The square-movement of 2011 erupted as a protest and resistance to existing forms of governance globally. It gathered crowds from different backgrounds in a heterogeneous manner and formed a shared platform of expression. Through our social media research, occasional and more structured talks with demonstrators from different locations, combined with our own experience of the Greek squares, we observed a unique phenomenon where people from different social and cultural backgrounds, with different political demands, had a common aim: to improve their quality of life and reclaim their right to public space. We identified three consecutive common practices between the various and simultaneous demonstrations: firstly, long-term occupation of central open public and semi-public spaces; secondly, demands for universal changes, such as addressing the social and economic inequality; thirdly, use of horizontal organizational structures, such as the (tactical base) assemblies with a clear need for collectivity. We focused on the solidarity-based practices, using the term of precarity as a social term, as explained in the work of Judith Butler, as well as on actions of collective resistance that unveil some new aspects of the term space of appearance, claimed by Hannah Arendt.
The condition of precarity and the space of appearance
The definition of precarity as provided by Butler1 prevails in our entire existence, whether we are perceived as entities or as social subjects. People are facing economic insecurity, injury, and violence due to ‘social status’ labelling such as ‘poor’, ‘marginalized’, and ‘disenfranchised’ members of society. Social value is granted to certain bodies and lives, and some are protected, whereas others are not. Further, she engages in the connection between survival and the policies which are applied by the political regimes as the forms of biopolitics that they promote, thus “rendering populations differentially precarious and disposable” 2. As she described in a public talk 3 organised by the “Wall Exchange” community program: “precarious defines our existence as political beings. Our survival depends upon political arrangements and politics especially as it becomes biopolitics and the managing of population is concerned with the question of whose lives will be preserved, protected and valued, and eventually mourned or regarded in advance as potentially mournable, and whose lives will be considered disposable and ungrievable.”
When Hannah Arendt4 talks about the polis, it is made clear that she is not talking about space as an entity. As she argues: “The polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be. “Wherever you go, you will be a polis”: these famous words became not merely the watchword of Greek colonization, they expressed the conviction that action and speech create a space between the participants which can find its proper location almost any time and anywhere.” Polis, or the space of appearance, as Arendt explains5 “predates and precedes all formal constitution of the public realm and the various forms of government, that is, the various forms in which the public realm can be organized.”
According to David Harvey6, the polis is essentially the common space developed by the protesters of the square-movement. They transformed public spaces into the “urban commons as people assembled there to express their political views and make demands”7. Stavros Stavrides8 describes this space as non-existent, the space that derives from “practices of collective improvisation and collective inventiveness” in which people not only express their anger and needs but also develop forms of life in common”. This space is developed and identified collectively by members of a community and is open to use for everyone as long as each member accepts the terms of the community and participates in its actions. As he claims, “the community is developed through commoning, through acts and forms of organization oriented toward the production of the common”9.
By collecting heterogeneous material of actions and practices born within the framework of the square-movement, and by trying to understand the way of planning and the functioning of these communities, we focused on: the areas, in which the contemporary citizen feels unprotected and exposed by forms of governance; the new relationships demonstrators developed in interactions with those around and with the public space itself; and how these relationships are revealed through examples of actions, in the form of collective resistance.
Precarity and solidarity-based practices
In the beginning, we selected those practices of the participants which focused on the organization of a solidarity-based community. From that selection, we identified the following focal points; shared welfare, equality assurance, claiming space in the public space, protection of our physical integrity, and providing alternative information. Our suggestion is to look at these areas, together with the condition of precarity, as the latter contains both the survival and quality of life.
When it comes to the social welfare state, we include all the following basic needs of the individual within the society, that is: the right to housing, food, health care, and education. In contemporary society, access to these social benefits is not provided for all, which, in its turn, makes a large part of the population deprived of one or more of their basic needs. The protesters of the square-movement did not simply raise issues of social well-being and survival but promoted them as “major issues of politics”10 and as a prerequisite for creating a common space. When the protest overcomes the political demands, and at the same time it concerns basic issues of survival, it consequently creates a self-managed community.
The protesters created their own habitation structures using domestic or urban equipment, reinforcing their physical presence, and therefore claimed and consolidated their territory. At the same time, they gathered and offered their personal belongings for common use. These included not only food and clothes but also books and services. One of the supportive practices was the provision of first aid during the conflicts with the police; in many cases, shopkeepers provided their properties as shelters. Most of these solidarity-based practices have been based on a bottom-up cooperation process to reshape everyday life, and the impact of these shared experiences later emerged in many new formations of co-partnerships and self-organized initiatives.
Contemporary social life – characterized by individualism and alienation – is strongly dominated by the fact that the citizens are absorbed in their work to survive and secure an identity compatible with the status quo. The Occupy movement tried to promote the value of equality and freedom by targeting racism and xenophobia, which are becoming increasingly present in contemporary societies where citizens are faced with an unstable socio-economic situation. To come into existence, freedom has as its basic prerequisite, the participation of many people who engage in an intersubjective form of action. In each case of square occupation, people gathered together in the form of a general assembly to negotiate their shared agenda. It gave the opportunity to everyone to “stand up and speak for themselves”11 and generally, as Rancière argues12 in reference to a similar case, “to restore the social bond (…) and emphasize the sense of taking part in a common world”.
In the general assembly at Zuccotti Park, the protesters formed a practice called ‘the human microphone’. Voice boosters were banned by the authorities, so each of the participants, while acting together as a collective whole, took the role of transmitting the words of each speaker. They repeated consecutively small phrases until the speech reached the most distant participants. In addition, the listeners used a developed gesture system to express their feelings. This collective action shows an experiential relationship between protesters, through the arrangement of bodies, the repetitive speech, and the use of gestures, revealing all dimensions of a corporeal aspect of the occupation movement.
Judith Butler describes13 the condition of freedom through the notion of equality in relations between the people. As she claims14: “Freedom does not come from me or from you; it can and does happen as a relation between us or, indeed, among us. So this is not a matter of finding the human dignity within each person, but rather of understanding the human as a relational and social being, one whose action depends upon equality and articulates the principle of equality.”
Defensive Provisions for the Public Space
The lack of visibility in the public space leads the citizens to seek their own ground, which will give them a sense of collective ownership. As a point of centrality in a city, the square played the part of a base for collective resistance, largely cut from state control. The protesters took defensive measures, preventing the police from entering the square while at the same time allowing free access to the citizens. In order to protect their area, protesters developed tactics to build barricades. A range of barricades was created in a variety of ways and by using different structural components that were displaced from their ordinary use. Space was used in a different way than its original purpose. New borders, which were outlined for the defence of the area, were expendable and moveable, thus presenting new dimensions in the utilization of space. As Harvey speculates around collective rights, in the first chapter of Rebel Cities, titled “The Right to the City”, he writes “the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of life we desire, what aesthetic values we hold.”15 He continues that the right to the city is: “a collective rather than an individual right, since reinventing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.” On the same argument, Jane Jacobs16 once nicely argued that “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
Defensive Provisions for the Human Body
In order to control citizens’ behaviour and maintain public order by governments, the police mechanism is activated. The police, according to Butler17, apply legitimate and justified violence to retain control, while violence that comes from demonstrators is considered illegitimate and unjustified. When we appear in the public space as part of a protest, when we are vulnerable to the police and unarmed, we are exposed to all kinds of attacks. We are politically exposed. As she observes: “To rethink the space of appearance in order to understand the power and effect of public demonstrations for our time, we will need to understand the bodily dimensions of action, what the body requires, and what the body can do, especially when we must think about bodies together, what holds them there, their conditions of persistence and of power.”18
The feeling of precarity overwhelms us, but at the same time, it is also the reason for our taking over the public space. Protesters had developed ways of preserving their physical integrity to resist violent blows and made sure to spread information about tactical defences through the internet, handmade manuals, and posters. There was a sense of general protection concerning others, strangers, who would also be there for you as soon as they could be.
With the first obvious manifestation of the square-movement, the mass media concealed the earliest demonstrations by presenting misleading news. People who were willing to participate turned towards social media to be informed. When the movement became known internationally, mass media urged protesters to leave the occupied squares in order to protect their physical safety. During the cohabitation of the squares, the urban landscape was filled with messages, posted signs, slogans, which identified the situation and called for participation. Disappointment surrounding the government’s measures and the clear need for political expression led to the formation of symbolic spaces. These spaces were used as reference points hosting a multitude of beliefs. The victims of the conflicts were mentioned by the media only as a part of statistics, whereas the demonstrators highlighted the political aspect of these deaths and provided information about the victims by pointing out their value and contribution to the movement’s aims. Rancière’s Dissensus19 cites a similar example of protest against statist incorporation, which took place in East Germany with the crowd shouting together “We are the people”. Counter-narrative forms of expression of personal and collective stories, beliefs, or even dreams became obvious literal signs in the public space, constructing a common urban polyphony.
Power and collective resistance practices
According to Judith Butler20 when the bodies gather together to express their indignation, they practice the right to appear, to exercise freedom, they demand a viable life. These values require specific practices but also a more fundamental restructuring of the socio-economic and political order. Individuals, when they gather in the streets, understand their status as shared. Through their interaction, they demand liberation from precariousness, they claim their rights. “The right comes into being when it is exercised, and exercised by those who act in concert, in alliance.”21 The alliance of bodies created by the protesters challenged and rearranged “the existing forms of political legitimacy”22 by reconstructing and reforming the public space through a multitude of practices, claiming it as a space of political action. This reframing of the public space allows for the collective exercise of power.
Then, there is the factor of ‘potential’ in the concept of power that “cannot be stored up and kept in reserve for emergencies, like the instruments of violence, but exists only in its actualization.”23 It is not meant as the property of one, as we could say about the natural power a person develops. As Arendt explains, “power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse”24. As she contributes more to the notion of power against the general perception of power as a violent superior force, she claims: “Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities<." Judith Butler25 observes and emphasizes those forms of collective actions of resistance, with regard to the importance of their close relationship with violence. As she elaborates further in her public talk in Vancouver, “resisting a violent attack, does take some force”26, a violent resistance, as the attitude of non-violence by protesters is not meant as passive. The fine line lies in the careful cultivation of violent resistance, which will refuse to reproduce the aggression it opposes.
There is an inextricable relationship between social action and the physical space. The emergence of the social actions redefines the physical space and through their representation “contributes to the creation of its public character”. As Susana Torre27 claims in her analysis of mothers in Piazza Del Mayo, the “visual power” of these actions emphasizes the importance of “access and appearance in the public space”.
The following forms of collective action are perceived and analysed as forms of obstruction and resistance networks, as well as supporting structures of equality for a new socio-political reality through the alliance of bodies:
• Human protection chains (as a wall)
In Cairo at the time of Muslim prayer (9 Feb 2011), those who were praying were exposed to an imminent attack from the police forces. A crowd of Christians and atheists held hands and formed a human chain around the perimeter of the prayer point. This collective action linked the participants not only to the literal nature of their physical existence but also established a new space perceived as common and shared.
The human chain, a historically durable tactic used by protesters, is formed as a series of interconnected individuals. Gripping hands and arms also reflects political solidarity, according to Gustave Le Bon: “Under certain given circumstances, and only under those circumstances, an agglomeration of men presents new characteristics very different from those of the individuals composing it. The sentiments and ideas of all the persons in the gathering take one and the same direction, and their conscious personality vanishes. A collective mind is formed doubtless transitory, but presenting very clearly defined characteristics”28.
Human chains in the square movement were also present in Taksim Square, Turkey. There, the protest’s suppressors used water cannons against the demonstrators to regain Gezi Park. Protesters held hands, thus forming a human barrier and preventing their dispersal. At the same time, a part of the protesters formed a human chain around the body of the demonstration to protect it from the police and to avoid breaking the alliance of the bodies. All these actions re-claim space from the control of the state, as the traffic and the movement within the space are now defined by the human chain.
• Coordination of collective actions
On one of the occupation days at Zuccotti Park (15 Nov 2011), Michael Bloomberg -the park’s owner and mayor of New York- announced the imminent evacuation of the area to the demonstrators, due to the need for hygiene. Then, rapidly, a call for cleaning materials was widely circulated on the Internet, and an Instant Action Team was formed on the square. A crowd of people invaded the square and began to wipe and clean the space. Through the use of a human microphone, there was continuous communication. While some protesters were cleaning the area, others formed human chains to protect the ones cleaning from the police. Their action established the public space as the responsibility of its user and the first-participants through this action converted into later members of the community of the occupied Park. The cleaning of the square was a gesture of appropriation, collective presence, and mutual care.
The bodies, with their coordinated and regulated action, had set up a motion system, divided into three parts, to complete the action. It was a collective initiative that did not lie in the instinctive movement of the individual, but in the synergy. The coordinated cleaning action of the bodies, the constant communication between them through the human microphone, and their protective resistance towards the public space against the power of the state demonstrate the human alliance as Butler defined it, “an alliance with the performative power to lay claim to the public in a way that is not yet codified into law (…) Such an action reconfigures what will be public, and what will be the space of politics” 29.
• Human streams of materials (fortification)
The announcement of the police’s withdrawal for a few days in Taksim, Istanbul (01 June 2013) created an immediate reaction of the protesters. A crowd gathered and organized itself to collect stones from the pavements, while others formed body chains to transport them to the point where another group was placing them as a wall, thereby cutting off the traffic flow of police vehicles. Hera Büyüktaşçıyan30, speaking of her experience in those days, refers to the heritage of this urban landscape remodelling: “After gaining its new form, one could easily see the various gaps on the pavement, which became the obvious evidence of the resistance phase, just like many other elements of public spaces have been turned into gigantic sculptures giving the feeling of an open air museum of the events around the resistance movement. The transformation of the public sphere became the remembrance of a regained freedom of mind and space.” Human chains passing objects achieved a large-scale project, which would be impossible to realise by one individual. Butler calls us to reflect on how the plethora of bodies “reconfigure the materiality of public space, and produce, or reproduce, the public character of that material environment”31.
• Protesting “Duran Adam”
During the Taksim Square protests in Istanbul (17 June 2013), a man stood silent and immobile across the Ataturk Cultural Centre for more than five hours. This action attracted the attention, and a crowd gathered around him imitating his stationary stance, flooding the square, and blocking the traffic. Arrests were made, and the vacant positions of the arrested were replenished by other protesters. This action invoked the right to public space and resistance through the mere presence of a body. In a violent attack, the virtuous power of the stationary attitude overthrows the prevailing perception of how a political claim is made.
The emphasis is on the power of individual action, and the courage it contains in the intention of acting and speaking publicly. Thus, an individual abandons, as Arendt says, his private hiding, revealing the identity and exposing himself. The “Duran Adam” way of protesting was the occasion for collective action through imitation. All participants stayed still, in the same spot for a long time and this action contributed to the creation of an unusual urban landscape. The multitude of immobile bodies ordered anarchically produced traffic congestion. It highlighted the space of appearance, a public space claimed and reframed by the people. As Henri Lefebvre describes it, “each living body is space and has its space: it produces itself in space and it also produces that space”32.
At first, we discerned five focal points in which contemporary citizens feel precarious, through the various solidarity practices emerging across a wide range of social groups. The protesters, focusing on collective catering for their welfare, against the market economy, attempted to create self-governed communities of solidarity, thus striving against the states’ bad governance. The common practices chosen by the protesters, such as general assemblies, emphasised the provision of equal access for everyone, without any exclusions, thus making the need of preserving diversity and being critical to homogeneity clear. Defence devices in space and body and defence provisions are linked to the concept of activating public space, claiming the profound notion of the “public” in the city. The varied anti-propaganda practices of the movement reveal the urge for the counter-narratives to appear and also the importance of preserving collective memory, which is often altered or exorcised. Through the example of occupied squares movement new spatial or physical actions have been proposed to us, to imagine something different, in order to come to conflict and to alternate the existing structures.
Secondly, in the field of new relationships that participants developed with space and with those around, we chose and paid attention to both common tactics and spontaneous practices. These tactics and practices were devised and shaped by the participants themselves, promoting collective and political integrity. They had an element of fluidity, adapting to specific needs each time, most of whose origins were difficult to determine. We considered this multitude of actions as an archive of ways of defending the public sphere, building an accumulated knowledge for future civic claims. By focusing on some forms of collective action, initiated by the occupied squares movement, we perceived that there sprang a creation of new and alternative relationships and collective senses. These relationships were the pillars of power that preserved the continuously potential space of the public appearance.
Thirdly, we examined various examples of demonstrations for the understanding of these new relationships, in the context of power claimed by Arendt, and collective resistance. We also wanted to contribute further to the ways in which the alliance of bodies is exercised spatially, physically, and spontaneously. Having examined the formation of human chains, for the purpose of protection, we have ascertained that the crowd uses collective forms of defence as a collective instinct. The fact that coordination of actions was identified, has indicated that collective modes of organization are attainable. The examples of the human chains formed to facilitate the builds of barricades and the flow of materials for cleaning or for other community actions indicate the active role played by each participant in the shaping of the city as a common space. Through the structure of immobile protest, a “silent” resistance through appearance was observed, which succeeded in being an individual action, able to be multiplied by anyone.
The issues developed in the occupied squares movement targeting the social and economic injustice remain timely, if not even more augmented in contemporary society. We think it is essential to be inspired by ‘yesterday’s movements’ as a spark for the ones that will follow. In the occupied squares movement, all these forms of action were partly spontaneous, but their ultimate goal was to produce a common ground, a shared space. We understand these practices as parts of a fluid community that is constantly under formation and we conclude that these actions generate a potential new public space. The occupied squares movement has posed certain conditional possibilities, creating circumstances for the formation of a transient public sphere. It has laid the foundations for another reality which, although formed and disappearing in a short period of time, undeniably existed. In today’s insecure conditions, we should re-visit it.
1. Butler, J. (2011, Sept). Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street. European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, 9, p. 1-11. Available at: http://eipcp.net/transversal/1011 [Accessed 27 Apr. 2020].
2. Ibid, p. 7
3. Butler, J. (2012, Dec. 17). Judith Butler: “A Politics of the Street” | Spring 2012 Wall Exchange [Online YouTube Video], [57:00]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-bPr7t4tgA [Accessed 27 Apr. 2020].
4. Arendt, H. (1958). The Human Condition. 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p. 198.
5. Ibid, p. 199.
6. Harvey, D. (2012). Rebel Cities: from the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London: Verso.
7. Ibid, p. 173.
8. Stavrides, S. (2012, July 01). Squares in Movement. South Atlantic Quarterly, 111(3), p. 593.
9. Ibid, p. 588.
10. Butler, J. (2011, Sept). Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street, p. 9.
11. Ranciere, J. (2010). DISSENSUS On Politics and Aesthetics. New York: Continuum, p. 6.
12. Ibid, p. 19.
13. Butler, J. (2011, Sept). Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street.
14. Ibid, p. 6.
15. >Harvey, D. (2012). Rebel Cities: from the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London: Verso, p. 4.
16. Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: VINTAGE BOOKS-A Division of Random House, p. 238.
17. Butler, J. (2009). Frames of War. When life is Grievable? London: Verso, p. 158.
18. Butler, J. (2011, Sept). Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street, p. 2.
19. Ranciere, J. (2010). DISSENSUS On Politics and Aesthetics, p. 5-6.
20. Butler, J. (2012, Dec. 17). Judith Butler: “A Politics of the Street” | Spring 2012 Wall Exchange.
21. Butler, J. (2011, Sept). Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street, p. 4.
22, Ibid, p. 5.
23. Arendt, H. (1958). The Human Condition, p. 200.
25. Butler, J. (2011, Sept). Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street.
26. Butler, J. (2012, Dec. 17). Judith Butler: “A Politics of the Street” | Spring 2012 Wall Exchange, [1:05:25].
27. Torre, S. (1996). Claiming the Public Space: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. In: J. Rendell, B. Penner and l. Borden, ed., Gender Space Architecture: An interdisciplinary introduction, 1st ed. London and New York: Routledge. pp. 140–145.
28. Le Bon, G. (1895). The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Dover Publications, p. 1-2. Available at: : https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/125518/1414_LeBon.pdf [Accessed 27 Apr. 2020].
29. Butler, J. (2011, Sept). Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street, p. 2.
30. Senova, B. (2013, July 29). Speaking as Witnessing: Hera Büyüktaşçıyan in conversation with Basak Senova. Ibraaz. [online], p. 5. Available at: https://www.ibraaz.org/interviews/87 [Accessed 28 Apr. 2020].
31. Butler, J. (2011, Sept). Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street, p. 1.
32. Lefebvre, H. (1991). The production of space. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 170.
Our collaborative research began back in 2013, in the framework of our undergraduate research thesis for the Architecture School of the University of Patras, under the supervision of Prof Panos Kouros. In 2018 we reviewed our body of work and presented it to the International UnConference “Urban Struggles in Mediterranean Cities: The Right to the City and the Common Space” (Athens, May 31th till June 3rd, 2018, School of Architecture, NTUA). The current edition has been re-examined throughout these difficult months and has been enhanced thanks to the editorial comments of the Urban Transcripts Journal. All these years, we have received great support for editing our manuscripts and have discussed our points with our loved ones. We thank them all!
Phaedra Kotsifaki-Sarpaki lives between Berlin and Crete. She graduated from the Architecture School at the University of Patras and currently works as an architect in planning and construction.
Kallia Fysaraki lives in Athens. She graduated from the Architecture School at the University of Patras and holds an MSc in “Research in Architecture: Architectural Design – Space – Culture” from the NTUA. She is a PhD candidate in the School of Architecture, NTUA, Athens.