Space & Activism: Introduction



The space framed by the various scales of the built environment is often conceived according to logics of control of bodies. What happened when these bodies subvert these logics and make a political asset out of space instead? This is what we examine throughout this issue.

Welcome to the 21st issue of The Funambulist. Much writing from the 20 first issues shared the particularity of describing, sometimes in great detail, the cogs of systems to which we oppose. This present one inaugurates a series of issues (at least four, perhaps more) that, instead, will insist on various forms of strategies deployed by the political struggles with which we stand in solidarity. We understand how this editorial approach is somehow more “risky” as it forces us to accept the imperfection of the political movements we describe. Yet, in the context of a magazine that seeks to be useful to the struggles we support, this approach appears to us as more “productive.”

We hope that it will be apparent for you too. We begin with a fundamental component of The Funambulist’s editorial line: space. We usually describe at lengths how space is designed and built in order to control the location, behaviors and relationships of bodies with each other. But in the spirit described above, we would like to propose an issue fully dedicated to the way these logics of control are subverted by insurrectional movements and activists in order to make the space of the struggle an asset rather than a constraint.

Allow me to start with a personal account of such a moment, despite (here again) the clear imperfections of the political movement it involves: Occupy Wall Street. Being part of this movement myself in 2011, I could not help but immediately see how the space of Manhattan was anything but favorable to an urban insurrection. After the mass arrests of activists (about 700) on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1, 2011, I wrote a short and perhaps juvenile comparison of the easily controllable New York grid and its corridor bridges, in relation to the Algiers’ labyrinthine and multi-level casbah, an absolute symbol of urban decolonial struggles — the juvenile dimension of this comparison mostly lies in the impossible comparison between the predominantly-white anti-capitalist movement that Occupy incarnated and the historical Algerian liberation struggle. I had however ended the article with this somehow naive but perhaps provocative sentence: “It is a necessity that we need to invent our Casbah by whichever means we can think of” (The Funambulist, October 5, 2011).

During the month that followed this article, all marches of Occupy Wall Street were thoroughly controlled by the New York Police Department (NYPD): we could not even march anywhere other than on the sidewalk! Our destinations were known by the authorities and the the path was controlled by police officers, whose equipment and deployment, we should note, despite being significant, was much less heavy and martial back then, than it was a few years later for the various actions of the Black Lives Matter movement. After our eviction from the now-famous, privately-owned public space of Zuccotti Park, activists attempted to occupy a vacant lot in Tribeca (Lower Manhattan) on December 18, 2011. Many were arrested and the rest of us (a few hundred people) started yet another march, reenergized upon hearing that our destination just was a few blocks north. Arriving in the vicinity of this destination, we were met with numerous police officers. What they did not know (and nor did most of us) was that this destination was just a decoy. Those of us who organized the march suddenly shouted: “Run!” So we did! We ran, turned at the next corner, ran again, turned again, and so on for several minutes before the goal was finally achieved: the police were completely disorganized and we were suddenly alone, free from control, marching in the middle of 7th Avenue for about 30 blocks, encountering many cars honking in solidarity. Yet it was not the nature of the city space that constituted a labyrinth difficult to control, but the acceleration of the spatial experience that had created one. Of course, the outcome was not in itself a strategic breakthrough, as we had merely marched in the middle of one of New York’s busiest avenues, and the fundamentally unequal nature of the action itself — marching being already an ableist practice, running is surely even more — is a problematic one. Yet, it was an eye-opening event for me, as someone who had perhaps thought about space too much as a static dimension, and not enough of the dynamic practices by people who are working to subvert and resist such structures. Indeed here lied the risk of reinforcing political regimes we seek to dismantle when we mostly focus our analyses on the way they operate, rather than on the actions that have undertaken to challenge them.

The 2010 student occupations of strategic spaces in the United Kingdom (Charlotte Grace & Charlie Clemoes) involve similar strategies (and perhaps similar internal challenges) to those used by Occupy Wall Street. Some other struggles described throughout the pages of this issue, whether in Kashmir (Mohamad Junaid), in Chiapas (Juan López Intzín) or in Kanaky-New-Caledonia (Anthony Tutugoro), however involve a much higher degree of risk taken by activists facing colonial military or police forces. Similarly, the Palestinians of Gaza who take part in the Great March of Return initiated on March 30, 2018 for multiple successive Fridays, move to reclaim the colonized land of Palestine by walking towards the militarized wall that separates them from the South of Israel and the rest of historical Palestine and sometimes setting up camps in the “forbidden zone.” 168 people who were part of the March have been killed by Israeli military snipers and over 17,000 were injured (many lost at least one limb from fracturation bullets); a massacre referred to as “clashes” by the Western mainstream press. In a situation where apartheid structures are established on controlling and preventing the movement of Palestinians — particularly in Gaza through the offsetting of the militarized wall into a 100-meter-wide “no-go zone”, a 300-meter-wide “restricted access zone” and a 1-kilometer-wide “risk zone”, as well as a 6-nautical-mile enforcement zone on the side of the Mediterranean Sea — one can see how these several successive marches that enact the Return of Palestinians to the land from which they or their families were forcefully dispossessed from in 1948, represent a poignant refusal to acknowledge the colonial order, despite the very real life and death consequences in their refusing.

Other articles of this issue describe spatial organizing and appropriation in slower yet potent political strategies — these are corollary examples to the introductory Manhattan story based on high speed. Whether planning the liberation of colonized Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde from the newly independent Republic of Guinea (Sónia Vaz Borges), preventing the construction of the State of California’s 24th megaprison (Ruth Wilson Gilmore), or organizing the fight for the right to dignified housing in the French banlieues (Mogniss Abdallah), these “slower” activist transformations of space also construct an insurgent geography against the dominant order. May we be continuously inspired by these historical and contemporary endeavors, political victories, and learnings from their shortcomings. I wish you an excellent read. ■