Occupy Wall Street: A reminder of how radical spatial politics have changed.

The Occupy San Francisco movement in full swing. Jessica Ellen Sewell recalls how just a century ago, women were using spaces elsewhere in the city to campaign for women’s suffrage.

Member of the School of Social Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey

As I was leading a walking tour of downtown San Francisco that highlighted women suffragists’ use of public space, my group encountered the activists of Occupy San Francisco marching down Market Street. 100 years earlier, Market Street had been central for suffragists giving speeches, selling suffrage goods, parading in the Labor Day parade, and speaking to voters in person and through ads in nickelodeons, streetcars, ferries, and on the street. Here we saw this same deeply symbolic space in the center of the city being activated once again by a growing political movement.

There is, however, a very important distinction between the public spaces suffragists used when they won the vote in California in 1911 and the public spaces used by the Occupy Wall Street movement, a distinction that speaks both to the radical critique at the center of the Occupy movement and to their violent treatment at the hands of police forces throughout the United States and beyond. As I detail in my book Women and the Everyday City, women suffragists in San Francisco made use of spaces that they had already made their own through everyday use. As shoppers, for example, they were already present in large numbers on the streets where they gave speeches and sold suffrage postcards. They did not, for the most part, use the parts of the downtown that were specifically part of the financial district, but instead stuck to space that they shared with men who worked in offices, such as Market Street, streetcars, and ferries. I believe that they chose this strategy to legitimate their political speech (by marking it as middle class and polite) in a context in which female political speech was in itself radical.

By contrast, the Occupy movement begins from the idea of occupation, which implies taking over a space that is conventionally seen as belonging to someone else. Rather than speaking only in the more traditional spaces of political speech, such as the Washington Mall and the plazas and parks in front of state capitols and city halls, the Occupy movement has focused on occupying the spaces of finance, in financial districts where street protests have historically been rare. Rather than inserting themselves into a space where political speech has been conventionally accepted, as San Francisco suffragists did when they spoke at the corner of Grant and Market, Occupy Wall Street has insisted on speaking politically in a space where public political debate has been absent, not only on the streets of the financial district, but also in the language of financial abstraction, which tends to focus on the state of the market and the necessity for profit, without allowing consideration of social and ethical consequences.

From left to right, Lillian Harris Coffin, Mrs. Theodore Pinther Jr. and Mrs. Theodore Pinther Sr. lead a march of 300 women of the California Equal Suffrage Association on August 27th, 1908, in Oakland, CA.

It is this insistence on politicizing a space that has been assumed to be apolitical, and this refusal to remain contained in the conventional spaces of political action, that makes the Occupy movement’s tactics so radical. This radical refusal to remain within free speech zones has contributed to the willingness of politicians to often violently disrupt the protests, as they understand that by challenging the nature of political action, both spatially and through leaderless consensus decision making, this movement suggests a profound challenge to business as usual. In both their insistence on interrupting what they argue are unjust practices, as well as their refusal to remain contained in the spaces of conventional political speech, they echo the sit-ins and other protests of the civil rights movement, which was also often violently put down.

In many cities, including San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago, protestors have focused on parks in the immediate vicinity of branches of the Federal Reserve Bank, engaging spatially with the connections between the banking system and government policies. Similarly, in marches protesters have linked centers of financial power and centers of political power, as in the Occupy San Francisco march, which led from the Occupy site at the foot of Market Street, at Justin Herman Plaza (opposite the Federal Reserve Bank), up Market Street to City Hall Plaza. Marches have also occupied streets such as Broadway in New York, as well as Market Street in San Francisco, that have a long history as spaces for parades, public celebrations, and public protest. In their occupation of the spaces of finance, the activists of the Occupy movement challenge the norms of the political use of space, but in their marches, and in the Occupy encampments near city halls in smaller cities, they also engage with a larger spatial history of political protest. In marching past my tour on Market Street, Occupy San Francisco showed the continuing importance of the symbolic center of the public downtown, even as the encampment from which they began questions the efficacy of keeping politics in political space.


Jessica Ellen Sewell is Member of the School of Social Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey. She is author of Women and the Everyday City: Public Space in San Francisco, 1890-1915.

Leave a Reply