“Whose Streets?”: Zones of Performative Occupations



The 2011 Occupy Movement has taught us that in seizing space, we can seize the imagination. In the name of austerity, public services and public spaces are under assault, our current political and economic moment is characterized by the privatization of the public. If enclosure is a fundamental aspect of our contemporary moment, then occupation—a reclaiming of public space—is its countermovement. The Occupy encampments became a metonym for the larger struggle over privatization and austerity, public access and public demonstrations, and even for the embattled concept of “The Public” itself. Occupation as a tactic against privatization and austerity revealed the depths to which the supposed Public was already privatized, revealing the depth to which spaces, institutions, and the very conception of the public itself had already been enclosed, had become privately operated public spaces. It demonstrated the way in which the democratic possibilities of these supposedly common resources had already been foreclosed upon.

No one expected the camps to last.1 When the first people occupied Zuccotti Park, there was no indication that this would be any different from the dozens of small radical actions and attempts to start a national movement since the 2007 financial crash (Graeber 2011). The site of the action exposed the fundamental issues at stake in the ongoing process of privatization. The Occupy encampments became a metonym for the larger struggle over privatization and austerity, public access and public demonstrations, and even for the embattled concept of “The Public” itself.

The action quickly occupied the popular imagination. Occupy Wall Street revived a dispirited American Left. After nearly a decade of organizing and marching against the Bush administration to seemingly little effect, the tactic of occupation and the spaces created in those occupations were a striking revitalization of oppositional energy. Occupation as a tactic against privatization and austerity revealed the depths to which the supposed Public was already privatized.

It demonstrated the reality of the privatization of the public sphere in the moment of economic crisis and revealed the depth to which spaces, institutions, and the very conception of the public itself had already been enclosed, had become privately operated public spaces. It also demonstrated the broader way in which the democratic possibilities of these supposedly common resources had already been foreclosed upon. This essay engages specifically with the encampments of Boston, Harvard, and Zuccotti Park. These are the Occupations with which I had the most direct experience, but these locations and encampments also embody the larger issues raised by Occupy Wall Street throughout the country. This essay draws upon my own experiences and observations and the reflections of other participants both in that moment and its aftermath that were shared with me. The issues raised in the encampments’ performative challenge to the privately operated public spaces they occupied, and the larger issues of democratic participation and private control they exposed, were found in the specifics of these three encampments. Each demonstrates the private control of public space in distinct, but related ways.

Occupy Wall Street was in part so successful, and so much more successful than the other recent strategies and tactics of radical social action, because of the strategy of long term occupation rather than the temporary occupation strategy of a march or static demonstration. It was a performative challenge to privatization, a staking claim to space through enactment. Through the peculiar blend of seemingly indefinite continuation and the obvious extreme precarity and temporariness of the camps themselves, Occupy provoked a response that gave lie to the false claims of public access and common resource. The encampments embodied an alternative response to austerity and provided a space to enact different possibilities, a space to reject the totalizing solutions of privatization and to fight against the foreclosure of the imagination.

The American Left, Post 9/11

Whose streets?

Occupy Wall Street must be understood within the recent history of radical social movements. This is the central frame for understanding its importance. Its success in capturing the popular imagination was a result of its participants’ innovations, discontinuities, and continuations of recent forms of resistance. Occupy Wall Street revived a moribund American Radical Left in a way that no other actions of the last decade has managed. The revival of an old tactic, the occupation of space, revived a larger community previously left dispirited and dejected. It dispelled the almost palpable feeling of anxiety and impotence creating, if only momentarily, the feeling that radical change is possible.

The Occupy encampments followed nearly a decade of large marches and demonstrations that, although quite massive, achieved limited success. For years, the old chant “Whose streets? Our streets!” seemed an empty declaration. From the demonstrations against the instillation of the Bush administration at the inauguration in January 2001;2 the antiglobalization demonstrations at the meetings of the G8; the mass marches in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and across the country against the invasion of Iraq in 2003; the demonstrations against the political order at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston (where “Free Speech Zone” cages where first introduced) and Republican National Convention in New York (where demonstrators arrested under the charge of “Parading without a Permit,” or held under no charges at all, were confined, in violation of civil rights, to a sweltering warehouse on a pier in August); to the Immigrant Rights marches across the country in the spring of 2006; it seemed to result in little change. Although hundreds of thousands had marched, claiming the streets again and again, it felt as if there was small chance of actual change.

By the 2007 financial collapse, the antiwar movement was largely reduced to Code Pink and American Friends Service Committee stationary pickets (“honk if you want peace”) and Food Not Bombs free food events. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on and the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay remained open even after the inauguration of President Obama. Excitement about the possibilities for profound change inspired by the new president and his administration had run into the reality of actual governance and the crushing pressure of the Great Recession (James Lieber 2009). Despite widespread discontent, many small demonstrations failed to coalesce into a nationwide mass movement. The occupation of public squares during the Arab Spring were enthusiastically received as evidence that while there might, momentarily, not be a visible American Left, people were still capable of taking to the streets in even more repressive conditions (The Editors 2011).

Any kind of massive demonstration against authoritarian power, let alone a popular uprising, seemed a distant possibility in the United States. Sensing the weakness of the American Left Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker made a bold move justified with the rhetoric of austerity. He attempted to eliminate the right to collectively bargain for most state employees in the spring of 2011. This move against the right to unionize in the heart of the American Union movement shocked many and provoked massive demonstrations.3 While a peak of approximately a hundred thousand demonstrators surrounded the capital building, smaller groups entered and occupied the building itself. While the actions were ultimately unsuccessful (Gov. Walker passed his anti-union bill and survived a recall election in the following months), the feeling of solidarity with the Arab Spring, the growing rejection of the false choice of austerity, and the importance of the tactic of occupation would temper the sting of defeat. These strategies of claiming Public space would influence the strategy of Occupation.


and our trail becomes the new map of radical change.-Judith Butler4

The encampments were not intended to last. Demonstrators gathered in the park for an impromptu assembly when Wall Street itself was denied them by police.5 They held the first of what would become the regular general assemblies as an informal discussion of economics while another group of protestors paraded around the park chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!”6 The occupation of the park was a fortuitous coincidence. In denying demonstrators access to the supposedly public space of the street and diverting them to what appeared to be a public park, authorities set the stage for occupation of Zuccotti Park, and all of the other zones of occupation, to be microcosms of the larger issues at stake. Seemingly public spaces such as downtown parks, reclaimed urban land, and even university campuses would become stages for the performative enaction of the fundamental issues at stake for Occupy Wall Street as a social movement. The ideological commitment to openness and refusal to make explicit demands did allow anyone to project their grievances and desires for a better world onto the stage of Occupy, and subsequent encampments were built around the country.

The bright bubbles of color in the startlingly empty yard, viewed through the chained gates of a bucolic campus in Cambridge, MA, gave little clue as to the hysteria and over reaction from the University's management they provoked. The flimsy summer weight tents were insufficient in the face of encroaching New England winter. Like all wealthy American private universities, Harvard cloaks itself in the rhetoric of The Public. Private universities describe themselves in terms of serving the public good, of producing the elite of public service and serving the public interest. These claims are engraved into the very fabric of the university. The Dexter gate on Mass Avenue even bears the inscription facing the public to “enter to grow in wisdom” and on its private verso facing the heart of the university “leave to better serve mankind.” It is on these grounds that its $30 billion investment fund receives tax exemption. Rather than accept this rhetoric, it is perhaps better to understand the university, and all universities with endowments in the ten figures, as an investment bank with a sideline in education.

Atypical of Occupy encampments, Occupy Harvard was a segregated Occupation. Harvard Security prevented the public from joining the demonstration. In response to the very mild threat of a few graduate students, idealistic undergraduates, and perhaps a few local homeless people sleeping overnight in thin summer weight tents at the foot of the John Harvard Statue, the University took a step unprecedented in its 375 year history. They chained closed the gates of Harvard Yard.

Even in the 2001 student occupation of Massachusetts Hall, the President's office, this step had not been taken. The yard is only briefly closed to the public during graduation and special speakers events. Locking the gates was a drastic response and is in itself revealing of the threat the administration considered an occupation to be. In the long history of dissent and radical action in Cambridge at Harvard, it has been done only once before. The yard was closed during the highpoint of 60s student rebellion in 1968, to which Occupy Harvard bore no comparison. Presumably, the vice provost in charge of irony kept physical chains from the Dexter gate, while most of the chains were relegated to the West side of the Yard in less public view, but locked closed it remained barring those attempting to “grow in wisdom” and occupy alike.

In Boston, the encampment was sited on reclaimed land. At the foot of the Boston Federal Reserve (which also houses the Harvard Endowment Fund management offices) and across from South Station, the encampment was wedged up against a ventilation stack for Interstate 93. It was less than half a mile from the location of the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where one of the “free speech” zones stood, an antidemonstration police tactic the reader may remember, a cage of chain link fence and blue tarps under the last standing pieces of the elevated highway. Only a few years earlier, those last pieces had been torn down and the Big Dig had been completed. The massive public works project submerged the interstate, and undid the division in the city cut by poor urban planning and misguided transportation policy. The project was intended to make downtown Boston whole again and return to the Public land claimed for highways. However, the land itself and public use was controlled by a private board, like many of the other Occupy sites, and not a democratic public process.

Zuccotti Park too had the appearance of a public park. In fact, as the Occupiers were soon to find out, it was not truly a public park at all but rather a privately operated public space. Cold, hard, and overshadowed by financial service skyscrapers, it has the almost visceral feeling of its history as a compromise between development and open space regulation, the begrudging calculated concession to game the bureaucratic requirements. Zuccotti is not a “park” in a bucolic sense. It is hard stone, studded with antiskateboard and antihomeless nodules. Sad trees straining for light between the financial towers are the only presence of nature. Prominently posted plaques welcome visitors and (perhaps more importantly) proclaim park rules, a rhetoric of common access shared with Manhattan's many fragments of shared space.

All three of these locations demonstrated the privatization of supposedly public space and demonstrated the constraints upon the concept of “The Public” within the early 21st century. “The Public” is welcome in these faux public spaces as long as they comport themselves within the bounds of the roles of private property. Once the people act as a public, and assert the basic freedoms necessary for a democratic society, these spaces are revealed as exclusionary. The enactment of Occupation was a performative challenge to the reality of the privatization.


We are the 99%!

Some see the rhetoric of the 99% as a return of class politics, of a larger shift away from the prior shift to race, gender, and sexuality as the central categories of analysis and political advocacy and agitation. The slogan seemed to signify what a return to the primacy of economics and class as the object of a radical social movement's critique. The highest profile objects of critique of the Occupy movement were certainly economic: the bailout of international banks’ extreme mismanagement—if not outright criminal behavior, the bankrupting of American homeowners, the ruinous cost of health and education, and the proposal of austerity measures that would further devastate the most vulnerable and precarious while handing over public funds to private profiteers who had broken the economy in the first place. However, to see the 99% as an economic slogan alone is to profoundly misread it.

Rather than a repudiation of the strategies of the New Social Movements (a collective term for many movements which evolved from the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements of the 1960s), “We are the 99%” is a profound endorsement of it. It is a statement of social movements as a collection of constellations of smaller movements, of coalition politics, and loose alliances. It is a claim of a movement that contains multitudes, implying that no matter what our internal conflicts and differences are we must work together, that only in aggregate are the 99% more powerful than the 1%. The esthetics of the moment of the Occupy movement made this abundantly clear.

No one speaks for Occupy, but everyone can. The refusal to produce “leaders” for media interviews frustrated even seemingly sympathetic media outlets.7 This was of course a deliberate choice, serving to simultaneously protect the Occupiers by avoiding providing a list for law enforcement persecution and performing the politics of the movement predicated on radical equality and horizontalism. Participation and presence at the encampments constituted membership. These fuzzy boundaries and refusal to be contained to a narrow definition of the political were, like the 99% slogan, a fundamental endorsement of the strategies of the New Social Movements and their progeny, a definition of engagement that allowed for the inclusion of even those who deliberately refuse the label of the political.

Occupy, perhaps most interestingly, marked the return to political legibility of those formations that view participation in the political system as a tacit endorsement of its legitimacy. These formations, broadly contained within the category of the postpolitical, are profoundly political in a broad sense but in their refusal to identify as such produce a peculiar lacunae of political legibility, largely invisible (and deliberately so) in their own self-created, semi-autonomous areas, gatherings, and events. Members of the Rainbow Tribes, Food Not Bombs, gutter punk travelers, and yearly pilgrims to Burning Man participated in the Occupy Encampments, their embodied politics made legible as political action.8

This refusal of the demanded performances to be politically legible, of the production of leaders and lists of demands, was important to the ideology and ethos of direct participatory democracy.9 It also had profound limitations. The refusal to adopt the tropes of traditionally legible political activity was a strength but also one of the factors that placed an upper limit on how many members Occupy could gain and what its effect on the political system could be.

It also demanded, by inference, a nearly unattainably high bar for judgment of success. As it posited nothing less than a total change in the form of politics, it presented only total, fundamental change as the criteria for success. This is a revolutionary demand that can only be satisfied by the revolution. If this is the bar for success how, then, should we assess Occupy's successes?

Fighting Foreclosure of the Imagination

I have been waiting

I have been waiting. For all of my life.

For all of my life. To occupy.

To occupy.10

Visible mass demonstrations, the people in the street, are a valuable measure of political activity. They are a particularly telling indicator of the American Radical Left because of the special place that street demonstrations have held within American Radical history. The people popularly assembled in righteous grievance have been an important tactic, and an important trope, since the American Revolution. Movements have been charted not just by their legislative victories or ability to shape policy but often by that titular verb, the moving of people from complacency to action, the movement of people into the street.

The Occupy movement made manifest a spirit of discontent that had seemed latent in the American political sphere. It mobilized people who had seemed moribund after the long years of feeling impotent against the actions carried out in their name under the Bush administration. It moved people who felt dispirited after the promised changes from business as usual failed to materialize as rapidly as they had hoped during President Obama's first term.

Marches, especially duly permitted ones, act as markers of dissent from business as usual rather than disrupters of business as usual. In seeking permits, by declaring an end moment to the occupation of the street, they serve, implicitly, to validate the authority of the government, and of governance, in abiding by the permitting process. An open-ended threat, the refusal to name an end time or end date is a profound challenge to the operation of business as usual.

Occupation is an old and simple strategy of opposition. Factory occupations, sit-down strikes like the famous Flint, MI, General Motors strike of 1936–37, disrupted production right at the assembly line using striking workers’ bodies to deprive management of both the machines of production and the product of their labor. Sit-ins of the Civil Rights era, most infamously of the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, NC, in 1960 used Black college students bodies to disrupt the point of sale, occupying the site of production in what historian Liz Cohen has termed the Consumer's Republic of Post World War segregated the United States. In what, some have called the Neoliberal moment, the Occupations found in the sites of their encampment an embodiment of the larger issues of the privatization of the public. To have the issue manifested so materially had the potential to be a revolutionary moment.

A conflict between two understandings of the revolution was contained within Occupy. First it embodied the definition of revolution as the exceptional moment, the unknowable event, embodying the eschatological sense of revolution as the disruption of the everyday. Every rebellious moment should feel like this. In the words of artist Molly Crabapple, “Any protest, when you're in it, feels like it's going to change the world” (n.d.). Everyone deserves a chance to feel like that—to experience that moment of radical alterity, of imaginary possibility, without it there is no hope for the future. You should get your heart a little broken every time a strike is suppressed, a building occupation unsuccessful, even a little rebellion is put down. If you do not sincerely believe there is a chance it will work out this time, that finally this is the beginning of something bigger, then common sense has triumphed over your optimism of spirit and belief in the possibility of a better world.

The American anarchist tradition has a strong legacy of understanding the revolutionary moment as the disruption of the everyday. But it also has a tradition of the revolutionary moment as supplanting the everyday, replacing it, the revolution as a continuing, ongoing process, as the process of the politics of everyday life. One could see both tendencies at once in the encampments. It was as the supplementation of everyday that the encampments were most effective, and affecting. They served as the enactment of a rebuke to austerity.

The free food, free shelter, and free culture exposed the inability to provide the basic provisions of life to the most precarious in the name of austerity by the state as a false choice of crisis capitalism. The performance of an alternative, the performance of radical alterity, was the greatest success. In seizing space, the movement succeeded in seizing popular imagination.

There was something hugely important in the occupation of space. In an age of digital connection, Internet-based social movements, and privileging of electronically mediated interaction, the Occupy Encampments demonstrated the vital importance of face-to-face encounter and connection. It is these moments of radical presence that give voice to the optimism of spirit necessary to feel like you could change the world. Something important happened in the enactment of occupation, the performance of a claim upon public space, the moment of answering with our voices and our bodies, the question of “whose streets?”


  1. 1

    This article was presented originally as a talk given as part of a collective presentation, “Spaces and Times of Occupation,” by the Yale Working Group on Globalization and Culture.

  2. 2

    To have been there watching smirking Republicans strutting through the District of Columbia in fur coats and cowboy hats while troop transports full of National Guard in riot gear, their tear gas and gas masks banned in prevention of “bad optics,” carrying full shields and batons instead, felt like an enemy occupation, especially in the streets around the Naval Memorial where police attacked demonstrators. The structure of feeling of that age was a feeling of living in occupied territory for some radicals. It was a dispirited and depressed affective state—the affect of the war on terror, of anxiety, paranoia, and fear.

  3. 3

    (Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle 2012) 5.

  4. 4

    (Butler 2012) 11.

  5. 5

    (Taylor, Astra and Keith Gessen 2011) 3-5.

  6. 6

    (Taylor and Gessen 2011) 5.

  7. 7

    While the TV daily news programs and 24-hour news networks expressed bafflement at this supposed failure (hostile bafflement on the conservative networks and supportive bafflement from their liberal counterparts), even the Daily Show developed an ire for the Zuccotti Occupiers, as The Baffler took to task (Almond 2012).

  8. 8

    Those who identify as postpolitical often claim the great mass of nonvoters as silent endorsement of their political position, as fellow believers and an inchoate oppositional formation. I find this argument entirely unconvincing. There is no evidence that most who do not vote but are eligible to actually form any kind of collectivity. I reject the assertion that all dropouts are political, all who don't vote are a protest against the current order. However, those who self-identify as refusing to participate are worth taking seriously on their own terms. I do acknowledge the political valance of those who expressly sate it as a political philosophy.

  9. 9

    (Butler 2012) 8.

  10. 10

    December 2nd, 2011 Occupy Broadway People's Mic.


  • Andrew Hannon is a doctoral candidate in the American Studies program at Yale University. He received his BA in History in 2003 from Drew University and his MA in American Studies from University of Massachusetts Boston in 2007. While at UMB, he was co-chair of the United Auto Workers unit representing graduate students and a member of the contract negotiating team. His interests are in the relation between cultural products, producers and consumers, and political action. His dissertation is about the intersection of the American New Left and the Counterculture.