlikely to rapidly receive an eviction order. Images of officials sanctioned by The Church of England – forcibly removing occupiers (some of who are homeless) from an openly accessibly paved are; is not an image that will sit comfortably with them. This leads us to the territory in-between these two private domains. The (public) highways. These are legally owned and maintained by local authorities (in this case, The Corporation of London). With this ownership comes the expectation that the highways are maintained for the public and exist as public rights of way. As such we can question to what extent The Corporation of London is fulfilling ‘the spirit of the law’ by evicting those members of the public who are using the public realm and maintaining its function as a public right of way.

However, the specifics of this spatial situation are of less importance than the wider connotations that they orientate towards. freedom of the city has re-emerged as a theme which captures the public imagination once again. It tends towards the realisation that protest is a necessary democratic construct that is part of the contested public realm. This is an issue which has been misunderstood and therefore marginalised in recent times, particularly in the UK where there has been startling regression in rhetoric and law making which surround these acts over the past 40 years.

This spatial diversion of the planned protest route also serves the more disarming purpose of diverting the ‘discussion’ from focusing on the issues surrounding rampant capitalism to those around the act of protest and ‘the right’ to do so. Once law enforcement officials have taken the decision to reorder the constructs of the public realm through spatial diversion, the overwhelming condemnation from prominent forces in the main stream media and political figures can congregate around questions over the efficacy of the protest and the ability to construct and pursue clear spatial and political strategies. By presenting the decision to accept a refuge (St Paul’s Cathedral) as a targeted destination point sought after by the occupiers; the critics create a strong platform built upon a purposely incorrect conjecture. They can now question the very right to protest and to occupy space in an obstructive capacity under the guise that it is ill conceived.

Of course the real landscape of the discussion should be to interrogate the proportionality, ethics or legality of blocking the right to the city; to protest within the realm outside the powerhouse of The London Stock Exchange. The fourth largest stock exchange on the planet that facilitates trade in the London Stock Exchange and more importantly access to the capital for increased profit flows and market valuation for companies. With so much power of global and domestic economic conditions this is a location that should be answerable to citizens who have live trajectories have been altered by their actions.
This however is not the case, and by diverting the landscape of the discussion in such a way, the spatiality of the protest as an occupation becomes pacified. This can be clearly when assessing the crisis that the peaceful occupation has plunged The Church of England into. All of the questions that should have been addressed to the contested territory outside The London Stock Exchange are now diverted to the territory of St Paul’s Cathedral. These issues are so divisive and go to the heart of some of the systemic problems in our society that the church has been unable to find ‘the correct’ line to take, the departure of two high profile figures (Canon – Giles Fraser, The Right Reverend Graeme Knowles) and chaplain Fraser Dyer. Do they support or condemn the actions of the movement? Their inability to decisively choose a direction highlights not only the importance of the issues raised in this moment; but of the importance of protest as a democratic construct within the public realm.

However, the issue for The City of London Authority (who ‘partly’ own the protest site) is that of finding avenues to facilitate removal. For them there is not debate and indeed no contested territories. Any construct that can be used to return this part of the city to its previous state of being will be perused. This has led to uncharacteristic rigour in pursuing the nuances of health and safety regulations and highways legislation to find means to lawfully physically remove the protesters.

This desire speaks of an ideological split. The fault line is between those who wish to return to ‘the status quo’ and those who believe that there is need for systemic change and the pursuit of alternatives. It goes against the very nature of any action, but is a mind-set so pervasive that it undermines the whole field of protest without engaging in the important questions which lie beneath this and other occupations as they highlight the disaffection currently amassing amongst the citizen populous.

This article was written in 2011 and as such is written in the context of the social and political conditions of the time

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