As the world around us descends into permanent crisis, Paul Routledge, author of Space Invaders: Radical Geographies of Protest, looks to indigenous struggles, Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ activism, to understand how we use space and place in the fight for a better world.
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Donald Trump in the White House. Growing inequality worldwide. Forty million people affected by catastrophic flooding in South Asia. The media is full of stories of the rise of authoritarian politics; economic inequality; and the effects of climate change. It can sometimes feel that the world around us is dangerous, unpredictable, and in permanent crisis.
However, beyond the mainstream media’s obsession with ratings, celebrity and spectacle, people around the world are attempting to challenge economic and social injustice and fashion alternatives to the current state of affairs.
Hence, the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States, over one million people took part in a Women’s March on Washington, in a stunning show of protest on the first full day of the Trump administration. In India during the General Strike of 2013, an estimated 100 million people protested low living standards, inequality, attacks on wages and the need for better labor conditions. In Bilbao, Spain 2017, farmers’ movements from around the world belonging to the international network La Via Campesina (the peasant’s way), met to discuss food sovereignty alternatives to corporate agriculture and it’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, and as a result climate change.
Indeed, commencing in the 1990’s and becoming particularly acute during the past decade, there has been a rising wave of social mobilisation around the world that confront and articulate alternatives to what the balaclava-wearing indigenous rebels of Chiapas, Mexico known as the Zapatistas, term ‘the storm’. By this they refer to the convergence of the global economic crisis; increased global economic inequality; the global environmental crisis (including climate change); the loss of legitimacy and faith in traditional institutions such as government and the media; and the transformation of everything into commodities.
This book draws upon my own experience participating in various forms of protest in Europe, Asia and Latin America over the past 30 years to show how the ‘storm’ is confronted in creative and inspiring ways – in homes and factories; on the streets and in corporate offices; in cities and in the countryside.
Confronted by economic injustice, inequality and austerity policies, urban ‘commons’ initiatives – including people’s clinics, worker controlled factories and solidarity kitchens – have emerged in cities from Europe to Latin America. Confronted by the failure of political representation and political systems given the increasing corporate influence on governments, international networks of farmers, workers, and consumers are fashioning new forms of solidarity enabled by social media. Confronted by destructive development brought about by road and dam building, and the fracking of gas, people have established protest encampments where they have lived, protested, and shared skills with one another, in attempts to protect their livelihoods and the environment. Confronted by the failure of governments to respond meaningfully to climate change, farmers and workers in Asia and Latin America have organised activists caravans often travelling through many countries conducting teach-ins and building solidarity networks. In Europe, activists have combined online organising and digital technologies with dramatic interventions in cities such as Paris, and in open cast mines in Germany. Confronted by attacks on the rights of indigenous people, as well as rights to racial and sexual difference, vibrant and urgent movements for justice – such as Idle No More, Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ activism – are mobilising a new generation of protestors in exciting and creative ways.
In all of its’ diversity, protest always poses political interventions in the political order that determines what is visible and what can be said and heard in political discourse and the places in which this occurs. As such, all protests are examples of what the French philosopher Jacques Rancière terms ‘dissensus’: enactments of alternatives to the current political order of things. Protests call into question the structuring principles of that order by making visible the inequalities and lack of freedoms (or wrongs) inherent in it. This is of particular importance in the current conjuncture of ‘post-truth’ politics, as Summer Brennan argues referring to the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency:
If you can colonize the minds of a population with untruths and confusion, you forcibly re-write reality. This is done with stories. It’s done with language. How we speak about the world is a reflection of how we see it.[i]
Being seen and heard through protest involves a keen understanding, and creative use of geography – whether that be through transforming landscapes, using, occupying, defending or abandoning territory or developing solidarity and communication networks. This has implications for the emergence, character, impact and outcomes of particular protests both now and into this coming century as we are confronted by political, economic and environmental challenges.
All protesters draw from and deploy a strategic geographical imagination that enables us to make sense of the world of protest and build effective campaigns. From Palestinian struggles against occupation to Nepalese citizens waging revolution, protests are generated and influenced by the material conditions and cultural practices of their places of work, livelihood and home. From the recent anti-fracking protests of Reclaim the Power in Lancashire, U.K. to landless farmers occupying land in Bangladesh, activists use and transform everyday landscapes, creating not only sites of resistance, but also spaces where alternative imaginaries and symbolic challenges can be made ‘real’. From the ‘Flash Mobs’ of anti-austerity groups such as UK Uncut to the protest ‘swarms’ against public transport price increases in Brazil, protesters use mobility in and across space as well as constant adaptation to changing contexts and conditions.
Through myriad forms of ‘culture jamming’ – from the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico to urban ‘brandalism’ in London – activists intervene in and create their own media, for not only making demands, but also creating alternative ways of thinking about particular issues. From the alterglobalisation mobilisations of the previous decade to contemporary climate justice protests, activists are becoming increasingly connected through the use of social media crafting and sustaining networks of solidarity from the local to the global. From the zap tactics of ‘kiss-ins’ in the United States to the performances of Pussy Riot in Russia, protesters are attempting to challenge everyday assumptions about the meaning and function of places and the type of emotions that are ‘appropriate’ in them.
Protesters are also targeting material or conceptual spaces – or sites of intervention -within their societies where they apply pressure in order to disrupt business or argue for change as part of the broader strategic goals of their campaigns. For example, multiple placed ‘frontline struggles’ – what Naomi Klein has termed ‘Global Blockadia’[ii] – are being waged across the planet against sites of destruction brought about through fossil fuel extraction (e.g. oil tar sands, gas fracking, and new coal mining) and the associated infrastructures (e.g. at sites of circulation such as airports, motorways, and pipelines and sites of decision such as corporate headquarters).
For example, in 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota, U.S. successfully protested against the Bakken ‘Dakota Access’ pipeline in North Dakota, U.S. – that was planned to transport 470,000 barrels of oil each day across North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois. The pipeline was considered as an environmental and cultural threat to the land and water of the Standing Rock Sioux, because an oil spill would permanently contaminate the water supply and that construction of the pipeline would destroy lands that contain archeological sites and ancestral burial grounds.[iii] As Eryn Wise, media coordinator at the Standing Rock camp, argues:
‘As indigenous people we recognise the need not only to preserve the land but also the water, because it’s ultimately the life-giver of the entire world. That’s why we call ourselves protectors, not protesters.’[iv]
The struggle also represented an example of the ongoing indigenous resistance to colonial violence that has seen the violation of treaties between the Lakota people and the U.S. government, limiting their sovereignty to federally managed reservations.
While the resistance at Standing Rock was informed by local conditions and indigenous culture it was also the product of wider sets of relations, processes and connections. For example, the pipeline is being constructed by a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners located in Dallas, Texas. Because it crosses four states, the state regulators of each state have had to grant permits for the pipeline to be constructed. Further, representatives from 300 of the 566 federally recognised indigenous peoples in the U.S., as well as non-native activists including U.S. veterans and folk from the Amazon, Peru, Australia, New Zealand and Japan have travelled to Standing Rock to struggle in solidarity with the resistance.[v]
Around the world people are attempting to transform the inequities and injustices that confront them in everyday life. They are combining protest with the the creation of alternatives. They are fashioning new infrastructures and social relationships that respond to ever-changing circumstances. Concerning the ‘storm’ that confronts us all, Subcommandante Galeano of the Zapatistas, argues that such common struggle can deepen and expand through the “the struggle to transform pain into rage, rage into rebellion, and rebellion into tomorrow”.[vi] Deploying spatial strategies across multiple sites of intervention, people are becoming space invaders.
Paul Routledge is Professor of Contentious Politics and Social Change at the School of Geography, University of Leeds, and author of Terrains of Resistance (Praeger, 1993) and Global Justice Networks (MUP, 2009).
Space Invaders: Radical Geographies of Protest is available to buy from Pluto Press.
[i] Brennan, S. 2016: ‘Notes from the Resistance: A Column on Language and Power’Retrieved from: http://lithub.com/notes-from-the-resistance-a-column-on-language-and-power/
[ii] Klein, N. 2014: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate Penguin Books.
[iii] See http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/tribe-asks-doj-intervene-escalating-dakota-access-pipeline-protests-n671541
[iv] Cited in Wise, E., Barat, F. and Cuervo, V. 2016: ‘Indigenous rights and the fight for life at Standing Rock’ ROAR Magazine Retrieved from: https://roarmag.org/essays/standing-rock-interview-eryn-wise/
[vi] Galeano, S. 2016: ‘The Crack in the Wall: First Note on Zapatista Method’ in EZLN, 2016: 177.