Much has rightly been made of the rapid growth, impact, and apparent cultural significance of the Occupy Wall Street protests that have swept the country and parts of the world since September. In addition to the attention it has brought to economic inequality and the state of the American Left, the movement has inspired a great deal of discussion (one might even call it trendy!) among the press and the public of the changing nature of contemporary protest, including the seemingly novel role of public space (POPS, "right to the city," etc.), spatial symbolism, and place-making. National media organizations have confronted these questions frequently (and I've blogged about it myself). Social scientists and urban design theorists alike seem only too willing to dub these actions the long-awaited and uniquely American rising of a sleaping giant of Western activism.
But recent discussion with friends leaves me uncertain - what is really new about these protests? And (as a way of getting at this) how far reaching is their relevance academically? It's tempting to say the spatial element is novel, but has urban protest not used such symbolism centrally in the past? How does this differ? Were the protests of the Arab Spring different? The Paris Commune, civil rights sit-ins, May '68, or the Million Man March? Does O.W.S. represent something new? More broadly speaking, does this whole phenomenon have scholarly relevance beyond its waiting observers in critical human geography and political economy? Are those historians, philosophers, economists, and social movement scholars with historical perspective as interested as trigger-happy journalists and social-geographers? Indeed - and here's a more tangible question - what are some relevant references (beyond the obvious Lefebrvian 'right to the city' stuff) to help us analyze these times with more measured perspective?
Truly interested in hearing perspectives on whether all of this is really novel, or not!