Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Encountering Occupy London: Boundary Making and the Territoriality of Urban Activism

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Encountering Occupy London: Boundary Making and the Territoriality of Urban Activism

Article excerpt

Abstract. In this paper I examine the practices of encountering of Occupy London, and argue that they provide a means for rethinking the production of territoriality. Specifically, I argue that boundary making not only involves hierarchical relations of power-over but also the articulation of bottom-up power-to. I first examine literature on boundary making, and propose encountering as a more appropriate vocabulary to represent this practice in the context of urban activism. I then conceptualise encountering as the articulation of power-to, a moment in the production of territoriality from below, bringing together Holloway's dialectical understanding of power and Lefebvre's writings on territorial autogestion and urban encounters. In the remainder of the paper I examine practices of encountering in Occupy London on the basis of militant research with the movement that combined ethnography, interviews, and archive analysis. The paper focuses on the spaces of the General Assembly and the protest camp, exploring how encounters were productive of new social relations and highlighting key tensions. In particular I note the inevitable ephemerality of activist encounters and tensions over institutionalising encounters, and I end by calling for greater attention to the power relations involved, warning against assumptions that encounters of power-to necessarily lead to positive outcomes.

Keywords: encounters, territoriality, boundaries, Occupy, urban activism

Introduction

On 15 October 2011 around three thousand people, including me, gathered in the financial district of London with the intention of occupying the London Stock Exchange (LSX). Just over a month previously, a similar act took place in downtown New York, where activists occupied a square near Wall Street in order to not only protest the failures of capitalism, but also demonstrate working alternatives (see Graeber, 2013). Inspired by the explosion of urban protest camps worldwide, from Tahrir Square to Puerta del Sol, a new social movement was born under the name and spatial practice of Occupy, and October 15th saw occupations spring up in hundreds of cities worldwide. In London the heavy police fortifications at the LSX informed our decision to camp in the adjacent courtyard of St Paul's cathedral. Unlike the secluded space in front of the LSX, the courtyard was a busy thoroughfare and provided endless potential for encounters. Occupy London camped at St Paul's for four and a half months, becoming one of the longest-standing camps in the Occupy movement, and subsequently occupied a second protest camp (Finsbury Square) as well as several buildings. These occupations--urban ensembles of people, things (for example, tents), and the built environment--provided spaces of encounter in which power was negotiated and new social relations were produced.

In this paper I explore practices of encountering at the St Paul's camp and argue that they provide a means for rethinking the production of territoriality. I argue that practices of boundary making not only involve hierarchical relations of power-over, following dominant understandings of territoriality, but also involve the articulation of bottom-up 'power-to' (Holloway, 2002) and the creation of urban ensembles akin to Lefebvre's (2009 [1966]) notion of 'territorial autogestion'. The production of territoriality by social movements has been little explored in the Anglophone literature, presenting a research lacuna that is particularly striking following the wave of protest camps in 2011. While recent attention has been given to the importance of materiality for the geographies of occupation (Arenas, 2014; Vasudevan, 2014), there remains a need to examine the role of territoriality.

I suggest there are two reasons for the lack of attention to activist territorialities. Firstly, much research on territoriality has understood it in narrow terms, broadly in line with Sack's (1986, page 5) seminal definition as "a powerful geographic strategy to control people and things by controlling area". …

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