Rebellious New York: A Radical Guide to NYC 2

Last week, I was lucky enough to run my Rebellious New York project on the Royal Holloway Geography Department’s second year undergraduate field trip for a second year. I really enjoyed it last year, getting to explore New York’s radical side with a group of enthusiastic students, and this trip was no different. I wrote about some of the many ways to explore New York’s turbulent past and present last year, but this time I discovered some new things, as well as revisiting some old ones.

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The Statue of Liberty, donated to America by the French people to commemorate the centenary of American Independence, is one of the most iconic symbols of New York City (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I took my group on the Occupy Walking Tour with Occupy member Michael Pellagatti, as I did last year. Michael has added some information to the tour that puts the 2008 global financial meltdown that spawned the Occupy Movement in the context of the boom and bust cycle inherent to capitalism. We also had a talk at the Interference Archive, which provided an introduction to the archive and its collections. It is always useful to know why an archive you are working in was started, as it can help you to understand what sort of material might be present in the collections. The students all found something useful for their projects, and the volunteers were very helpful in pointing out potentially relevant material- a great illustration of how beneficial it can be to have the archivist on your side!

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The Rebellious New York group with Michael Pellagati, the Occupy New York tour guide (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

 

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My group getting stuck in to the collections at the Interference Archive (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The weather was much warmer than it has been on my previous trips to New York, and it was lovely to see the open spaces of the city being used and enjoyed. Union Square Park seemed to be a particularly lively space, with people dancing, drawing, performing and protesting at the south end of the park on the Wednesday evening when we were there. Whilst walking tours and archives are excellent, protest is best experienced by actually experiencing it, and in New York there is no shortage of opportunities!

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This stall was selling posters and t-shirts with a clear anti-establishment theme (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Police violence against civilians, particularly those belonging to ethnic minorities, is a controversial topic in America at the moment (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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It takes all sorts to make up a political campaign! (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I spent some time on this trip exploring the rich history of immigration that is an integral part of New York. I visited Ellis Island, which processed 12 million newly arrived immigrants between 1892 and 1924. I also went to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which has preserved 97 Orchard Street, and has restored some of the flats to resemble what they would have looked like at various points between 1863 and the 1930s. Many immigrants crammed into tenements in neighbourhoods like the Lower East Side when they first arrived in America, and the museum does a fantastic job of bringing their stories to life. Immigrant groups did not wait long to get involved in politics in New York. Some of the biggest issues for new arrivals were work related; workers faced long hours, tough conditions and low wages. American workers often saw immigrants as competition, but they eventually realised that more could be achieved if they campaigned together. In addition, more established migrant groups helped new arrivals; German radicals helped eastern Europeans set up trade unions and Yiddish language newspapers when they first arrived on the Lower East Side. Radicals were also affected by the increasingly tight laws which aimed to reduce overall immigration numbers and prevent those considered subversive or unable to provide for themselves entering America. Anarchists were banned in 1903, along with epileptics and professional beggars.

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An image from the 1913 New York City clothing workers’ strike, with placards in Italian, Yiddish, and Russian as well as English. The museum on Ellis Island deals with all aspects of migrant life, including work (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The Stonewall Riots are considered by many to be the the catalyst for the LGBT civil rights movement in America. On the 28th of June 1969 the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village. At this point homosexuality in public was illegal in New York, and businesses and establishments frequented by the city’s gay community were continually harassed by the police. This particular night was the final straw however, and a crowd gathered outside the Stonewall Inn and began to riot. The same happened the following night. On the first anniversary of the riots, the first Gay Pride parades took place in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. The original Inn closed in 1969, but a bar called Stonewall opened up in the western half of the original location (53 Christopher Street) in 1990. In 2007 the name was changed again to the Stonewall Inn, and this bar is still open today. Across the road in Christopher Park is the Gay Liberation Monument, which was constructed in 1992. Although it memorialises the gay rights movement as a whole, the location of the monument so close to the Stonewall Inn demonstrates how significant the location is considered to be.

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The Gay Liberation Monument in Christopher Park consists of 4 figures (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

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Detail of the two male figures. A plaque, which explains the context of the riots and the history of the memorial, can be seen in the background (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Christopher Park itself is small and quiet, but very close to the busy 7th Avenue, and I saw a lot of people coming in to look at memorial during the 20 minutes I was sat there (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The radical history of New York is long and diverse, and it would take far more time than I have to get to know it properly, although I would like to someday. For now, I am content with exploring the traces these turbulent events and people have left in the fabric of the city on my brief visits, not to mention helping the wonderful Royal Holloway Geography undergraduates to conduct their own research on protest in the city. If you ever find yourself in this fantastic city, why not take some time to investigate the city’s rebellious side?

Breaking the Peace: A Century of London Protest on Film

This Monday, I went to a talk at the Birkbeck Cinema called Breaking the Peace: A Century of London Protest on Film given by  Professor Ian Christie, part of a series of events exploring London on film in association with the Raphael Samuel History Centre. Over the course of an hour and a half, Professor Christie showed us footage of the Suffragettes (1910-13), the 1926 General Strike, a 1932 Hunger March, the Battle of Cable Street (1936), Anti-Vietnam War protests (1968), the disruption of the 1970 Miss World competition at the Royal Albert Hall, the 2003 Anti-Iraq War demonstration, and Occupy London (2011). I had a great afternoon watching the footage, looking out for all the things that have (and haven’t) changed about protest in London over the last one hundred years.

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A National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) rally in Trafalgar Square. This is a still from newsreel footage owned by British Pathe, and is available on YouTube (Source: British Pathe).

Apart from fashion, one of the biggest changes that stood out was the development, and democratisation, of film technology. The afternoon began with grainy, silent, black-and-white newsreel footage,  and finished with colour and sound, probably filmed by amateurs with handheld cameras. As film technology has developed, it has also got cheaper, allowing wider excess. In the 1960s the new TV production company Granada started making World in Action,  a hard-hitting news programme that presented London protesters in a more balanced light than older, more established sources of news. By the 2010s, the Occupy movement were making and editing their own films, presenting themselves exactly the way they wanted. Organisers of protests want their message to reach further than the people who witnessed the protest directly, and the more control they have over the communication media that spreads that message,  the more successful they are likely to be in getting that message out.

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A still from World in Action‘s coverage of the 1968 Anti-Vietnam War demonstration in London. The distinctive shape of the fountains makes it obvious that this is also Trafalgar Square. This video is also available on YouTube (Source: World in Action).

One thing which has not changed much is the language used by outsiders to describe protest. In almost every example there was the perception that a largely peaceful protest had been subverted by a small minority of ‘criminals’, ‘anarchists’, or ‘hawks’ (I particularly liked the Cold War terminology creeping in here). Protesters were also frequently described as ‘converging on London’, giving the impression of disgruntled Britons descending on the capital from all corners of the country. London is the political and economic centre of the country,  it is no surprise that it is chosen as the site of many national demonstrations.

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A still from the BBC’s Witness series about the disruption of the 1970 Miss World Competition in the Royal Albert Hall (Source: BBC News)

The tactics of the demonstrators themselves has also remained largely the same. The content and methods of production may have changed, but banners and placards are still an integral part of protest marches, as is costume. The protest march itself has also changed little since the women of the suffrage movement proved it could be done with dignity and respectability. Scholars sometimes talk about ‘repertoires of resistance’- the specific set of tactics available to demonstrators to make their point. These repertoires are often shared between and within communities, including on a national scale. This means that many protests utilise similar strategies. There is also a tendency to take inspiration from what came before; the anti-Vietnam demonstrators may have mimicked the successful strategies of the Suffragettes, for example.

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A still from a YouTube video about the demonstration against the Iraq war in 2003 (Source: Kino Kast).

Another constant throughout the films was London itself. Both Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square are described in the newsreels as ‘the home of free speech’, and landmarks such as Nelson’s Column act as a familiar backdrop to events. London is no stranger to protest. Due to its role as the political and economic centre of Britain, the city is full of buildings which can act as symbolic stand-ins for intangible power structures (the Houses of Parliament, the Bank of England, and foreign embassies are some examples). The fact that places like Hyde Park have become known as the home of free speech also attracts more protest groups, reinforcing the city’s reputation for protest.

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A still from a film made by Occupy London about the protests outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in 2011 (Source: Conscious Collective).

The purpose of this series of events organised by the Raphael Samuel History Centre and Professor Ian Christie was to think about how film can be used for research. There is a vast amount of film of London protest available, much of it more accessible than ever thanks to resources such as YouTube. Whilst it is important to be wary of possible biases (the early newsreels are almost entirely concerned with the preservation of law and order), film is a perfectly viable source to use for investigating historical research. It’s just a shame half of my case studies occurred before the invention of film!

Materialities of Protest: Tarpaulins and Tents at Occupy Wall St.

Laura Shipp is a Second Year Geography undergraduate at Royal Holloway. She is particularly interested in Political Geography and is currently undertaking dissertation research surrounding emotional geographies and perceptions of security in everyday circumstances. Following on from research carried out on an undergraduate fieldtrip to New York, she considers the ways that protest camps can entangle objects, change their associations and recreate their meanings.


My own photo of Zuccotti Park along the Occupy Wall Street Tour in late March.

My own photo of Zuccotti Park along the Occupy Wall Street Tour in late March.

In September 2011, Zuccotti Park, Lower Manhattan became overtaken as the home of Occupy Wall Street. A unique ephemeral environment was established which can only be described as a protest camp. From this picture, the park now has no physical marks of the camp’s existence and yet it had contained a temporary city with its own newspaper, food supply chain and Wi-Fi (Chappell, 2011).

Feigenbaum, (2014, pp.35) defines protest camps “as place-based sites of on-going protest and daily social acts of ‘re-creation’ largely describing both the situated-ness of such camps to their location but also the significance of seemingly banal process within them”. They are spaces where people coalesce and imagine a different social world, often in contention with the state (Frenzel et al., 2013). In make-shift bedrooms, kitchens and meeting places, objects have significance and become bound in new narratives. The meaning and use of objects evolve to fit exceptional environments which alters the legacy of the objects.

With an aim to put focus on some of the seemingly banal objects that became entangled with Occupy Wall Street I used two slightly abnormal methods for the study. The first was a tour of the main sites of Occupy Wall Street and an oral history from Occupy tour guide Michael Pellagatti. The second method was the Interference Archive which stores ephemera and news articles to create an animated story of social history (Interference Archive, 2015)

From what I found, the tarpaulin and the tent seemed to have an importance. Fundamentally, protest camps must negotiate the task of providing basic necessities to its occupants whilst getting across its message; this is partly done by occupying the space through thick and thin. Tarpaulins provided shelter required from the first week of the camp, as shown in the picture below.

Michael’s photograph of Occupy Wall Street encampment in its first week occupying Zuccotti Park (Source: Michael P. Pellagatti).

Michael’s photograph of Occupy Wall Street encampment in its first week occupying Zuccotti Park (Source: Michael P. Pellagatti).

The tarpaulin’s crowning moment, however, was Day 6 of the camp when a storm was forecast to hit Manhattan. After much deliberation, a human-tarp shield was erected around the equipment and the camp physically weathered the storm from under it. Michael stresses the prominence of this instance, claiming it as the “genesis of the movement”. It transformed the camp’s population from strangers with similar frustrations to a group dedicated to its cause. From this process, they were able to create both strong ties in that place as well as maintaining the resources they needed to survive as a protest (Nicholls, 2009).

My Photograph of archived Wall Street Journal article showing Occupiers of Zuccotti Park surviving the winter weather.

My Photograph of archived Wall Street Journal article showing Occupiers of Zuccotti Park surviving the winter weather.

The tarp has another significance, physically representing the struggles faced by the homeless population of New York. Often they are used to create makeshift bivouac shelters, retaining heat on city streets (Newman, 2014). They are the difference between life and death. Using those same items, the Occupiers were a visceral reminder of difficulties and people who may otherwise be ignored. What Ehrenreich (2011) argues is that not only are the two related, but Occupy Wall Street took up the cause of homelessness as its own, as a problem that is not dissociated with the greed of the 1%. As time passed tents became more prolific at the camp. The picture below shows the camp the week before its eviction.

Michael’s photograph of the Zuccotti Park encampment in Mid-November, the week before the eviction (Source: Michael P. Pellagatti).

Michael’s photograph of the Zuccotti Park encampment in Mid-November, the week before the eviction (Source: Michael P. Pellagatti).

From the outside they may have seemed like a sensible shelter for the protesters. From Michael’s perspective, however, they broke down the unity that came from living in each other’s company. The name of the park became sullied with incidents of sexual harassment and drug use (Moynihan, 2015). Without ensuring the security of its occupants a protest camp cannot provide well-being to them. These things are needed in order to create a ‘home’ and therefore sustain the camp (Frenzel et al., 2013).

Overall, the materiality of protests has many entanglements which can reconfigure their meanings. The role of the tent in dividing the camp shows how objects can become entangled within a protest camp in ways that can undermine them but also produces opportunities for objects to be unintentionally constructive, like the tarpaulin. What is so different about protest camps is their ability to politicise “the embodied practices involved in sustaining the protest camp as a home space” (Frenzel et al., 2013, pp.464). Through this process they connect the domestic to the political and give them the ability to influence each other.

Laura Shipp, Royal Holloway, University of London

Sources and Further Reading

Chappell, B. (2011) ‘Occupy Wall Street: From a blog post to a movement’, NPR, 20 October [Online]. Available at: http://www.npr.org/2011/10/20/141530025/occupy-wall-street-from-a-blog-post-to-a-movement Accessed: 19 May 2015

Ehrenreich, B. (2011) ‘Throw them out with the trash’, Tom Dispatch, 23 October. [Online] (Available at: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175457/tomgram%3A_barbara_ehrenreich,_homeless_in_america/) Accessed 17 May 2015

Feigenbaum, A. (2014) ‘The disobedient objects of protest camps’, in in Flood, C. and Grindon. G. (eds.), Disobedient Objects, London: V&A Publishing pp. 34 – 44.

Frenzel, F. Feigenbaum, A. and McCurdy, P. (2013) ‘Protest camps: an emerging field of sociological movement research’, The Sociological Review, 62, pp. 457- 474.

Interference Archive (2015) ‘Our Mission’, About, (Available at http://interferencearchive.org/our-mission/) Accessed 2 March 2015

Moynihan, C. (2015) ‘Occupy Wall Street, the tour’, The New York Times, 2 April. [Online] (Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/03/nyregion/occupy-wall-street-the-tour.html) Accessed 2 April 2015

Newman, S. M. (2014) ‘Policy and plastic tarps: Surviving winter while homeless’, Next City, 21 November [Online] (Available at: http://nextcity.org/daily/entry/homeless-winter-survival-chicago-mayors-policy) Accessed 25 May 2015

Nicholls, W. (2009) ‘Place, networks, space: theorising the geographies of social movements’, Transactions of the Institiute of British Geographers, 34(1), pp. 78-93.

Book Review: ‘Fight the Power! A Visual History of Protest Among the English Speaking Peoples’ by Sean Michael Wilson et al.

'Fight the Power!' by Wilson et al.

‘Fight the Power!’ by Wilson et al.

Wilson, Seán Michael, Benjamin Dickson, Hunt Emerson, John Spelling and Adam Pasion. Fight the Power! A Visual History of Protest Among the English-Speaking Peoples. Oxford: New Internationalist, 2013.

The title of Fight the Power! A Visual History of Protest among the English-Speaking Peoples may be a little long winded, but it does sum up the book well. Through the medium of comic strips, the book tells the story of some of the key moments in the history of protest in the English-speaking world (well, from the last 2 centuries anyway). The protests discussed are wide ranging in terms of topic and geography, taking in race, class, labour and governance issues, as well as such diverse countries as Ireland, Australia, America, and the former British Empire.

The format of the book makes it incredibly approachable and engaging, ideal for young people (although some of the images are a little graphic) or those with little previous knowledge of protest. The examples lack detail and can be one-sided, but neither of these are inherently bad things. The book is a fantastic introduction to many protests, and it does not claim to be an unbiased account.

Despite the diversity of the examples, several themes recur throughout the book. One is police brutality. The actions taken by those in authority attempting to suppress protest have frequently proved provocative, causing demonstrations to escalate into violent clashes. The Battle of Peterloo (1819) and the Battle of Toledo (1934), amongst others, are good examples of this. Violence, or the lack of it, is another theme that recurs throughout the book. Whether or not to use violence is one of the most fundamental decisions a protest movement makes, which can drastically influence the outcome of a campaign. There is no ‘right’ answer; apart from the moral debate, both violent and non-violent movements have proved successful in the past.

The lasting impression which the book leaves is one of hope. Particularly in the past few years, it can be very easy to believe that protest does not achieve anything, that  it is all too easy for those in authority to repress or ignore demonstrations and social movements. But what the examples in Fight the Power prove is that protest can force change. The Suffragettes, Rosa Parks, and the various independence movements of the British empire demonstrate that change may take time, decades even, and it may not be exactly the progress that you imagined, but it can be achieved.

Another key message of the book, which is particularly relevant to my PhD, is that past protests can provide both practical suggestions and inspiration to contemporary protest movements. As Tariq Ali writes in the Introduction, “History rarely repeats itself, but its echoes never go away” (p5). An image on the back cover of the book shows an Occupy protester holding a “We are the 99%” placard, backed by a Suffragette, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and others mentioned in the book. It is a powerful image of historical solidarity.

This book was given to me as a Christmas present (I got a lot of books this year, so brace yourself for a lot of reviews over the next few months!), and it certainly fulfills that role perfectly. It is a nice introduction to some of the most famous protests in the history of the English-speaking world, but I would recommend it even if you are already familiar with most of them as a refreshing approach to the history of protest.