November 2011, Week 3


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The Purpose of the Occupation Movement and the Danger of
Fetishizing Space (long)

by Peter Marcuse
Submitted to Portside by the author

Peter Marcuse's Blog - Critical planning and other thoughts
November 15, 2011


[Note from the author: This may not be the best time to push
an analytic view of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but,
particularly because the issue of the importance of
defending a particular site is a burning one right now - how
important is Zuccotti Park to the movement?]

Posted on November 15, 2011

The Purpose of the Occupation Movement and the Danger of Fetishizing Space

The Occupation movement that is spreading across the country
has a number of purposes, plays a number of different roles,
in  the struggle for justice and a better life in our world.

A confrontation function, taking the struggle to the enemy's
territory, confronting, potentially disrupting, the
operations at the center of the problem. It has the
potential to disrupt Wall Street, by occupying space Wall
Street needs to function; symbolically, hyperbolically, it
waves a pointed knife over the heart of the economic beast.
But it must be admitted that there is little push to
actualize the potential; only in Oakland, thus far, has
there been significant interference with the normal conduct
of mainstream business. When neighbors complain about the
noise and unpleasantness of Liberty Park's occupiers in New
York City, it is in their capacities as residents, not as
business people, that they complain (see

A symbolic function, The occupations show the existence and
extent of a demand for change of many sorts,  giving
expression to and concretizing an inchoate but widely shared
and deeply felt unhappiness about things as they are and the
direction in which they are going,  actively involving
bodies in a coherent movement, calling for change not only
Wall Street but at Harvard, Columbia, Harlem, the Port of
Oakland, Portland, Chicago. The symbolism ties in to the
occupations in the Arab Spring, and a long history of social
protest .

An educational function, provoking questioning, exploration,
juxtaposition of differing viewpoints and issues, seeking
clarification and sources of commonality within difference.
For Occupy Wall Street and many of the other occupations,
the lesson is of the gap between the 1% and the 99%, often
pushed to argue that not only is the gap unfair in a
distributional sense, but also in terms of power, that it is
in fact the power of the 1% that causes the pain for the
99%, that the wealth of the 1% is the result of the
deprivation and repression of large numbers of the 99%, not
some unfortunate maldistribution of society's wealth for
which no one is responsible.

A glue function, creating a community of trust and
commitment to the pursuit of common goals;

It provides a way of coming together in a community for
those who are deeply affected and concerned.. The close
physical proximity to each other, the close working together
over time, the facing together of common obstacles and
hardships, the very need to endure the difficult conditions
of living together and meeting daily needs in an environment
needing to be significantly reshaped by their own hands day
in and day out, fosters strong reciprocal trust  and mutual

An umbrella function, creating a space and a format in which
quite disparate groups can work together in pursuit of
ultimately consistent and mutually reinforcing goals,
without issues of turf or competition inhabiting their
common action. In this sense, it constitutes a political
umbrella, an organizing base for an on-going alliance, not
just a temporary coalition, of the deprived and
discontented. It provides others a non-threatening way of
joining together in marches, demonstrations, petitions,
campaigns, in part by the very fact of being open to
multiple  demands, not forcing priorities among them, seeing
them as pats of a single agenda, and not creating a separate
organization.  Look, for instance, at the range of
organizations endorsing Occupy Wall Street's recent actions;
it is hard to recall any previous occasion that has brought
so many together for a common purpose.

An activation function, inspiring others to greater
militancy and sharper focus on common goals and specific
demands. The movement is concerned to expose the role Wall
Street, the 1%, play across a whole host of concerns around
which there has already been active mobilization: housing,
health, employment, culture, inequality, non-participatory
democracy, racial and ethnic and gender discrimination. Wall
Street by shining a light on, attracting attention to, the
relationship between the 1% and the 99%, dramatizing
inequality and the abuses of power, giving intellectual and
symbolic substance to the critique of the prevailing
economic and political system., and thus to encourage them
to act as part of a common front against a system as to
which they have a common interest to change.

And to activate not only symbolically;, and not only as an
umbrella for others' activities, but by direct support of
those activities: providing space for meetings, facilitating
cross discussions among supporting groups and interests,
organizing marches or rallies or other events in support of
those whose actions lead to the shorter term but directly
attainable goals, the non-reformist reforms, that point in
the direction to Occupy's own ultimate goals of change.

A model function, showing, by its internal organization and
methods of proceeding, that an alternative form of democracy
is possible and the process of change need not involve a
reversion to hierarchical command structures of some
previous revolutionary movements. It thus creates a possible
alternative model of organization, not so much of spatial
organization as of social and political organization, ways
of living together, diversity, democratic decision-making,
mutual support, self-help on a collective basis.

The use of Liberty Park and the purposes it is being asked
to serve also raises a number of important questions about
the nature and uses of public space but the actual use of
the park as a physical  model is limited, and is rather
effective to raise issues than to present the model of a
solution (although conceivably, as suggested in the Open
Letter to Sheldon Silver, a positive attitude of the City
towards is actual current use might forward the discussion

* * * * *

What role does space, and the physical occupation of a
specific space, then play in each of these aspects?

Only in the Confrontation aspect is a physical occupation of
a central specific space critical, and even here, at least
thus far, more in a symbolic than in a direct fashion. At
Liberty Park in New York,, there is a physical proximity to
Wall Street,  but the actual physical interference with Wall
Street's functioning is very limited, affecting more
residential than business functions (see Open Letter below),
sometimes almost apologetic, and strictly contained.
Ultimately, "occupy " would suggest the physical occupation
of the space Wall Street occupies, displacing its
principals, , but that meaning is really not on the table at
this point.

Except - the confrontation is being provoked as this is
written. While rational ways of avoiding confrontation are
possible, including some that might in fact meet the
requirements of both parties, that does not seem to be
happening in New York City  right now.

A recognized physical presence in a known space at a known
and symbolic location can strengthen the movement's Symbolic
role. Location generally near the seat of economic power,
can be important as a characteristic of such space, but for
the space to perform a symbolic function it need not
necessarily be occupied around-the-clock and need not be in
only one location over time. Exposing Wall Street can be
done in many ways, in multiple spaces, at many times. Again,
if, as at the time of this writing, the established powers
choose to confront the around-the-clock nature of the
occupation and thus symbolize its challenging nature, they
will in turn have given even the continuing nature of the
occupation a symbolic importance that might otherwise not
have been central to it.

A constant spatial setting can significantly increase the
Glue holding together those sharing similar concerns, and in
a sense the more that shared space is threatened, the
tighter are the bonds tying that community together. Here
the effort at permanence, the round-the-clock commitment to
the space and to each other, can be very strong. But it is
the social interaction that the budding community defends
when it defends the space, the space being only its most
visible and most threatened manifestation. For purposes of
offering a political umbrella to other groups, having tents
near each other is very useful, but other spatial and
communicative arrangements may also serve that purpose, and
perhaps even better than the by what is possible in only an
occupied space.

Both the umbrella and the activation functions of Occupy
Wall Street require space Staging activities, both for
collective action and public demonstrations of unity and
mutual support, and probably require a single larger and
well known accessible area to work effectively. For such
activities, which could be well served at a primary site
such as Liberty Park , although not necessarily requiring
that space around the clock. But the incubator has other
requirements, a space that permits quiet planning
activities, out of the glare and hub bub that an encampment
such as Liberty Park constitutes, a place for committee
meetings, drafting of press releases, communications
facilities, perhaps educational activities. Those functions
could also be performed at a site separate from the Staging
Site, but linked to it in convenient fashion.

None of the above suggests that the establishment and
defense of occupied space is not important for the Occupy
Wall Street movement, but only to suggest that the concern
with the occupied space is a means to an end, and only one
means among others, not the end itself.  There is no
necessary inconsistency in using many different means at
once, depending on circumstances.

With one exception.  Exploring the possibilities of
alternative Models of organization can, in some cases,
interfere with the pursuit of the other goals of the
movement. Making decisions affecting a group democratically
is an end in itself, with major public and political
implications. Any critique of existing arrangements that
cannot persuade that alternative arrangements are possible
will not attract many adherents.  Thus demonstrating
alternative ways of acting politically is important for each
of the other values the Occupy Wall Street movement
espouses. Yet it can also interfere with their pursuit under
some circumstances, and can distort priorities if not
carefully considered. Specifically, the defense of the
permanent and round-the-clock occupancy of a specific space
can lead to a fetishization of space that make  the defense
of that space the overwhelming goal of the movement, at the
expense of actions furthering the broader goals that 
space is occupied to advance.

Three examples:

One: Confrontations with the police and negotiations with
authorities are an inevitable accompaniment of movements
such as Occupy Wall Street, and certainly what the major
media highlight. Both relations with the police and with
municipal authorities require planning, coordination,
strategic decision-making, sometimes the ability to change
plans quickly and to leave the other side in the dark as to
what will happen. The transparency, debate, deliberation,
that true democracy requires is inconsistent with the most
effective handling of such situations. Model democracy and
effective activism must be weighed gains teach other in
practice. The best models for short-term decisions are not
necessarily the best models for making democratic long-term

Two:  Take Back the Land is a militant housing movement
concerned with keeping occupants in properties on which
banks are foreclosing. One of their strategies is keeping
their owners in occupancy, even when foreclosure has been
completed, or putting new residents in foreclosed homes
banks are keeping empty awaiting a rise in prices. They call
such homes "liberated spaces" not "occupied spaces." They
find it more natural to speak of occupying the spaces of the
banks, the 1%, and displacing/eviing them; when the come
into possession of such spaces, they would rather call them
"liberated " than "occupied" .

Three: A metamorphosis of meaning emerges in some
occupations. The space being occupied gets to be taken not
as an occupation, in the military sense, of an enemy's
space, but rather as the creation of an alternative space.
Oddly and quite without planning, the renaming of the
occupied space in New York City reflects this shift:
occupying Zuccotti Park, named after a prominent real estate
lawyer and power-broker in the city, is taking over a part
of Wall Street's space, a park located in the heart of the
enemy's territory. Occupying it is displacing its intended
functions, de facto if not de jure. Changing its name and
calling it Liberty Park gives it a different meaning; it
becomes a liberated space, a space of hope, in its
management, openness, users, political and social role, a
model for an alternative. That it in fact takes the enemies
space and builds its opposite within it is dramatic double
victory, but the displacement it represents, the victory in
a struggle, can get lost in the internal effort to develop
a truly democratic organization of the space that has been
won. Yet the model building need not in fact be located
there; any space properly configured, open and accessible,
would do: a quarter, a university, an armory, a public
building, another park, a private space, a corporate
headquarters, a university, would have done as well.

There is more than word play involved here. The danger in
focusing too much attention of what happens to a specific
space occupied by the movement is that the big picture gets
lost. Attention is devoted to what goes on in that space, to
how the occupants pitch their tents, survive the winter,
deal with intruders, ward off the police -  yes, also in how
they make decisions, but only as one peculiarity of those
particular folk. But that isn't the big picture, the measure
of the importance of the Occupy Wall Street movement, its
real significance. That rather lies in what others do,
unrelated to the physical space the movement itself
occupies. When the New York Times headlines an article in
EMBRACE BOLD TACTICS,[1]" or the New York Post finds it
necessary to attack Occupy Wall Street with a front page
by recounting how  a waitress at a Wall Street cafe was laid
off because business was bad,[2] or students stage "occupy
rallies" at Columbia and Harvard , and new occupations
spring up  day after day after day across the country, those
are the measures of the importance of the movement.  What
particular site is actually occupied, by how many, for how
long, is important, but not the main point.

Occupy Harlem concluded its initial meeting by starting a
search for a store front in Harlem where it could make its
base. Multiple locations in a city might be very possible,
perhaps some outdoors for big events, some indoors for
others. Perhaps a two-site solution, linking a larger,
centrally-located, open site with a nearby indoor, more
organized site, would work. Occupiers themselves are
exploring such and other alternatives, and have shown the
imagination with which they can handle problems. It is their
impact on their supporters and on the struggles in the world
around them that is in the end the real test of their
effect, not how long or how well they can defend a
particular space in town.

The particular space being occupied should not be
fetishized, should not become the prize, the conquest of
which is the goal of the movement. It is only, for most
aspects of the movement, symbolic; the rise and fall of the
movement should not be linked to the extent of the physical
occupation of a given space.  The spaces sought for
occupancy are not the prize for which the battle is being
fought, but rather a terrain on which that battle takes
place, and a more or less important source of support to
facilitate the achievement of objectives more important than
the command of a particular piece of ground.

[1] By Stephen Greenhouse,  November 9, 2011, P. b 1.

[2] November 2, 2011, Late City Final edition.

[Peter Marcuse, a planner and lawyer, is Professor Emeritus
of Urban Planning at Columbia University in New York City.
He has a J.D. from Yale Law School, and a Ph. D in planning
from the University of California at Berkeley. He practiced
law in Waterbury, CT, for twenty years, specializing in
labor and civil rights law, and was majority leader of its
Board of Aldermen, chaired its anti-poverty agency, and was
a member of its City Planning commission. . He was
thereafter Professor of Urban Planning at UCLA, and
President of the Los Angeles Planning Commission and member
of Community Board 9M in New York City... His fields of
research include city planning, housing, the use of public
space, the right to the city, social justice in the city,
globalization, and urban history, with some focus New York
City. He has taught in both West and East Germany,
Australia, the Union of South Africa, Canada, Austria,
Spain, Canada, and Brazil, and written extensively in both
professional journals and the popular press.

His most recent books include, co-edited with Ronald van
Kempen, Globalizing Cities: A New Spatial Order?, Blackwell,
1999, and Of States and Cities: The Partitioning of Urban
Space, 2002, Oxford University Press, and most recently, a
co-edited volume, Searching for the Just City, Routledge,

His current projects include a historically-grounded
political history of urban planning, the formulation of a
theory of critical planning, including the attempt to make
critical urban theory useful to the U.S. Right to the City
Alliance, and an analysis and proposals to deal with the
subprime mortgage foreclosure crisis in the United States.
http://www.arch.columbia.edu/users/pm35columbiaedu ]


OPEN LETER TO Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, et al.
Posted on November 15, 2011


OPEN LETER TO Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver,  Rep. Jerrold
Nadler, State Sen. Daniel Squadron and Council Member
Margaret Chin,

You complain[1]about the Occupy Wall Street protest movement
at Liberty Park as raising "quality of life issues" for
adjacent residents and small businesses, while expressing
sympathy for the Protest movement. . Others have made
similar and even broader complaints.[2] The concern seems to
be about: first, the presence of undesirables attracted to
the Park by the occupation, including criminal elements,
drug dealers, drug users, and the homeless; second, the
behavior of some , presumably protestors, in urinating or
defecating on nearby public sidewalks. And you formulate
such issues as "quality-of-life" issues and ask the city to
take a zero-tolerance position as to certain of these causes
of complaint, presumably by means of police enforcement..
Further, the City, perhaps in response to similar concerns,
has procured the removal of electric generators and
electronic equipment, and heating sources from the site,
despite an imminent cold wave threatening the health and
well-being of the occupants.[3]

Your concerns are understandable, but the solution is
misplaced. The City should take an affirmative attitude to
the efforts of the protestors to make their voices heard on
matters of grave public concern, and to do so in a peaceful
and democratic manner. It should facilitate that effort, not
restrict it, and it should deal with the substance of the
concerns of the protestors, not ignore them or denigrate
them.[4]  It is not appropriate for a mayor with an
estimated net worth of $19.5 billion to talk of those
protesting unemployment, lack of health care, home
foreclosures, as just "yelling and screaming" and telling
them they ought to create the jobs that we are lacking."[5]

If any group has interfered with the quality of life of the
city's residents, it is much more the speculators of Wall
Street than the occupants of Liberty Park. The pressure
should be on the mayor to address the conduct of Wall
Street, not its critics.

If homeless individuals are attracted to the protest site at
the park, it is a sad commentary on the programs the City
has developed to meet its state constitutional obligation to
care for the health and welfare of its residents. 40,201
homeless were in the city's shelter system October 31, 2011;
last year the number simply living on the streets went up
34%.[6] That's were attention needs to be focused.

If addicts seek cover at the park, it is a commentary on the
failure of the City to deal with drug addiction; if some
mentally ill participate in the protests, their illness is
not the protestors' fault, but that of a failing mental
health care system.

If the City is concerned about the growing homeless
population, it would be better called on to develop an
effective programs meeting the needs of the homeless, rather
than condemning private volunteers whose respectful
treatment of those homeless is experienced by the homeless
as a striking contrast to the attitudes they encounter in
the city's inadequate shelter system and housing programs.
The volunteers at the park who do their best to cope with
the problems of such visitors should rather be assisted
thanked for their services by the city , rather than
condemned for their humane results.

If criminal conduct takes place within the Park, it is the
responsibility of the city's official criminal justice
system to deal with it, when complaints are made and
assistance asked. The first line of defense should of course
be the effort to resolve untoward conduct on a common sense,
person to person basis, and a cooperative police attitude
towards such efforts should be encouraged. If official
intervention is requested, it should be provided courteously
and professionally, as New York City's police motto
provides. Such requested official intervention will be
substantially more effective if the  relationships between
the police and the residents and possible victims are
positive  and mutually respectful, rather than hostile and
alienated, as is unfortunately often the case.

If the City is concerned about the quality of life in the
city, and protecting the health and welfare of its
residents, it would be better called on to deal with the
activities taking place on Wall Street rather than putting
road-blocks in the way of those protesting Wall Street's
activities.  A progressive income tax on the 1%, a
progressive housing policy, adequate social services,
providing help for them to keep warm, take care of bodily
function, eat and sleep and discuss and, yes, protest, would
be in order. The City should be concerned with dealing with
the conduct of those who create the problems from which so
many of the city's residents suffer, rather than pushing
punitive measures aimed at their victims.

And perhaps you might recommend to the Mayor that he educate
himself to what the occupation is about, what moves the
occupiers, who they are.. His comments suggest a very deep
misapprehension of the realities that others face, so
different from his own. It was appropriately headlined in
the New York Times as : "Gilded Blinders to the Reality of a
Collapse,"[7] and included quoted comments from him such as:

"It was not the banks that created the mortgage crisis. It
was, plain and simple, Congress, who forced everybody to go
and give mortgages to people who were on the cusp." Or his
suggestion that the fault-finders should give blaming banks
a rest: "It's fun and it's cathartic. I don't know, it's
entertaining to go and blame people." His proposal for a
solution: the Occupy Wall Street Protestors should make a
difference by opening a business.

[1] For full text of letter to which this responds, see



[4] Is comments on the occupation have been called a "Marie
Antoinette" attitude, condescending, displaying an
"aristocratic superiority"
Impugning the motives of the protestors "The protests that
are trying to destroy the jobs of working people in this
city aren't productive" is hardly a constructive approach to
dealing with their concerns.

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/04/nyregion/for-bloomberg-wall-street-protest-poses-a-challenge.html?pagewanted=all

[6] http://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/pages/basic-facts; http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/20/nyregion/20homeless.html?ref=homelesspersons

[7] News Analysis, November 8, 1011, p. A18


Posted on November 15, 2011 




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