It has been now three weeks that the occupation of Liberty Square in Wall Street New York started and after two weekends of confrontation with the New York Police Department, a small reflection on weaponized urban design seems appropriate. The massive arrests (about seven hundreds) of indignants by the NYPD on the Brooklyn Bridge this Saturday 1st October consecrated the highly controllable characteristic of Manhattan’s grid plans (which obviously includes its bridges). In fact, it was fairly easy for the Police to allow the demonstrators crowd to engage onto the Brooklyn Bridge and then stop them in the center of it in order to arrest them one by one.
The situation of Liberty Square itself is not really that much more defensible for the occupiers who is continuously surrounded by the NYPD without any form of possible retreat nor protection in case of a potential assault. This situation is almost applicable to the ensemble of Manhattan that offers an absolute control to the dominant force of an asymmetric conflict.
On the contrary, a form of urbanism that has been effectively active in the history of revolts, revolutions and wars of independence is embodied by the traditional north African city, the Medina in Tunis or more expressively the Casbah in Algiers. In fact, from 1954 to 1962, the resistance against the French colonizers nurtured within this old labyrinthine district of the Algerian capital city. The easiest witnesses to gather here to illustrate such a relationship between urban guerrilla and the Casbah’s physicality consists in two movies, Pépé le Moko by Julien Duvivier (1937 almost twenty years before the beginning of the Algerian War of Independence) and the very powerful The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo (1966, four years after the Algerian Independence and forbidden in France until 1971). The latter, indeed, shows how the resistance is facilitated by the rhizome of a multitude of narrow curvilinear streets and stairs added to an additional layer of connecting roofs in a very dense urban fabric. On the contrary, the French paratroopers in charge of the suppression, are often lost and every now and then fall into a trap by insurgents who are still in complete skill, material and human minority compared to the organized institutional army. Eventually the Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu, in charge of the operation, will manage to suppress the rebellion almost to the end (Algiers rebellion will be replaced by a provincial resistance that would eventually lead to the independence) by adapting the heavy army into a more “swarming” counter-guerrilla force.
As always when I write about Algiers Casbah, I associate this example with two other episodes in history, one older and one more recent. The first one is the transformation of Paris by Napoleon III and his Baron Haussmann to put an end to the recent revolutions (1830 and 1848) led by tactics elaborated by Auguste Blanqui who was practicing a Revolutionary Urbanism. The second example is one of counter-insurgency theorized and applied by Brigadier General Aviv Kokhavi of the Israeli Army in the 2002 siege of Nablus’ refugee camp in the West Bank. This tragic episode of the recent history saw the Israeli soldiers moving through the walls of the camp rather than walking in the exposed streets.
For more about those two examples, I recommend the reading of a more extensive article written one year and half ago and entitled Processes of smoothing and striation of space in urban warfare.
In definitive, this article does not seem so optimist for us, the current insurgents of Manhattan who are the victims of a weaponized urbanism. What this text does not say though, is that the labyrinthine characteristics of the Casbah might be able to be found back in a non physical dimension, the one of the immaterial networks of communications. The latter will absolutely not replace the need for a strong and sustainable presence of bodies on site but allow this presence to be helped, organized and heard in a way that never existed in history (one might however think of their ancestor as being the clandestine radio of the French resistance during the Second World War for example). It is a necessity that we need to invent our Casbah by whichever mean we can think of.