THE BLOG

Occupying Physical Space

12/02/2011 08:37 am ET | Updated Feb 01, 2012

I continue to think nearly 24/7 about the wave of movements that are challenging statist and classist power worldwide. My research in Egypt this past summer, studying the factors shaping the revolution and the ways in which technologies and networks impact these, gave me a variety of vantage points from which I have thought about how global social movements arise and spread.

It seems clear that movements starting in Tunisia (perhaps influenced by WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning's alleged leaking of documents), Egypt and North Africa have directly fueled a collectivity and struggle for democratic reform worldwide -- from Greece to Madrid, to now the grassroots Occupy movements. Each movement of course has its own cultural specificity -- local histories, citizens, infrastructures, and political environments. Yet the dizzying pace by which images and ideas travel worldwide, speak to an appropriately transnational telling of this story -- one where it is indeed plausible if not likely that 'global' is a truly appropriate trope, whether it is a global financial crisis or grassroots movement.

My current research studies how these culturally grounded movements impact and shape one another, and speaking to earlier work, what role social media technologies play. I have learned that there is nothing more important, even in a world of information flows, than truly being on the ground, learning an environment, participating and observing. I plan on returning to Egypt and North Africa over the coming months and years to continue to study Arab Spring movements. I have also recently spent two days in and around the Occupy Wall St. Liberty Square hub, speaking to occupiers about their democratic imaginations and the ways in which they influence and are influenced by other movements worldwide. I was honored to meet the charismatic Cornel West in Liberty Square, and share some initial lessons from my time in Egypt this past summer.

Right next to me in Los Angeles, is Occupy LA. I have visited the encampment several times, and last Tuesday night spent five insane hours in anticipation of an imminent police raid. I noted how non-violent protesters were toward one another, how painfully yet powerfully democratic the General Assembly was, and how receptive protesters were to my stories of Tahrir.

The Occupy movements present a space of possibilities -- if one analyzes them based on singular events or demographic snapshots, they may not impress or perhaps even worry some, but what is important and interesting about Occupy LA, much like Tahrir, is the fact that the story continues and new possibilities keep emerging. The Egyptian example shows us that the revolution is far from over. Instead, citizens continue to confront the military, demanding the release of political prisoners, the end of the junta, and the transfer of power to a civilian regime.

Last Tuesday, I personally witnessed an intense confrontation between 1,400 riot-geared police, assisted by sheriffs, overhead helicopters, barricades, and paddywagons. The police tactics confused protesters by placing one battalion in front of the City Hall lawn encampment area while others directly entered the park, destroying tents, shoving protesters out of the way, and promising arrest to those who resisted the raid.

A cat and mouse game began -- with some protesters forming human chains in the park, with others continuing to occupy surrounding areas and chant non-violent slogans to the police. The police did their best to fragment the protesters -- ordering dispersals to the group I was with. Yet the intelligent response of the protesters was to disperse together, creating a mobile occupation. One video has surfaced narrating the night for these couple hundred protesters -- matching wits with police as they moved from City Hall to Little Tokyo to the Financial District over several hours after midnight.

Where will the Occupy Movements go next? General assemblies are discussing new spaces to occupy, new tactical interventions, policy and advocacy, dates for protests, and more. What Tahrir teaches me, however, is that the game is not yet over -- a sense of complacency has not set in, and in some cases, as in Occupy Wall Street, more protesters and sympathizers have entered the picture.

The broader public seems to sympathize and care about the Occupy Movement. Recent polls confirm that the Occupy Movement has overwhelmed the Tea Party in popularity. I urge us to use our own skills and tools to support our ethical presuppositions. For me as a researcher and professor at UCLA, simply surveying protesters, the focus of much of the #OccupyResearch team, or studying demographics may be invasive and unsupportive of protesters. Instead, I ask us to think about what we are good at and what we can learn from these movements as they stand? In my case, this has involved learning from other protest movements (such as the focus of my current research in Egypt), thinking about tools and/or technologies that assist movements, considering the impact on journalism, emerging or existing political parties, studying viral social networks and much more.

We can no longer stay in our armchairs, assuming that solely studying the digital world is sufficient without putting our bodies in the physical space, or importing old guard positivism into the field without first observing, critiquing, and learning the contemporary dimensions of grassroots activism. If we care, let's go to the Occupy Movements, listen and learn.