“Occupy” is both the title and the defining directive of the current global protests against income inequality and lack of accountability for the economic crisis. The word occupy, in English, has at least three definitions, two of which apply to the process of claiming and using space. One definition refers to the simple act of being in a place, while another is tied to our legal framework and the concepts of land ownership, tenure, and squatting.
At first, it wasn’t clear that that the Occupy Wall Street protests in Zuccotti Park were not like others in recent history. In the US, we are accustomed to seeing protests either in the form of large single-day mobilizations, or small “vigils” that peter out after a few days or weeks. These protests could be considered to fall under the first definition of occupy; the participants are physically present in a public space, using that space, but without the expectation of long-term shelter.
But with protestors’ refusal to move, inspired by the Arab Spring demonstrations, a point of transition to the second definition was established, and this put officials and police in an unfamiliar situation. The Occupy encampments – large-scale, organized establishment of the functions of dwelling in a public space without the necessary infrastructure – are something new and jarring to the US, where we are accustomed to living in a context where almost all property (and housing) is private. As Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York City, said, “The First Amendment gives every New Yorker the right to speak out. But it doesn’t give anyone the right to sleep in a park or otherwise take it over, to the exclusion of others. Protesters 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.” Health and safety concerns were cited (and possibly exaggerated), we heard echoes of Latin American squatter settlement eradication rhetoric, and bulldozers and dumpsters were brought in.
The visual appearance of the encampments brings media attention to the movement, but the tents, which can be seen as substandard homes in this context, also remind us of the foreclosure crisis in the US – the canary in the coal mine that prefigured the near-collapse of the economy in 2008. As encampments continue to be removed, activist groups like Take Back the Land are putting forward the idea of organized squatting in foreclosed homes as both form of protest and as a housing solution.
Income inequality, one of the rallying cries of the protests, has long been correlated to the rise of informal settlements in less developed countries. Could the same process be occuring in the US? Current research shows that income inequality has been growing steadily in the US since the 1980s. The enormous differences in economic, social and cultural contexts would make it challenging to apply any research from developing countries to the US. But seen in its simplest form, if squatting as a housing solution was to spread in the US, it would be driven by the same basic needs, and the same inability to pay market rates, that drive informal housing creation in less developed countries. The questions of whether housing is a right or a privilege, and of who controls public spaces, are still unresolved in the US, but the Occupy protests are bringing both to the forefront.