It would be a missed opportunity not to extend this space, and discussion around urban informality in various cities around the world, to the recent sites of ‘occupation’ in the United States. November 17th, 2011, marked the two-month anniversary of “Occupy Wall Street” that began as a political campaign to represent the apathy, class warfare and structured inequality that has come to represent Corporate America in the 21st century. Today ‘Occupy Everything’ is a growing movement that presents an open model of ‘direct democracy’. What this means is unclear—for which, there have been several criticisms against the occupiers and those in solidarity—however, for people willing to engage with the vast plethora of possibilities that may emerge out of these struggles, the movement offers space and thought to all. The challenge thus, lies in this space of ambiguity and not knowing, yet finding, forming, educating and building new systems of governance and representation.

As a passive bystander in solidarity with Occupy Oakland, I found myself marching down the streets of Oakland, California, to “Shut down the Port”! It was an event, and a rather beautiful experience. A hundred thousand odd people, chanting, singing, and dancing to the tunes of a critical mass, a.k.a. the ‘remaining 99 percent’—a critical majority of intelligent and powerful people unwilling to withstand corporate oppression. Flash-mobs dancing to the tune of ‘I will survive”, vehicles with loud music, costumes, banners, signs, and symbols took over ‘restricted’ territories of the city and brought  the general order of ‘business as usual’ to a sudden halt! On November 2nd, 2011, the City of Oakland became the situationists’ stage for play, festivities and disruption of prevalent systems of order and control.  Interestingly, the drama of the structured port landscape juxtaposed with the sporadic and decentralized pockets of protest groups, presented just enough chaos for each person to understand what that moment of ‘Occupation’ meant to them.

Encampment at Occupy Oakland, Oakland, California.
Dramatic Landscape of the Oakland Port, Oakland, California
Various Sites of Protest, Oakland, California
Marching Down Port Lands, Oakland, California
Bicycle Powered Musicians’ Protest, Oakland, California
Marching along; costumes, chants and festivities, Oakland, California

For me the occupy movement signifies the moment at which the focus over issues of ‘urban informality’ shifted from a discourse on urban poverty, and therefore poverty alleviation, to a discourse on blatant inequality and class warfare. The various occupation sites have become important portals where accessible, public education on issues of inequality is being dispersed. Institutions like the Occupy Wall Street Library (OWSL) or regular General Assemblies and Teach-ins at various locations are incrementally educating people about the larger economic scenario, presenting class-warfare as a primary point of contestation. On Monday (November 21st) the first session of the ‘open university’ will be held at the U C Berkeley Campus to formalize a space for public education on a campus that is in the process of privatization, as we speak. And these are just some of the events I have come across,  I am sure there are many such events taking place in small cities and towns pulling in their resources to participate in what is now a national movement. However, this shift towards a discourse of inequality is not new, but the scale of representation, engulfing ‘99%’ of America’s population into the discourse of inequality, is an amazing trope that presents serious possibilities for collaborative restructuring.

Mario Savio Memorial Lecture Series, At Occupy Cal, Berkeley, California
Balloons and Flying Tents at the College of Environmental Design (CED) Installation in Solidarity with Occupy Cal, Berkeley, California
Releasing the 1% (red balloon) at the CED Installation for Occupy CAL

In 2009, San Francisco, one of the most progressive cities in the United States, passed the sit/lie law which prohibited people from sitting or lying on any sidewalk or any object (such as blankets, boxes, lawn chairs etc.) between 7.00am to 11.00pm, thus primarily criminalizing the use of sidewalks as ‘public spaces’. The law was justified based on the idea that sitting or lying along sidewalks inhibits economic activities for businesses, threatens residents and poses security hazards. However, this law was essentially passed to reduce the visibility of homeless bodies in the ‘progressive city’, always keeping them on the move. Around the same time, the creation of Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS) was encouraged by the city to create beautifully landscaped plazas and courtyards with public art installations, water sculptures and spaces for ‘public life’. However, these spaces are ‘privately owned’ and therefore can be monitored by security personal, regulating public action and abstaining public assembly or usage based on ‘security measures’. In some parts of San Francisco (and in other cities around the U.S.) street furniture is designed to deter homeless people from occupying public spaces and therefore making the problem of homelessness invisible to the civic eye.

The occupy movement therefore counters several such claims over public space, governance and access to public funds and resources, making these issues visible to the larger community. The encampment at Zuccotti Park (formerly known as ‘Liberty Plaza’ a Privately Owned Public Space) in New York, counters the primary claim over public space, re-establishing the idea of one’s ‘right to the city’ (Mitchell, 2003) while ascertaining the first amendment rights to public assembly and the freedom of speech. The language of tents and encampments makes visible the sheer lack of public housing, while building collective community enclosures. This moment of social mobilization, and ‘encroachment’ of “public space” by the ‘99%’ shifts the burden of a dysfunctional economic system from the extreme poor (who are hungry, homeless and/ or unemployed) to the larger majority of a community that lives on the precipice of insecurity. Where the fear of one serious illness, a sudden loss of employment, a foreclosed home or a series of bad debts may cost a family their whole life.

The occupy movement presents a time of economic urgency. As Francisco “Pancho” Ramos Stierle of Oakland (a 36-year-old East Bay activist arrested at Occupy Oakland, early on November 14th, Monday morning) sharply stated, “We are the 99% facilitating the healing and awakening of the 1%”. Pancho, was arrested for ‘loitering and failure to disperse’. The Alameda County dropped the two charges; however, Pacho still fears deportation over the course of his legal proceedings. In an interview with Democracy Now, Pancho states his distaste for the state of affairs exclaiming, “The City of Oakland used 2 million dollars to stop protestors while in the same day they closed 5 elementary schools”. Earlier this week, all major and powerful encampments in New York City, Oakland and Berkeley were cleared in the presence of special police forces drawn from neighboring cities at insanely early hours of the morning. The disruption of order and control did not sustain for two long. However, the brutality and violence presented to peaceful protesters by security personnel have drawn massive crowds from various parts of the city to reclaim their ‘rights to the city’ even at the cost of getting arrested.

The larger environment of ‘Occupy Everything’ presents two scales at which issues of urban informality (or urban development or restructuring) need to be understood and represented. At the level of systemic inequality and at the scale of cities, communities and people. If the story of systemic failure is told distanced from personal struggles, and smaller successes or failures, a rather grim overview of the environment is generated, one that presents little space for individual action or intervention. On the contrary, if stories of personal struggles, resilience and tactics are seen as sites of physical solutions or models of recovery at the time of crisis, researchers (or practitioners) can become prone to accepting or overlooking conditions of blatant systemic inequalities. This derive to various sites of occupation around the United States, has been useful to open up a larger debate around informality as an effect of unabashed inequality, deflecting from the idea that poverty is the problem of the poor and reinstating poverty as a vast systemic failure.

Finally, a poem by Josh Healy, one of the winners of the Mario Savio Young Activist Awards, cited as his acceptance speech and in solidarity with various spaces of occupation: When Hope Returns

11 thoughts on “Occupy Everything! :: Urban Informality as a Form of Protest

  1. Reblogged this on streetvendor’s blog and commented:
    Interesting thought!
    But as far as I understand Urban Informality (refering to Roy & Alsayyad) as such, it is because Urbanity has become so greedy (and informal and not regulated at the globalized markets) that we now face the “side effects” of informality – which are theorized as “informal” – but are twisted to the 1% greedy informality.

    • Hi, sorry for my late reply!
      I agree with your comment in that “urban informality” (as defined by Roy & AlSayyad) is a product of neoliberal urban reforms and coercive policies of structural adjustment. And yes, policies favoring the rich (i.e. unprecedented tax breaks and relaxed regulations etc.) have produced scenarios of unequal accumulation of power and wealth amongst the “1%”, which is further conceptualized as “elite informality” to represent the informal nature of development that favors private accumulation, often displacing large groups of people.
      I guess I should have theoretically defined the framework in which I am presenting my argument, in order to clarify my use of these terms. However, the observation of Informality or “squatting” as a form of protest is not ‘new’ in any way- examples in the US include organizations like Homes Not Jails. Asef Bayat writes about it in his article titled “From `Dangerous Classes’ to `Quiet Rebels’:
      Politics of the Urban Subaltern in the Global South” (found here: http://iss.sagepub.com/content/15/3/533.abstract). Hence my article comes from a desire to explore urban occupation (or informality) as a form of political protest and what are the potentials of that space? and why the State/ other bodies of power find an urgent need to threaten these spaces of occupation?

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  4. Great post! I think that examining the occupations through the lens of informality is important as well. It is also interesting how these protests are simultaneously global and local. There is a real sense of global connectedness, aided by the tech-savvy occupiers digitalizing most aspects of the camps and actions, but nonetheless they are firmly rooted in local politics of the city. The old slogan of ‘think global, act local’ feels so… 20th century. What we are seeing here goes far beyond that.
    There is one point that I disagree. I don’t think the meaning of “direct democracy” is all that unclear. Well no more unclear than say “representational democracy” or “parliamentary democracy”. In a direct democracy the residents/constituents/people direct vote on the issue. Most of the occupations have adopted a consensus decision making model, which may look a bit different from city to city, but it is easy to understand and use after seeing it in action once or twice (much easier than trying to understand how the UK parliament or the US congress works, I’d argue). What isn’t as clear, I cede, is what direct democracy would look like on a much larger scale. But there is time for that. The criticisms that the protesters don’t have real(istic) demands are ill placed. It’s like entering a horse into a dog show. A horizontally organized network that resists hierarchical command, won’t ever produce a 10-point plan comparable to a political platform. Nonetheless there has been real demands and real ideas that have developed within and between the camps. The major media and political institutions don’t want to report them because they are threatening to the status quot, or they don’t understand them because they are operating on different levels.

    • Hi Tucker! Sorry for my late reply.
      You make a great point, these sites of protest are increasingly building cross-bordred alliances not only geographically but also across different causes. For example: several climate change activists speaking in Durban this week have presented their solidarity with the Occupy movements as a means to address the unequal distribution of power, lack of transparency and access to democracy.
      The digitized nature of the movement is again another interesting site where main stream media falls short in reporting the events occurring in real time, but protesters and bystanders in solidarity become portals that continue to build our knowledge of these movements.
      I agree with your disagreement to a large extent. Most Occupy sites have very specific demands they are making, and yes there is a systematic manner of voting and being heard no matter how insignificant a voice you may have. They may not “ever produce a 10-point plan” as you rightly state, but they have presented concrete demands and are progressively moving towards achieving levels of accountability in different areas of human insecurity- be it food safety, health safety, right to housing, right to employment or right to the environment and climate. And here I completely agree with you but may not have clearly stated my position. However my skepticism still stands to an extent. When I try to conceptualize what “direct democracy” might mean at a larger scale, in a context where the ratio of higher income groups to middle income groups is much larger than the low/ or extremely low income groups- how would the idea of democracy or equal representation play out in those cases. How will a doctor/ or a software engineer from the Silicon valley reconcile with the rights of an underpaid, underrepresented employee demanding for increased economic and health security? As planners working with diverse community groups you most often encounter these kinds of “counter-claims” and it is interesting to see of these play out. However, these are just minor concerns within a larger more exciting scene of events.

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