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“Beyond the Barricades”— The City and the New Protest Movements

Kishani Widyaratna 4 October 2011

Michael Sayeau, contributor to Restless Cities, has written on the changing forms of demonstration across the world today for Frieze. Sayeau considers the various methods employed by groups such as UKUncut, the August rioters, Greek rioters and Arab Spring revolutions, and in turn sheds light on the Occupy movement. Sayeau draws inspiration for his enquiry from Eric Hazan's The Invention of Paris, a vibrant tour through the revolutionary past of the streets of Paris, a city shaped by the history of the barricades:

Hazan argues that the barricades - emblematic of both the practicalities and the romance of Parisian protest and a persistent symbol of civic unrest - were products of their time in all of its social, technological and political aspects. In a story that most of us are familiar with, their emergence and persistence sparked a reactionary revolution in urban planning and architecture, which to this day defines many of our modern cities.

But in recent months, as a wave of civic protest has washed over the world from Athens to Syria and from Spain to Egypt, a strange reversal has taken place in the practices of urban demonstrations - a reversal that suggests that nearly two centuries' worth of protest tactics and policing strategies are undergoing a paradigm shift.

Sayeau goes on to discuss 'Haussmannization' - the 19th-century programme of urban renewal in Paris named after the individual responsible for it, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann. 'Haussmannization' attempted to make it impossible for protestors to barricade the streets of Paris through the creation of wide avenues that were easy for large deployments of police and troops to navigate but near impossible to blockade. This model spread to cities and university campuses around the world but Sayeau predicts that its effectiveness at deterring protest is coming to end.

Barricades have given way to flash mobs, the targets have shifted toward the emporiums of consumerism, and the cat-and-mouse battles between the police and those who resist them take place nearly as often online as in the physical places of the city. Despite differences of means and ends between the first set of anti-austerity protestors and the more recent rioters, several strands run between the two groups, all evocative of the new tactics and rules of urban disorder.

Contemporary protests and riots are notable for their mobility and mutability. The points of attacks are the corporate retail businesses that cover today's cities so if one target is protected by the police there are numerous others to choose from with protestors splintering-off and re-grouping rapidly. In Sayeau's opinion, protesters are at their most vulnerable when penned into a location, "into a situation reminiscent of those Parisian barricades of old".

Sayeau is quick to acknowledge the role of social networking and personal technology in catalysing this evolution, such as with use of Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger system. Up to the minute updates of the movements of the authorities allowed protesters and rioters to congregate in numbers so large and disperse so rapidly they were difficult, and at times impossible, to kettle. Unfortunately, new methods of protesting in the city are most effective at their first use, as Sayeau goes on to observe:

While all of this suggests that the scales are tipping in favour of those not in uniform, what we have already started to see - and can certainly expect more of - is the neo-Haussmannization of our new, immaterial conduits on the Internet. Facebook and Twitter have become the new warrens of urban protest, pathways where virtual barricades can be erected, meeting points established, and last stands can be plotted and even taken. The police and government have started to take note.

Sayeau concludes by meditating on the underlying connections between the Parisian barricades of the 19th century and today's protests. His thoughts here are particularly insightful on the direct action of the Occupy movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, which buck the trend for the mobile protest.

 It is important to remember that for all the profound changes we find in these new forms of revolt, some underlying issues remain the same. As Hazan notes, the 19th-century Parisian barricade was 'never [...] effective as a fighting instrument'. Rather than an invention that actually worked in the holding of streets, 'right from the start, the barricade played a role that doubled its fighting status with that of a stage set,' one which 'served as a call to action for the whole of Europe, as theoretical models and reasons for hope'. We will learn soon enough if the protests and riots in London and the shape that they took - as well as those at the many other hotspots around the world - come to provide their own updated models and reasons to the new movements of our century.

Visit Frieze to read the article in full.

Filed under: articles, occupy