“The state and city pretty much shut us down at the historic ‘public square’ at the Capitol,” said Roger Ehrlich, an Occupy Raleigh activist, “so it seemed reasonable to assemble at the modern, corporatized version – the mall.” Ehrlich and I were among six people arrested on Black Friday during an Occupy Raleigh protest at the Crabtree Valley Mall.
The Occupy tent occupations provided a public forum for democratic protest and created a space for envisioning new communities. Then, police began to crack-down on encampments, disinformation campaigns grew and public support waned. As a result, many Occupy movements have expanded tactics from long-term public occupations to short-term direct actions on private property, such as ports, banks, homes, and malls. What are the implications of this shift to the power hubs of the 1%?
First, this transition from the public to the private directly exposes the collusion between government and corporations.
As a resident of Oakland and a doctoral candidate at the University of California-Berkeley, I had survived the police brutality in the public spaces of Occupy Oakland and Occupy Cal. Yet I ended up being arrested on private property by a planned coordination between mall cops and the city police.
Actions on private property expose this complicity of the government with corporate interests, which is the crux of the Occupy movement. It is this trend of the government ceding more and more rights, control and funding to the corporate 1% at the expense of the 99% that has the movement up in arms.
One target is the U.S. Supreme court decision of Citizens United, which ruled that corporations have the same rights as individuals. Yet individuals do not have the same rights as corporations. In response to money buying power, the Occupy amendment seeks to reverse this ruling. Recently, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont introduced a constitutional amendment that would reverse this ruling, as well as prohibit campaign contributions by corporations.
But the Occupy movement, for its part, has also pushed and blurred the physical boundaries between the public and private, but in a different direction.
Another result, then, of the Occupy move from public to private spaces is that it challenges our notion of the public sphere, taking the fight directly to the 1%. Most occupations have been in public spaces, such as city or university property. Case law on the rights of assembly and free speech, therefore, can support these public protests. What of challenging our rights to free speech in private spaces?
I was videotaping the Occupy Raleigh protest at the Crabtree Valley Mall, so I asked a police officer why I was being arrested. He replied, “Ma’am, this is private property.”
The massive and sprawling food court where I was arrested is, in many ways, the contemporary town square in that it hosts many events that are open to the public. Most people no longer shop at local merchants in a quaint village but, instead, gather at big box stores or shopping malls. From cultural performances to mall walking, these meccas of corporate consumerism are used for public events. Of the six of us arrested at the mall, including Ehrlich, two were fathers of children who would be performing holiday music on the same stage where these protesters had chanted, “Human need, not corporate greed.”
But it is not just citizens who are using the mall for public uses. In 2008, the North Carolina legislature approved private spaces as voting sites. So that same year in Wake County, home of Crabtree Valley Mall, the Board of Elections used two shopping malls as voting sites because they recognized that increased voter turnout could derive from using these heavily used private spaces. Controversy ensued there, as well, as citizens were not given the same rights to leaflet and talk to citizens as they are in public voting sites spaces.
As a sociologist who studies social movements and social media, I am captivated by theories of what constitutes the “public sphere” for political discussions. Jürgen Habermas, a German scholar, described the public sphere as not so much a physical place but distinct historical periods when debate can flourish outside of those in power. So rather than the mall as simply a space for protest or the Internet as a tool for political debate, perhaps this moment has created an opportunity for a national conversation that includes the 99%, rather than the corporate voices that tend to dominate because of the power of money.
Yet the physical space of a public sphere does, indeed, matter. Other philosophers, such as Brecht, argued that counter public spheres can challenge the traditional public spheres controlled by dominant voices in the media, government, and corporations. Political movements, such as Occupy, do just that, particularly when private spaces, usually off-limits to the public, can become public megaphones. In other words, the material spaces that represent what is wrong with the current capitalist system – whether a shopping mall or a foreclosed home – also become a vehicle for protest and the public sphere itself.
Finally, the transformation of the Occupy movement onto private property has only escalated the Occupy movement, not diminished it. The West Coast Port shutdown on December 12 most symbolizes this. While there had been countless spontaneous acts of occupy solidarity before this action, this was the first city-to-city coordinated protest on private property since the inception of the Occupy movement. Being forced off public property has inspired the Occupy movement to be innovative and creative in its tactics, rather than extinguish it.
It has also expanded its base. At a home foreclosure action earlier this month in West Oakland, a largely low-income African-American community, a man across the street yelled to the crowd, “Where have you been the last 15 years?” While this statement may well be a legitimate critique of the whiteness of the movement, it can also be perceived as expansion, as the Occupy Oakland movement has spent countless hours canvassing Latino and African-American neighborhoods, working with local residents to occupy their foreclosed homes.
“Occupy Everywhere” has been one of the battle cries of the Occupy movement. The movement is not stopping at the gold-clad gates of the 1%. In the process, public actions challenge the sanctity of American private property.
As an arresting officer told one of my co-defendants, “This is private property. You have no rights.” As a result, the state and the corporation assume that simply making public comments on private property is an act of violence. All six of us were charged with the following:
"...intentionally cause a public disturbance at CRABTREE VALLEY MALL, by making utterances, intended and plainly likely to provoke immediate violent retaliation and thereby cause a breach of the peace. The acts of the defendant were directed toward CROWD IN FOOD COURT and consisted of REMARKS ABOUT THE OCCUPY RALEIGH PROTEST."