The freedom to assemble: it is a constitutional right. And as spring rolls into existence, it is being exercised anew. Occupy Wall Street returned on its sixth month anniversary to Zucotti Park to discover that power has a very clear idea of its 2012 occupy strategy. Stop it, beat it, crush it, remove it at all costs.
What the occupations of 2011 showed and what they begin to reveal again is the primacy of space in the function of mass movements. After a four month hibernation initiated by a massive national effort by the powers-that-be to remove OWS from every public space in America, the primacy of space can no longer be argued. Space is the battleground. It is no longer theoretical. The removal from space has revealed itself as the removal from spectacle. Without mass action to report on, the movement dwindled in the public imagination. The calls of the 99%, the confrontation with corporate control and capitalism, the disgust at the political process were rapidly swept under the rug over the winter only to be supplanted by the hijinks of the Republican primary race. The electoral process returned to its comfortable hyperbolic battle of affect between media strategists on the democrat and republican campaigns both of which eager to avoid their own inherent corruption and complicity. Without the occupation of space, the world returns to its downward spiral augmented by insipid dialogue geared toward our emotional response. But spring is here and space is the place. The mayors, the president, the CEOs, Homeland Security, every police commissioner, and all of OWS knows it as well. The battle lines have been drawn.
As the mayors dig in their heels ready to brutally punish the coordinated actions of the massive OWS movement, we prepare ourselves for a new wave of actions Each attempted occupation whether it is at Zuccotti Park or Union Square will be repelled by the police. A tent is set up. A tent is destroyed. A library goes up. A pile of books gets squashed under a policeman’s feet. A poster goes up. A poster is torn down. This is the choreography of the public space dance. And with each confrontation with power (the hybrid system of control by corporations and government enacted by force), the movement grows in the public imagination.
Space is not unrelated to spectacle. It is its muse. As we continue to broadcast our lives on-line and gather news of the world on television, much of what is broadcast as news remains various spectacular contestations in physical space. The body and its occupation in the world remains the source of much of what is considered to be ‘real’. Whether it is a celebrity leaving a night-club, a gun wielding maniac breaking into a bodega, a person navigating a flood in Topeca, a protester breaking a window, or a cop putting his boot on a protesters head, the media loves a fight in space. These things gain momentum because they make the viewer feel something. Cops beating kids or kids breaking windows, for the media, it is all the same. They eat it up, because it is the way the viewing world likes to eat (visually).
Space is the place that we make the news that we eat at home.
Strangely enough, to occupy space is to occupy the news and to occupy the news is to occupy the public imagination. In essence, the freedom to assemble is now the freedom to occupy the public imagination. And as we have discovered that little plot of psychogeography is radically policed. The entire criminalization of public space has much more to do with the gradual system of control of spectacle in shaping what we, as people/consumers not only expect out of life, but who we are. We cannot loiter because we are not consuming. We cannot erect structures because we are not permitted venders. We are arrested in space because we are poor and are locked out of the circulation of capital. We are not operating in the ethos/pathos of the consumer relationship to space and thus we are a problem. We create meaning in space. We create community in space. We create dreams in space. Because of its power as the shaper of our aspirations, over the last forty years space has gradually become the battleground for corporate and state interests invested in shaping our expectations and dreams. The barricade is not a metaphor for the contained collective imagination but instead is material reality.
Fortunately the privatization of space has its paradoxes as it butts up against some of the core values that the United States has built itself upon (at least rhetorically). What is phenomenally strategic about the battle for the right to assemble is that it cuts across the mediated false dichotomy of right-wing/left-wing values in the United States and appeals to a fundamental constitutional right. The freedom to assemble is part of a dialogue that unifies people much in the same way that adage, the 99% does. It is populist and we all know, Americans love that.
The public also loves a battle. It loves outrage. For this reason, images of the police hurting non-violent protesters is a great weapon in the movement. It makes for great Youtube videos and graphic photographs to accompany headlines. It is spectacular. And police hurting non-violent protesters as they call for the dismantling of the corporate state is even better as it attaches the article to a politics that has actual strength. The fact that mayors across the country have dug in their heels remains an asset in the spectacular battle for space. Keeping it non-violent is important for the very reason of how the media portrays the movement. Every baton on a protester’s back, the police hurt a person and put a crack in the illusion of peace. Every can of pepper spray unleashed both blinds the eyes of protesters and opens the eyes of those at home. The more the protesters look like everyday Americans, the better. Arrested priests, grandparents, teamsters, fireman, nurses, office worker and child, the more the viewer relates the oppression in space to the oppression they have in the comfort of their home.
But as we saw in the last go around in the fall, the public imagination is ever hungry for sensation. Once a camp is occupied it must retain its momentum. It must stay on the move. Stagnation in space gathers a mold in the public imagination. A few months into the occupation of Zuccotti, the media hungry for its next sensational angle transformed the camp from the agora of public democracy to a drug-fueled disease haven worthy of a National Geographic special. The movement had to grow. It had to gain allies. It had to occupy more space. More is more. More large-scale marches. More acts of solidarity across numerous lines of race. From the squares the movement must move into the halls of power. Whether it means occupying Goldman Sachs, occupying the media (physically, meaning their offices), occupying the White House, OWS must continue to galvanize broad-based public support and never stay stagnant in the public mind.
And while the battle rages, the battle to undo the legal restrictions on pubic space must be waged as well. For if the control of space is the control of the collective imagination, then the legal fight to free up space is the legal fight to free the collective imagination. The laws that prevent loitering, long term occupation, homelessness and vagrancy are laws against, our dreams. Undoing that system in the courts is a critical battle front.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that doing makes the do-er and nothing could be more emblematic of this truism than the OWS movement for public space. The movement itself is a catalyst for a new subjective becoming. It is a people maker. The camps and the fight for space not only occupy the imagination of those viewing at home, but radically transform those that take the squares. We dream collectively in space and the movement is a call to do just that. To the squares all spring, all year, for all time.