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Social movements and urban space

February 14, 2011

I’ve been both inspired and moved by the past weeks’ events in Tunisia and Egypt.

It has been a while since we have witnessed such power in masses, a time and place when social movements really show a tenacity, passion and commitment that sustains itself beyond the first couple of cycles of 24-hour cable and internet news, or enveloped and dissolved in ceaseless capitalist-consumerist waves, or simply and tragically crushed by military powers.

As has been said, this is the new revolution, enthusiastically displaying the democratizing power of the internet. We’ve heard this oft-stated promise before, and have seen incipient examples, from the online retail “revolution” (we can now buy anything from anywhere at anytime), to Obama’s election in 2008, but now we see it in full force, by people actually fighting for freedom and for their lives.

But while the current North African and Middle East uprisings may have been ignited and fanned (figuratively and digitally) on Facebook and Twitter, the revolution itself took form, amassed power, and finally achieved its goals, far outside digital social networks. It happened, as it has before, in public urban space – on the streets and in the squares.

There is of course a resounding irony in this: large public squares connected by wide straight avenues have long functioned as organizers of power, showcases of state or imperial might. The urban planners of the 19th and 20th Centuries enthusiastically created and recreated such formal seats of empire in far-flung places. Tahrir Square (Liberation Square, appropriately enough) in Egypt is itself a French import, modeled after Haussmann’s sparkling new boulevards. A “Paris on the Nile,” enthused father of Egyptian planning Ismail Pasha.

Tahrir Square, February 11, Photo by AFP

But squares and streets are clearly also spaces and symbols of resistance. From Wenceslas to Tiananmen, squares have also been where the people attempt to wrest their collective ownerships of public space. The last reports from Cairo before Mubarak’s fall tell of an ever increasing organization of protestors at the square, the creation of a burgeoning Tent City, providing services and facilities for its continued defense (an anti-occupation, if you will), as well as spaces of art and political creativity.

The uprisings – their breadth, their passion and commitment, and their effectiveness to reformat urban space – are particularly heartening for someone viewing all this from the United States.

Since 9-11 we have witnessed what, in effect, amounts to the delegitimizing of Arabs and Muslims in urban spaces in America. From the extraordinary renditions and profiling stops (literally pulled off and out of public and private spaces), to protests of an Arabic language school in Brooklyn and its principal, to the recent uproar over plans for a Suffi mosque and community center in lower Manhattan, Arabs and Muslims, and those who simply look like they might be, have had their right to public space regularly challenged and denied.

The events in Tunisia and Egypt – vividly illuminated by countless stories of multigenerational, multi-gender, collective struggle, calls for not only democracy but freedom and justice – make visible a kind of “Arab Street” very much different from that generally propagated by our mainstream media or reinforced by misplaced security measures and racist public opinion. One that is about liberation and possibilities, of optimism even.

This optimism might even be strong enough to counter the disturbing reactions of some in this country and elsewhere who are seemingly more concerned about the price and security of oil than for human rights and dignity, or simply afraid of democracy in an Islamic country. Or the cynicism of those who might choose the stability of tyrants and dictators over the uncertainty of freedom and self-determination. After all, who are we, where are we, if we fear peoples’ freedom?

Optimism is infectious. Friday’s announcement of Mubarak’s departure brought on resounding cheers and celebrations from the streets and squares of Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen, and Gaza.

This is the inaugural post on MVMTBLDG, a forum and a platform for architecture and social justice. Look forward to future posts on social movements and urban space, architecture and weather, queer urbanism.

 

I’ve been both inspired and moved by the past weeks’ events in Tunisia and Egypt.

It has been a while since we have witnessed such power in masses, a time and place when social movements really show a tenacity, passion and commitment that sustains itself beyond the first couple of cycles of 24-hour cable and internet news, or enveloped and dissolved in ceaseless capitalist-consumerist waves, or simply and tragically crushed by military powers.

As has been said, this is the new revolution, enthusiastically displaying the democratizing power of the internet. We’ve heard this oft-stated promise before, and have seen incipient examples, from the online retail “revolution” (we can now buy anything from anywhere at anytime), to Obama’s election in 2008, but now we see it in full force, by people actually fighting for freedom and for their lives.

But while the current North African and Middle East uprisings may have been ignited and fanned (figuratively and digitally) on Facebook and Twitter, the revolution itself took form, amassed power, and finally achieved its goals, far outside digital social networks. It happened, as it has before, in public urban space – on the streets and in the squares.

There is of course a resounding irony in this: large public squares connected by wide straight avenues have long functioned as organizers of power, showcases of state or imperial might. The urban planners of the 19th and 20th Centuries enthusiastically created and recreated such formal seats of empire in far-flung places. Tahrir Square (Liberation Square, appropriately enough) in Egypt is itself a French import, modeled after Haussmann’s sparkling new boulevards. A “Paris on the Nile,” enthused father of Egyptian planning Ismail Pasha.

But squares and streets are clearly also spaces and symbols of resistance. From Wenceslas to Tiananmen, squares have also been where the people attempt to wrest their collective ownerships of public space. The last reports from Cairo before Mubarak’s fall tell of an ever increasing organization of protestors at the square, the creation of a burgeoning Tent City, providing services and facilities for its continued defense (an anti-occupation, if you will), as well as spaces of art and political creativity.

The uprisings – their breadth, their passion and commitment, and their effectiveness to reformat urban space – are particularly heartening for someone viewing all this from the United States.

Since 9-11 we have witnessed what, in effect, amounts to the delegitimizing of Arabs and Muslims in urban spaces in America. From the extraordinary renditions and profiling stops (literally pulled off and out of public and private spaces), to protests of an Arabic language school in Brooklyn and its principal, to the recent uproar over plans for a Suffi mosque and community center in lower Manhattan, Arabs and Muslims, and those who simply look like they might be, have had their right to public space regularly challenged and denied.

The events in Tunisia and Egypt – vividly illuminated by countless stories of multigenerational, multi-gender, collective struggle, calls for not only democracy but freedom and justice – make visible a kind of Arab Street very much different from that generally propagated by our mainstream media or reinforced by misplaced security measures and racist public opinion. One that is about liberation and possibilities, of optimism even.

This optimism might even be strong enough to counter the disturbing reactions of some in this country and elsewhere who are seemingly more concerned about the price and security of oil, afraid of democracy in an Islamic country, who might choose the stability of tyrants and dictators over the uncertainty of freedom and self-determination. After all, who are we, where are we if we fear peoples’ freedom?

Optimism is infectious. Friday’s announcement of Mubarak’s departure brought on resounding cheers and celebrations from the streets and squares of Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen, and Gaza.

This is the inaugural post on MVMTBLDG, a forum and a platform for architecture and social justice. Look forward to future posts on social movements and urban space, architecture and weather, queer urbanism.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 14, 2011 9:26 pm

    Thank you for this first post. I am reminded of James Scott’s Seeing Like a State as well as work on urban space and power by Soja. So much, however, depends also on power of virtual space (Internet, corporate media throughout the West). Worth looking at, it seems, is the reaction of U.S. media to Yemen and Algeria, as compared with Iran. Mubarak played a shrewd strategy generating images of chaos and violence, complete with medieval symbols of camels and horses, but the media onslaught and the social networking mobilization was too far advanced. The Yemeni leader, however, seems to be more successful with the images of dagger-wielding turbaned thugs: http://www.newsdaily.com/stories/tre71b10r-us-yemen-protests/ Soon, Western media will be concerned with other crises, and so social movements must consolidate and assure openness by the Egyptian and other militaries now.

    • February 20, 2011 2:29 pm

      Thanks, AR. It’s definitely interesting to see how media responses have changed in regards to the more recent protests in Bahrain and Libya too. There’s a new book out by Evgeny Morozov that suggests that freedom of social media is often viewed as a threat to western democracies, while held up as liberating in undemocratic societies. See review here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/06/books/review/Siegel-t.html

  2. Ali Ozgenc permalink
    February 14, 2011 9:28 pm

    Hey Kian,

    I agree with your assertion that while large public squares connected by wide straight avenues have long functioned as organizers of power and showcases of state or imperial might, they can also serve as spaces and symbols of resistance.

    As an architect, have you considered the flip side of your argument where public spaces can be designed to prevent a large gathering of protesters and the layout of the buildings and streets could be effectively used for crowd control?

    The rumor was that the buildings where my wife went to college were designed just to do that after the Kent State shootings. Incidentally, the university did a lot of top secret research for the intelligence services, and George Tenet, then the director of CIA, gave the keynote address during her graduation.

    • February 20, 2011 2:36 pm

      Hello, Ali! I suppose one flip side to that might be seen in Michel Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon, where he proposes that the kind of invisible control mechanism in Bentham’s prison can be extended throughout various levels of society now. Also, I suppose that if we looked at the design of new embassies and areas like the Green Zone in Baghdad we might see infrastructure and design meant to deny mass gatherings.

  3. Gideon Fink Shapiro permalink
    March 23, 2011 1:17 pm

    Kian, I think you’ve hit upon a very important theme going forward, which is the continued importance of both the physical public realm and the digital public realm as simultaneous spaces, overlaid one upon the other. Real places still matter, even when we use virtual networks to navigate them and coordinate actions.

Trackbacks

  1. Creating the Political: Art after the Tunisian Revolution « Brandon Letsinger Writes
  2. The Kasbah Occupations in Tunisia – Revolutionizing Spatial Politics: Reclaim, Redefine, Transform « Brandon Letsinger Writes

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