Finding and Creating Space for Ourselves
Space has often been the immediate subject of protests, whether those against the Enclosure Acts or the many different NIMBY protests, whether justified by middle-class pride or genuine concerns. But space is also a constant meta-subject amongst all protests, and amongst the actions of all radicals everywhere. Whenever we protest, a space is at stake; we may not be able to get to the space we want, we may have to defend it, or we may completely fail to utilise it.
Perhaps one example of a protest where space was an issue that hid beneath the surface would be the global financial institutions’ meeting in Singapore not so long ago. A protest pen was created within one of the buildings for those who wished to make their voices heard. The press would be discouraged from going near it, and those inside would have to reveal their identities before being allowed in. The space was controlled and it was ineffective. And thankfully, it was largely rejected.
I was present at a protest outside an immigration detention facility where a vaguely similar situation occurred. Here the difference between the space we were afforded and the one we wanted was nothing to do with being heard; instead it was the physical impact of our presence which was at stake. As we approached the entrance to the site, instead of obliging and moving into the pen provided, we moved past the entrance of the pen, and covered ourselves across the road.
What was most interesting was the way in which most people huddled together, with the effect that we failed to hold back all of the passing vehicles. This is something I see with Critical Mass bike rides quite a lot as well, actually. People don’t look for the spaces and move into them, which means that cars find the holes and exploit them.
Space is vital. The right space gives huge media and public access. The right space makes a huge statement by it self. The wrong space is hugely disempowering. The point of having a party outside Canary Wharf is to make the audacious statement that we can break the rules of a space which is owned and controlled by some of the most powerful land-holders working in the UK.
Space often has rules attached. The fountains in City Square opposite Leeds station do not have written rules; no where does it say that these are purely for asthetic purposes, that people, especially not grown ups, should enjoy them from afar. However it has been my great pleasure to break these socially imposed rules on a couple of occasions, by having a water fight with some friends.
The reactions of those passing by, mostly wearing suits and carrying briefcases, is perhaps the best bit (other than soaking you closest friends in public!). I find it most interesting to look at the expressions of those who’s ages are nearest to ours, but who’s lives are farthest away. The young business person, who lives a life of relative ease but for whom a water fight is unthinkable non-sense, is suddenly challenged by the freedom we, as people who don’t work for companies that require us to act with propriety and appear ‘professional’.
It is through play that we most often interfere with the Spaces around us. Its fun, but its also highly political. The rules we challenge were put there for a reason; usually money comes in somewhere. But when we see open spaces, surely the answer should not be to stick to the edges, to the safe bits, to the ones we know best, but to spread out and find new uses for the space. When power selects a space for us to occupy, there is a simple principle to moving into a new space; we are still free to choose where we will stand, and we’ll pick the best spot. And when we cycle with friends through streets dominated by cars, we should seek to reclaim them for the future, make the bike visible, and empowering ourselves.
Its Critical Mass on Friday in York. I’ll be riding. I’ll be looking out for gaps. I’ll be making sure we maximise our usage of the space around us. Just like the party in the docklands, I’ll be trying to rewrite some of the rules. Today, have a look around you at the spaces you encounter, think about the unwritten rules that apply, and maybe break a few, just to show that we can go beyond the pettiness of such things.