Sites Speak Louder Than Words: The Symbolic Language of Our Targets

By Samuel Stein

Occupy Wall Street is growing.  What started on September 17th as an encampment of hundreds in one small park has turned global.  On October 15th, demonstrations were held in 1,500 cities in 82 countries.  In New York City, our numbers are growing, and momentum is building to expand to more sites around the city.  As a formally leaderless movement without explicit demands, we are defined primarily by the spaces we create.  What do our choices of venues say about our politics, our critique and our vision?  The choice of our next sites will communicate more to the world than any simple list of demands ever could.

We began our movement in Liberty Plaza, a “Privately Owned Public Space.”  The park was created through a mechanism added to the New York City zoning code in 1961.  The 1961 revisions were full of new ways to shape development in the city, prefaced on the idea that zoning could be used to shape the city’s social as well as spatial patterns.  One of these planning innovations, the “density bonus,” allows developers to build higher than would otherwise be permitted if they create an open space for public use.  The spaces could be inside a building’s lobby, or outside on land owned by the developer.  While some of these plazas supported active street life, many were poorly designed and underutilized, and became empty caverns among skyscrapers.  Left urbanists have largely written off the program as a giveaway to developers and a retrenchment of the state as planner and provider of open spaces.

Occupy Wall Street’s reclamation of Liberty Plaza turns this logic on its head.  What was once seen as a boon to real estate capital is now a thorn in its side.  Our presence signals to the city and to real estate capital that social movements will use any and all spaces available to the public, regardless of its formal ownership.  Claiming a privately owned public space as our initial home base created a posture for the movement that was critical of both capital and the state, and especially hostile to its collusion.

In the weeks following the initial encampment, we marched and met at various sites throughout the city.  On October 15th, however, the movement formally flirted with spatial expansion beyond Liberty Plaza.

We marched along Broadway in Times Square, a stretch of street closed to traffic as a part of the Department of Transportation’s Public Plaza Program.  Under Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, the city has closed several blocks to auto traffic and created paved public spaces.  These plazas are designed as sites of consumption, with small tables and chairs suggesting an outdoor café.  They are created by the city, and maintained by a local “sponsor” (often the owners of adjacent property).  DOT’s Public Plaza Program is the mirror image of City Planning’s Privately Owned Public Spaces: they are two ways the city shares responsibility for open space between government and capital.  Our reclamation of these types of spaces implies a critique of neoliberal urban planning; whether our critique ends there or extends to a comprehensive rejection of both capital and the state remains to be seen.  The full potential of the site was not fully explored – we held what amounted to a timed rally, with a fairly clear beginning and ending- but we should think about the possibilities for future actions in these types of publically owned, privately operated spaces.

On the same day, the movement branched out to fully public spaces, owned and maintained by the city itself.  In the Bronx, we held a General Assembly in Fordham Plaza, and had an impromptu cipher on the 4 train.  In Greenwich Village, we gathered in Washington Square Park for a speech by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and a General Assembly to discuss the merits and limitations of staying in the park past closing.  Like all of the city’s public parks, Washington Square shuts down overnight.  Staying in Washington Square Park past midnight would have meant certain arrest, but would pose a challenge to the state’s limitations on the commons.  Most participants chose to exit the park just before it closed.

The choice to move into a fully public park (as opposed to a public-private amalgam) would change the tenor of the movement significantly.  Liberty Plaza and Times Square represent the entanglement of capital and government.  Moving to public spaces like Fordham Plaza and Washington Square would represent a more direct engagement with the state than the movement has so far undertaken.  It would imply that our target is as much the Bloomberg administration (or the state itself) as the investment bankers on Wall Street, and would project a very different, more anarchist-inspired politics about the relationship between the people and the state.

The following night, we attempted to move into a space representing yet another form of public land use: a community garden.  The space on Houston Street known as “First Park” is a publicly-owned lot that is recognized by the city as a community garden.  Last summer, the western portion of it was handed over to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the BMW Corporation to run as an outdoor arts space until October 16th.  The Foundation retained control of the space beyond the end of the demonstration period, however, creating a potential space for a second full-time Occupy Wall Street site.  Expecting our mobilization, the police barricaded the entrance and shut us out of the space.  The legal justification for this action is murky, at best.  Although it remains unclear how suitable a space First Park may be, the target is symbolically significant: moving into First Park would be a reclamation of a public space rife with internal contradictions.  The lot transitioned from a community garden to a corporate art project (on gentrification, of all things), and its future is uncertain.  Expanding into First Park would be a strike against the outsourcing of public space, and the corporate underwriting of political art.

We have to think now about how to do that, and what message would be conveyed by different possible sites.  If our movement moves indoors, where should we start?  Inside public buildings, such as CUNY campuses or city administration offices?  In wholly private buildings, including the headquarters of Wall Street’s biggest firms?  Or in one of the many indoor Privately Owned Public Spaces scattered throughout Manhattan?

While we have so far rejected explicit demands, Occupy Wall Street communicates implicit messages in many ways: through our central organizing framework of participatory democracy and consensus; through our images and media presence (including signs, social media output and The Declaration of the Occupation of New York City); and, most importantly, through the symbolic meanings of our spaces.  Each site of struggle suggests a different narrative about our movement.  “Occupation,” initially a tactic in the broader strategy of claiming a space to question the logic of capital, has now taken on a life of its own and become a de facto strategy.  This movement is becoming as much about reclaiming public space as anything else.

At Liberty Plaza, Slavoj Žižek presented the movement with one potential vision going forward: “The only sense in which we are Communists is that we care for the commons. The commons of nature. The commons privatized by intellectual property. The commons of biogenetics. For this, and only for this, we should fight.”  Whether or not we use the language of communism, our fight is increasingly over access to the commons.  We will communicate our theory through the symbolism of our actions.  Our geographic choices are opportunities to spread our vision of the public sphere.   Let’s make wise choices together.

2 Comments to “Sites Speak Louder Than Words: The Symbolic Language of Our Targets”

  1. Great post! An important reminder that understanding the contradictions between capitalism and democracy begins with an awareness of physical space.

  2. Very bold arguments. It’s interesting that your blog precedes today’s NYTimes OpEd by Jerold S. Kayden:

    Basically, he spends time writing about the city’s private-public space program and some of its inadequacies. That aside, he makes some interesting arguments, saying that Occupy Wall Street and related movements have brought a spotlight onto public-private spaces and that it is not necessarily good. He fears repercussions in the form of more encroaches on public rights within these public-private spaces because city zoning text and regulations is vague or nonexistent regarding rights of the public and owners of those spaces. He foresees conflict in the near future and goes on to say that, “In fact, the Real Estate Board of New York is reportedly preparing to ask the city to endorse universally applicable rules prohibiting future Occupy Wall Street-style use of public space, along with the automatic right to close all spaces at night.”

    I’ll have to agree with Kayden – I don’t necessarily think you should avoid public-private spaces, but be aware of the stones you are turning up and the issues that will come up that can affect how New Yorkers can use public-private spaces in the future.

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