By Sam Halvorsen, University of Cambridge
You don’t have to look far in 2017 to see people taking to the streets. The election of Donald Trump led to global protests, with January’s “Women’s March” reported as the biggest day of protest in the history of the USA. In March, International Women’s Day saw marches and strikes around the world. While it is too early to say how these protests will unfold and what spatial forms they will take it is likely that they will come up against many of the challenges faced by activists in the past. Learning from the lessons of previous social movements is a useful task.
My recently published paper seeks to draw attention to and understand some of the more challenging and problematic aspects of social movements. It does so not with the intention of undermining them, but in the belief that it is important not to romanticise social movements as inherently good things and to directly confront the internal dilemmas they face.
From my research with Occupy London, part of a global wave of protests that spread across hundreds of cities worldwide in 2011 (see here for a report 5 years on), I argue that decisions that activists make about where to mobilise (e.g. in what places or at which scales) present particular dilemmas that can, at worst, lead to demobilisation. The research was based on my own active involvement and commitment to Occupy London, something I have written about elsewhere (Halvorsen, 2015) and has been explored in a previous blog post on this page.
As geographers have demonstrated for some years now (see Routledge, 1993), social movements don’t just appear ‘on the head of a pin’ (Miller and Martin, 2000) but mobilise in and across space. In this paper I aim to add to recent conversations about how and why geography matters to social movements (e.g. Nicholls et al, 2013) by focusing on the dilemmas and contradictions that arise when mobilising particular spatial strategies: decisions to prioritise spatialities such as the place of the protest camp or a global network of solidarity.
I argue that in the pursuit of particular spatial strategies activists tend to create tensions that, at times, undermine the original aims and goals of a movement. For example, decisions by Occupy London activists to prioritise the building and maintenance of a protest camp meant that less energy was available for building international alliances or solidarity campaigns, creating tensions with Occupy London’s stated aims of building a global movement. This led both to the demobilisation of some activists, concerned with the “fetishisation” of camp, and later to new spatial strategies following eviction.
In making this argument I develop a dialectical analytical framework, an approach that understands change as the result of constantly resolving contradictions, which I integrate with a spatial analysis of social movements. Specifically, I outline spatial dialectics as a means of grappling with the unfolding of contradictions both historically, over time, and geographically, across different moments of space (what Henri Lefebvre referred to as the moments of perceived, conceived and lived space).
Social movements have great potential for social change as history has taught us. Yet social movements, like any other part of society, are not free from contradictions and internal tensions and it is important to both acknowledge and make sense of why this is the case.
This is important because the work of doing activism is unevenly experienced by differently placed people. In Occupy London, for example, I demonstrate divisions of labour based around class and gender, features that are all too common in seemingly “radical” movements.
Grappling with contractions is also important, crucial in fact, for supporting and pushing social movements forward. Exposing and explaining why geography is central to the unfolding of contradictions is thus an important task.
About the author: Dr Sam Halvorsen is a Leverhulme/Newton Trust Early Career Research Fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge.
Broomfield M 2017 Women’s March against Donald Trump is the largest day of protests in US history, say political scientists The Independent Online 23 January 2017
Halvorsen S 2015 Creating space for militant research within- against-and-beyond the university: reflections from Occupy London Area 47 466–72
Halvorsen S 2017 Spatial dialectics and the geography of social movements: the case of Occupy London. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12179
Jamieson A 2016 Occupy Wall Street reunites five years later: ‘I never ended for most of us’ The Guardian Online 18 September 2016
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Routledge P 1993. Terrains of Resistance: Nonviolent social movements and the contestation of place in India Praeger, Westport CT
Topping A and Redden M 2017 ‘We are international, we are everywhere’: women unite in global strike The Guardian Online 7 March 2017