BY Michael Sayeau in Features | 01 OCT 11
Featured in
Issue 142

Beyond the Barricades

The changing shape of demonstrations

BY Michael Sayeau in Features | 01 OCT 11

A protest in Boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris, 1968. Courtesy: TopFoto.

In The Invention of Paris (2002), Éric Hazan writes that the Parisian popular uprisings of the 19th century provided a socio-political map of a changing city within a changing world, reflecting ‘the industrial revolution, the new relationship between bosses and workers, the centrifugal migration of the labouring and dangerous population, the development of major works, and the “strategic embellishment” of the city’.

Hazan argues that the barricades – emblematic of both the practicalities and the romance of Parisian protest and a persistent symbol of civic unrest – were products of their time in all of itssocial, technological and political aspects. In a story that most of us are familiar with, their emergence and persistence sparked a reactionaryrevolution in urban planning and architecture, which to this day defines many of our modern cities.

But in recent months, as a wave of civic protest has washed over the world from Athens to Syria and from Spain to Egypt, a strange reversal has taken place in the practices of urban demonstrations – a reversal that suggests that nearly two centuries’ worth of protest tactics and policing strategies are undergoing a paradigm shift. In particular, recent events in London – both the student-led anti-austerity protests that began last year as well as the massive riots of August this year – index these changes spectacularly clearly.

‘Haussmannization’ – the mid-19th-century programme of urban renewal in Paris named after the prefect in charge of it, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann – was specifically aimed at making it difficult or impossible for protestors or revolutionaries to take streets via the barricade. If alleys and small streets were difficult for armies to navigate, wide avenues were seen as unblockable, as well as conducive to the rapid transfer of troops or police around Paris. Haussmannization was translated for more than 100 years into other places around the world, from modernized megacities to US university campuses in the wake of the 1960s protests.

Recent events in London seem to demonstrate that, due to various technological and ideological shifts, the days of the Haussmannized city street as a deterrent to protest are numbered. Barricades have given way to flash mobs, the targets have shifted toward the emporiums of consumerism, and the cat-and-mouse battles between the police and those who resist them take place nearly as often online as in the physical places of the city. Despite differences of means and ends between the first set of anti-austerity protestors and the more recent rioters, several strands run between the two groups, all evocative of the new tactics and rules of urban disorder.

UK Uncut, a protest group related to the student movement that aims to highlight the relationship between tax avoidance and public cuts, adapts the logic of the barricade to a new and increasingly rapidly paced situation. On a thoroughfare-cum-mall such as London’s Oxford Street, there are any number of likely retail and banking targets for their demonstrations. As with the recent riots, when the police formed a cordon around one shop, protestors would simply move on to others, generally splintering into smaller groups until critical mass formed at a new locale. It is only when members of this group get pinned into a single location, such as happened when they occupied the high-end department store Fortnum and Mason during the large demonstrations on 26 March, that they render themselves vulnerable.

In this sense, it’s only when matters solidify into a situation reminiscent of those Parisian barricades of old that events grind to a halt of lockdown and eventual arrest. But the sheer ubiquity of retail businesses in today’s London, and the fact that they seem – in both the minds of the protestors and the rioters – to be the most important points of attack and occupation, speaks to the shift away from the barricade. Rather than a preplanned central objective, the shape of both episodes of disorder demonstrates a logic of flâneurie, a wandering indifference that takes opportunities as they come rather than setting out with a definite and fixed goal.

Social networking technology has, of course, had much to do with these transformations. A group of students affiliated with the student occupation of University College London have even developed an iPhone app – Sukey – specifically designed to provide real-time information for activists about protests and the police response. On a prototype run of the app on 9 December last year, some groups were able to avoid containment and to lead police on a breathless sprint from one end of London to the other using the just-in-time information they were receiving via their phones. During the August riots, the police seemed prepared to monitor social media but were slow to catch up due to the fact that those most likely to be involved weren’t necessarily Facebook or Twitter aficionados as users of another platform: BlackBerry Messenger, which turned out to be harder for the authorities to infiltrate than other forms.

The width of streets such Oxford Street, Kingsway and the Strand aren’t the deterrents they might once have been. On the largest day of anti-austerity protest, police had difficulty mustering enough manpower to cordon protestors on Piccadilly, a wide avenue with enough points of egress to make long-term kettling (surrounding protestors and prohibiting them to leave a given area) difficult if not impossible. ‘Owning the streets’ has more to do with rapidly and unexpectedly navigating than blocking or barricading them.

Those involved in these episodes in London are reacting in a way that is at once responsive to and symptomatic of the very neoliberal reforms that inform their actions. If the heart of first world national economies – and in particular the streets of their capital cities – lies in an ever-growing service sector and the telecommunications and media corporations that make it run, it is no wonder that these spaces – both online and off – have become the battlefields of the present. The student protests were organized from spaces that looked like media war rooms, just as the riots surged under orders delivered in a form customarily used to promote music events.

While all of this suggests that the scales are tipping in favour of those not in uniform, what we have already started to see – and can certainly expect more of – is the neo-Haussmannization of our new, immaterial conduits on the Internet. Facebook and Twitter have become the new warrens of urban protest, pathways where virtual barricades can be erected, meeting points established, and last stands can be plotted and even taken. The police and government have started to take note. In the run-up to the royal wedding in April, the Facebook pages for an array of protest groups ranging from the Central London Socialist Workers Party to a group called Arts Against Cuts were deleted. And the role – and possible suspension – of BlackBerry Messenger during the August riots became a major topic of conversation for both the media and government.

It is important to remember that for all the profound changes we find in these new forms of revolt, some underlying issues remain the same. As Hazan notes, the 19th-century Parisian barricade was ‘never [...] effective as a fighting instrument’. Rather than an invention that actually worked in the holding of streets, ‘right from the start, the barricade played a role that doubled its fighting status with that of a stage set,’ one which ‘served as a call to action for the whole of Europe, as theoretical models and reasons for hope’. We will learn soon enough if the protests and riots in London and the shape that they took – as well as those at the many other hotspots around the world – come to provide their own updated models and reasons to the new movements of our century.

Michael Sayeau is a lecturer in English at University College London, UK.