This Space is Occupied

November 22, 2011

While in New Orleans over the weekend I stopped by "Occupy New Orleans" (some photos I took are below). This version of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement is camped out in a park across the street from city hall. As my first visit to an occupy location (which included a several dozen tents and numerous signs), it was interesting to see firsthand the tactic of occupation. Regardless what else one may say about the movement, Occupy Wall Street has chosen an intriguing rhetorical strategy that its name captures well--they are not just protesting but occupying. This reclamation of public space has not only increased media coverage of the movement but also greatly impacts the message of the movement. Rather than treating public space as merely land where we plant flowers to look at but otherwise do not use, the occupy movement embodies its message by attempting to literally reclaim the public square. Even if one does not agree with the occupy movement's message, its attempt to reclaim public space is an important aspect to consider. They are literally transforming the empty public square into a forum for public deliberation. It is that idea which lies at the heart of the movement. As one of the signs I saw at the New Orleans encampment proclaimed, "This space is occupied." Across the nation, people who have rarely had a public voice on civic matters have been participating in general assemblies at occupy locations and becoming part of the public discourse. Although I did not have the opportunity to see a forum time in New Orleans, the place was full of posted messages--thus transforming the space from a park virtually devoid of non-government signs to one full of political messages directed at government officials across the street. Yet, many commentators and public officials fail to understand the importance of the idea of occupation to the occupy movement. For instance, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared in his statement about evicting occupiers from Zuccotti Park (where the Occupy Wall Street movement started and a place that, while privately owned, is supposed to remain open to the public at all times) in the middle of the night last week:

Protestors have had two months to occupy the park with tents and sleeping bags. Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments.
The problem with Bloomberg's statement is that he fails to recognize that their bodies and tents are part of their argument. Since the occupiers chose to embody their message about the need for a public square where all the people decide public policy (and not just the one percent), one cannot separate the form of the protest from its message. As media theorist Marshall McLuhan explained, "the medium is the message." To suggest that the occupy movement should simply offer its concerns in more traditional forms and stop camping in public spaces is to completely misunderstand the message of the movement.

This effort to reclaim public space has important democratic implications. Without public space where citizens can gather to be heard and to hear one another, our political system becomes less democratic. As Kevin Mattson, now a professor at Ohio University, explained years ago in the National Civic Review:
The relationship between public space and democracy is crucial. Democracy requires places where citizens can gather together to discuss the issues of the day and work on solving problems. In the past, architects recognized this and built public squares where citizens could assemble. ... One thing is certain: the suburban landscape as we know it does not create the public spaces that are conducive to civic interaction and public life. If we are truly concerned with the state of American democracy, we should build a landscape that encourages and symbolizes our respect for the public realm and for the intermingling of citizens. Democracy demands it.
His argument compliments the work of many other scholars who have considered the rhetoric of space and the impact of space on rhetoric. I dealt with some of these concepts in a recent study in Free Speech Yearbook (a translation article of the study later appeared in Communication Currents) as I analyzed the First Amendment rights of the members of Third Church of Christ, Scientist in Washington, D.C. as they successfully fought for the right to tear down their church building. The primary theorist whose work I used in the study, French sociologist Henri Lefebvre, offers insights particularly well-suited for understanding the occupy movement. In his book The Production of Space, Lefebvre argued that the way a city's space is developed and arranged impacts the development and arrangement of ideas and values within that space. Thus, he criticized Soviet urban planners for failing to create a socialist space and attributed the ultimate failure of their political system to their failure to destroy the czarist infrastructure they inherited. Rhetorical scholar Joshua Gunn borrowed from Lefebvre and others as he recently offered his thoughts about the importance of space for the occupy movement. While the occupy movement has done much to bring attention to the problem of income inequality in the U.S., hopefully it will also raise awareness to the importance of public space in our society.


0 comments