Reclaiming Space, Public and Private

December 1, 2011  —  Filed under: politics, occupy, space, capitalism, anarchism, philosophy

A remarkable thing happened several weeks ago in a small city in North Carolina. A group of Occupiers from Chapel Hill affiliated with the national movement, emboldened by similar actions by Occupiers in Oakland, California, reclaimed an old used car dealership that had sat vacant for years. The owner, a deadbeat who has been apparently at odds with city government for some time now, has kept the lot vacant and undeveloped for the better part of ten years. This large building and land, unoccupied and unused for a very long time, was converted to serve the interests of the people of Chapel Hill.

The press release posted by the organization details the story of their occupation. The group explored the building and began to set up a space for art and free expression. As more people heard about what they had done, more and more came to the space, drawn by the allure of this strange idea. Banners and posters proclaiming “Capitalism left this building for DEAD, we brought it back to LIFE” were soon raised over the building, with speeches and assemblies taking place and an art show being planned for their new location. Within a few hours, police had arrived to survey the situation, as could be expected. However, they did not take any immediate action.

Pamphlets were handed out, explaining the causes and desired results for the action. The following is an excerpt:

“All across the US thousands upon thousands of commercial and residential spaces sit empty while more and more people are forced to sleep in the streets, or driven deep into poverty while trying to pay rent that increases without end. Chapel Hill is no different: this building has sat empty for years, gathering dust and equity for a lazy landlord hundreds of miles away, while rents in our town skyrocket beyond any service workers’ ability to pay them, while the homeless spend their nights in the cold, while gentrification makes profits for developers right up the street.”

Soon more people arrived, and with them came desks for the art space, as well as pots, pans and other equipment to establish a kitchen at the site. Later that night an impromptu dance party was held, giving life to the abandoned auto dealership that “capitalism left for dead.” The next day more assemblies were planned in conjunction with a local bookfair, and a free yoga session was scheduled. The building’s new “tenants,” filled with enthusiasm and excitement over their new acquisition, talked about what could come next – a free clinic to serve the needs of the local population? A full-service kitchen? How about a People’s Library?

Of course, soon enough, the police decided to intervene in this ugly display of wanton public compassion and unity. That brought us photos of police dressed in full military fatigues and flak jackets, brandishing assault rifles, heading in to clear the building of the people who had attempted to give it a viable purpose to serve the community.

Police clearing Occupy encampment

Of course, once the full force of reality returns, it’s always crushing to one’s hopeful spirit. The police, acting on behalf of a delinquent property owner whom they didn’t even like, evicted a group of people who wanted to give the decrepit building some new life and turn it into a place where the community could convene, express themselves, and have their needs met. The huge ruckus of evicting the occupiers was in the name of so-called “property rights.” The capitalist extreme that America’s so-called Lockean libertarian foundation has been taken to mandates such an extreme and heartless action. So fervently do we believe in the idea of property ownership, that we are willing to evict at gunpoint those who would like to make things work for the broader population. So important is our obligation to protect the individual rights of wealthy landowners, that the actions of people to create a more compassionate and functional community are considered dangerous and contemptible.

Public space has been held as an important consideration in political thought for centuries. The idea of the public’s right to assembly and to generally be a public in public is certainly not new. Large public squares are common in cities across Europe and the Middle East, as citizens of old would gather and host markets, speeches or political rallies. The public square was the centrepiece for the community, as it was the primary meeting place for every sort of group or event in the community. For the most part, the idea of public squares didn’t transfer to the New World during the colonization period. While beautiful public squares do exist in large North American cities, public squares are no longer considered the centrepiece of the community, nor have they ever really been so in most places. There are many possible causes and effects to this phenomenon (personally, I believe it results from a lack of the ideal of “society” in libertarian American thought) but that is an extensive topic in itself and will need to be set aside for another time.

For the small tracts of public space that do exist in North American cities, they have been systematically privatized, converting what should have initially been a piece of property owned by the public and used by them freely into something that is no longer truly public. Open spaces and squares are converted into shopping malls, private markets, private parks and complexes – where people are subject to the rules of the owners of the property, even though they still serve as public places of assembly. It’s hard to see the problem with this overtly, until you consider Zuccotti Park, the now-famous small “public” square owned by Brookfield Properties, which the Occupy Wall Street protesters have been calling home. Brookfield has been using their status as owners of this ostensibly “public” space to harass the Occupy protesters, and ultimately to get them evicted off “their” property a couple weeks ago. This “public” space is now encircled with barriers, surrounded by police and private security, resembling an airport checkpoint.

And for the truly public spaces that do continue to exist, the right of free assembly and use of these spaces has been revoked in near totality. I’m sure the reader remembers the now-infamous images of Occupy protesters being pepper sprayed on public sidewalks because they refused to disperse. They were also herded out of truly public spaces like that at Washington Square, where similar arrests were made. Not to mention the permit requirements for public gatherings that are deemed to be of a political nature, an Orwellian idea in itself.

The result of all of this is simple: this large-scale privatization and regulation of public space keeps people away from each other and keeps them as isolated consumers in their own homes. It’s easier to manage them this way and keep them docile. The tactic isn’t new; in the 1800s, some streets in Paris were famously widened by Georges-Eugène Haussmann in an effort to keep large groups of protesting French citizens from becoming too effective in clogging streets. Whenever the overclass can take steps to reduce the nuisance of the underclass, it will certainly do so. This ever-increasing privatization and regulation is simply an outgrowth of the same idea.

Through the occupation of both public and private abandoned space, the Occupy movement, as well as anti-capitalist political movements across the globe, are showing that they have the capability to escalate their tactics in a meaningful way. The reclamation of public space for political thought and dialogue is an important first step to breaking the bonds of capitalist hegemony in the sphere of public consciousness. This has been done in the past few months by brave Occupiers willing to risk arrest to get the public to pay attention to the issues staring them in the face. It has been proven to be a successful tactic, and should be continued. Now, an important next step is to carry the occupations to private space that can be converted to better use serving the wider needs of the community.

Don’t get this confused – there is a critical difference between “private property” and “personal property.” One is important and should certainly be respected at this point. Using the example of the car dealership in Chapel Hill, that piece of property is “private,” because it is owned by a private citizen who has special rights to use the land himself and earn money off of it. However, it is no longer to be considered his “personal” property. It has fallen into disuse and disrepair; it is clear that the landowner has not made use of this property in some time. Therefore, we are justified in liberating this private property and turning it into a useful space for public health, nourishment, education and thought.

In the current day, we continue to experience a symptom of Marx’s theory of overproduction – there is an abundance, but yet there is still a lacking. For example, some estimates put the amount of food thrown away by Americans - unconsumed - at nearly one-third of all food produced here. One third of food is thrown away uneaten, yet we have more Americans than ever having trouble finding enough food for their families. Hunger is critical, and not just in the third world. In the same way, foreclosures are at record highs, and thousands upon thousands of properties across the country sit vacant, waiting for a banking bureaucrat somewhere to file sheets and forms, transferring invisible balances to owners who will never make a meaningful use of the property. At the same time, we have more homeless Americans then ever, due to rampant poverty and housing crisis. These problems are not just isolated to America: you can find them on the rise in nearly every Western nation.

We must confront these problems at their very source. Now is the time to create a true Occupation: occupy ALL space, public and private! Out of the ruins of capitalist overproduction and debt, we can create meaningful communities, focused on compassion, education, and public utility. We can redefine our communities: space should exist for benefit of the people, not of the profitmakers.

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