The choice of Zuccotti Park for the occupation of Wall Street was a canny one. Compact dimensions assured that the threshold for a critical mass was tractably scaled. The location in the belly of the beast was apposite for a spectacle of equality encamped on the field of insane privilege. A site across the street from ground zero, which was rapidly being developed as a zone of constricted speech and wanton surveillance, it made a crucial point about free assembly. And the anomaly of the park’s strange, if increasingly typical, public–private “partnership” was paradoxically enabling. Zuccotti was legally in a state of exception from the time, place, and manner of restrictions typical of municipal parks, which permitted it to be occupied around the clock.
As has been widely observed, the spatial organization of the occupation was itself a model of urbanism, balancing communal and individual desires under a regime of extreme neighborliness. The encampment was zoned with its alimentary, educational, sanitary, consultative, recreational, and media districts, its avenues of passage, and its sleeping and resting areas. It confronted issues of citizenship and crime, evolved styles of cooperation and cohabitation that were singular and precise, and devised fresh forms of communication and governance. The nature of its bounding membrane and relations to its friendly and hostile periphery were subject to both spontaneity and institutionalization.
And the occupation powerfully evoked another form of urbanism, the “informal” settlements that are home to more than a quarter of the world’s population and the most extreme manifestation of inequality at the urban scale. The encampment at Zuccotti Park reproduced, albeit in theatric and ephemeral style, many qualities of these despairing but often intensely organized places, illustrating struggles focused on property and legality, lack of essential services, impossible levels of overcrowding, the need for local economic organization based on scarcity of jobs and resources, tense relations with the authorities, and a gamut of the social and physical architectures of threatening impermanence.
Whatever its broader agendas and affinities—and notwithstanding the critique of the fluid specifics of its political demands—it is clear that the occupations of 2011 and the movements of the Arab Spring, the Indignados, and the others that they inspired were part of a long history, not simply of remonstrances at urban scale, but of events enabled by the special political character of urban space. The idea that a social manifestation might not simply take place in a city but might actually create a city is an originary vector for mass gathering, and there is a special power that flows from occupying the city as we know it with another city, the city as we’d like it to be. This practice has a history of millennia, revealed in festival days, the ordered response to epidemics, as well as in the evanescent redistributions of power and privilege of political uprisings. All hail the Paris Commune!
Although the idea of utopia is, in too many ways, discredited, the spirit of Occupy lies precisely in this creation of intentional communities. My earliest experience with occupation was based on the re-inhabitation of buildings and the conversion of their purpose. I spent many weeks in the 1960s hunkered down in various academic administration buildings (and, later, squatting in abandoned houses) in the name of opposition to warfare and rapacity. The medium was crucial and the power of the action sprang both from expropriation and invention, from the demonstration of strength and from the demonstration of alternative styles of cooperation. Strategically, temporary communities do tend to be infused with special meanings. Whether in the form of a military bivouac in the field, the Bonus Army or Resurrection City on the National Mall, refugee camps around the world that result from disasters, Burning Man, or Woodstock, these ephemeral assemblies are particularly purposive and they force inhabitant and observer alike to think about communities that do not embrace the ideas of business as usual. Whether consecrated to pleasure, survival, or protest, these communities share an idea of scale, and one can distinguish the virtual urbanities from smaller communalisms that simply elaborate the familial.
This combination of occupation and proposition also undergirds what has come to be the salient theoretical underpinning of these urban actions, the idea of the “right to the city,” articulated by Henri Lefebvre in 1968 but embedded in the work of community organizers, communards, and revolutionaries for a century before. Lefebvre understood the concept both as an assertion of a series of conventional rights—of assembly, of access, of movement—but also, and crucially, as the right to imagine the kind of city that might emerge in full consonance with fresh-born desire. The Occupy movement—and all its contemporary predicates—springs from this double valence and asserts, by its presentness in urban spaces that are programmed for relaxation rather than for insubordination, and by the inventive and equitable models of community the people practice there, that the possibility of another kind of city—another kind of society—is immanent in their gathering.
The emergence of fresh styles of assembly and communication (human microphones and pizzas delivered on credit cards from supporters on the other side of the globe) reinforces the idea that the occupation is both an act of protest and a cooperative effort of imagination. The dismissal of the movement due to the “incoherence” of its demands misses the point as well as the power of the occupation. Of course, there is an overarching demand for equity, a claim against the crazy, widening income gaps of the developed world, and a more general cry for justice. But the main force of the movement springs precisely from its defense of desire, its claims that a good city must emerge that right now exceeds anyone’s capacity to completely imagine it. To propose some exacting singularity, some “pragmatic” tinkering at the margins, would be to sap the real power of the movement’s message: Justice is the certainty, but a social poetics constantly contested and renewed must define the real city and its practices. Provocation is not enough: the system must change.
Michael Sorkin is an architect, critic, and member of the curatorial team of Spontaneous Interventions.