The privatisation of public space is harming our ability to protest

Alex Hern argues that the creeping privatisation of areas which used to be private is leading to more and more difficulties in protesting peacefully and legally.

One of the most common responses to Occupy London is to question why exactly they are camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral. After all, aside from its location, the Cathedral has little to do with the issues that the protesters are campaigning against. Shouldn’t they be somewhere else?

The answer of course is that they should; they wanted to; and would be if they could. The original plan was to occupy, not St Paul’s, but the London Stock Exchange based next door in Paternoster Square. Although this would hardly have resulted in fewer complaints (as we have seen, some people will find any excuse to condemn a protest) it may have made it easier for Occupy London to gain support in those crucial first few days.

So why didn’t they? Because Paternoster Square, despite appearances, is not a public square. It is a private development that is owned by the Mitsubishi Estate Company and is open to the public 24 hours a day, which just so happens to be on the site of a previous public square. When the protesters came along Mitsubishi Estate Company, as is their right, decided to close the square indefinitely, and obtained a high-court injunction preventing anyone from entering.

Occupy London then found themselves with nowhere to Occupy. Since St Paul’s Churchyard is one of the biggest truly public spaces left in the City, it’s as good a place as any to set up camp.

Their options are just as curtailed further afield, as well. Canary Wharf, which is almost as big a centre for finance as the City is, has a lovely big park in the centre of it. Unfortunately, that park, as with 99 per cent of the land in Canary Wharf, is owned by the Canary Wharf Group. Again, access is conditional; the company may choose to allow a protest, or they may not.

Boris Johnson – and Ken Livingstone before him – has been instrumental in making London the home of international finance. Want to camp outside City Hall? Unfortunately, More London Estates is unlikely to allow that.

Occupy a major shopping district, so as to draw attention to the problems of consumerism!? It had better not be Carnaby Street, Westfield Stratford or Westfield White City, although if you’re lucky and the police permit, you may be able to march down Oxford Street or Regent Street.

All of these areas were once public land and therefore the public were free (within reason) to protest on them. A private company on private land can deny any person access at any time for almost any reason. That is fine if that private land is, for example, a shop or an office block. But when it is a street, square or park, and when it is indistinguishable from the private land around it, it creates problems.

Concern over this privatisation of public space isn’t new. Naomi Klein highlighted it ten years ago in No Logo, although then her prime concern was its link to the growing ubiquitousness of advertising. And whenever a new corporate development uses words like “town hall”, “village green” or “central park”, there is always someone arguing that whatever they may be called, these private replacements for public spaces cannot fulfil the same role.

But it is only now that we really see what that difference means in practice. If all you do in shopping centres is shop, why would the owners try to stop you? When you are making the owners money, then of course there is no problem. It is when you try to do other things – busk, sleep rough, or protest – things which don’t earn a profit for the owner of the space, that you learn what is and isn’t allowed.

Occupy London have filled up St Paul’s Churchyard. They have mostly filled up Finsbury Square, which is across boundary lines in Islington. Unlike some, they have had the good sense not to go to the war memorials in Tower Hill. Public space is running out. The answer to “can’t they go somewhere else?” is becoming “no”, and the command “go somewhere else” is becoming “stop protesting”.

I think it’s a travesty that St Paul’s chose to close its doors just as I have a deep sympathy for the employees of the Sainsbury’s in Paternoster Square, who have not been allowed to work for nigh-on two weeks. However, the fact that Mitsubishi Estate Company would rather shut up shop than put up with some tents is their decision, not the protestors’. They merely want to exercise their right to protest.

As the cases of Maya Anne Evans and Brian Haw show, that is not too easy in the seat of political power. Occupy London is demonstrating that it is no easier in the seat of economic power.

See also:

Occupy London needs to catalyse a new Left Ben Mitchell, October 27th 2011

The Mail’s rent-a-rev called for gays to be tattooed with health warningsAlex Hern, October 27th 2011

Top five reasons why you can’t protest (according to the right)Alex Hern, October 26th 2011

The “occupy” protests come to the City this SaturdayShamik Das, October 12th 2011

Are “Occupy Threadneedle Street” protests on the way?Shamik Das, September 19th 2011

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79 Responses to “The privatisation of public space is harming our ability to protest”

  1. YourThurrock

    RT @leftfootfwd: The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/w1VKHHqV #occupyLondon

  2. Boris Watch

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  3. Norman Nicholson

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  4. Stephen Baker

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  5. Moo

    RT @leftfootfwd: The privatisation of public space is harming our ability to protest http://t.co/oGAM0am1

  6. Waistcoat 1974

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  7. Tony Dowling

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  8. Andrew Rushby

    @ianhurlock – didn't you set up a Facebook group about this? MT @leftfootfwd: The privatisation of public space….: http://t.co/rqadknTi

  9. screamin'kid

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  10. Dario Llinares

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  11. Alan Valentine

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  12. Political Planet

    The privatisation of public space is harming our ability to protest: Alex Hern argues that the creeping privatis… http://t.co/SOleq7CH

  13. Hengist

    It’s the Enclosure Acts all over again. Im on about 23k and can never buy property because at 47 years old I couldnt borrow enough to get on the bottom rung. But much younger people are finding it impossible to buy property too. Now if we live in an economic system that shuts out hard working people from buying land why should we recognise the concept of land ownership at all? Trace the ownership of any piece of land far enough back and it’s only fallen into private ownership because somebody at some time ‘claimed’ it as their own. Now, land claimed centuries ago is in the hands of faceless multinationals. Not unlike our ‘democratic’ system .

  14. Stephen Baker

    The city get's sold from under you and it's privatisation curtails your democratic rights. http://t.co/vYj14yQI

  15. Stephen Baker

    The city gets sold from under you and it's privatisation curtails your democratic rights. http://t.co/vYj14yQI

  16. Lesley Farrington

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  17. DPAC

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  18. Karen Adshead

    The privatisation of public space is harming our ability to protest: Alex Hern argues that the creeping privatis… http://t.co/SOleq7CH

  19. Steven Keevil

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  20. nicola branch

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  21. chris paling

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  22. chantal chegrinec

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  23. Karen Adshead

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  24. Geoffrey Pearson

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  25. Lee McIvor

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  26. Phlossy

    RT @leftfootfwd: The privatisation of public space is harming our ability to protest http://t.co/oGAM0am1

  27. Mark Cantrell

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  28. Alex Braithwaite

    RT @leftfootfwd: The privatisation of public space is harming our ability to protest http://t.co/Q4uO3Z9s

  29. Protestwatch.org.uk

    #Protest The privatisation of public space is harming our ability to protest: Although this would hardly have re… http://t.co/XMAn1n9s

  30. sandratowers59

    RT @leftfootfwd: The privatisation of public space is harming our ability to protest http://t.co/2z2b5cbc

  31. Alex Hern

    New: http://t.co/tlhvkxpA The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest #occupyLondon.

  32. Rob the crip

    St Paul’s nice to know the Church thinks more of it’s land and the law then it does of people, money makes the world go around. Religion is a business

  33. Andrew Martin

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  34. Sara Penrhyn Jones

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  35. Angus F. Hewlett

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  36. Jay Ell

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  37. AndyD

    The privatisation of public space is harming our ability to protest – interesting background to #OccupyLSX http://t.co/LCrZchZ0

  38. paul barker

    The central point about Occupy LSX is that it isnt a Protest in the usual sense, temporarily taking up “Public” Space to air a view. OLSX seek to take over Public Space indefinitely as a form of Blackmail.
    You Occupy, We are Excluded & THEY are forced to make concessions. Its not Democracy just The Middle Class version of Hooliganism.

  39. Andy Howell

    The privatisation of public space is harming our ability to protest http://t.co/X879QFic via @zite

  40. Ed's Talking Balls

    Thank goodness for property law. There is no reason why an owner of land should have to tolerate feckless oafs littering their land.

    It’s a shame that Paternoster Square has had to be closed, but I don’t blame the owners of the land. They’ve had to take these precautions, inconveniencing those who work nearby, because of the protesters.

  41. Claire

    RT @leftfootfwd: The privatisation of public space is harming our ability to protest http://t.co/MSl3ojIH

  42. David Star

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  43. chris star

    The privatisation of public space is harming our ability to protest..
    http://t.co/eEh6tesx
    #Occupylsx

  44. Gordon Elcock

    The privatisation of public space is harming our ability to protest..
    http://t.co/eEh6tesx
    #Occupylsx

  45. Noxi

    RT @leftfootfwd: The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/hgW2eXGV #occupyLondon

  46. Noxi

    RT @leftfootfwd: The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/flfW2bdp #occupyLondon

  47. ALEX GILBERT

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  48. gracie

    They say “the Lord works in mysterious ways”, perhaps the demonstration is in the correct place after all? If it wasn’t for the demo then we probably not be discovering what has been going on in the name of the Church? I am absolutely astonished that people are being charged to enter one of our churches, it is a national disgrace.

  49. Pucci D

    The privatisation of public space is harming our right to protest, writes @alexhern: http://t.co/u3tjFSA9 #occupyLondon

  50. Kamo

    This article is nonsense, there are plenty of places for people to protest, problem is the Occupy camp isn’t actually a protest, it’s a bunch of people with nothing better to do and no coherent message setting up a swampy camp to the detriment and exclusion of everyone else who wants to use that space. They’ve made their point, well actually they haven’t but that’s their problem not anybody else’s, and now they should move on and let others use that space again.

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