Workshop report: Responding to uprising. Urban security between resilience and resistance. Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Birmingham.

While terrorism has shaped urban security in the last decade, since 2011 several cities worldwide have been at the centre of protest, riot, and even uprising. If terrorism was the key for understanding urban security in the past decade, is uprising is a crucial key for understanding urban security in the current one?

On 26 September, 14 international and interdisciplinary speakers gathered for the IAS-sponsored workshop Responding to Uprising: Urban Security between Resilience and Resistance and debated the impact that protest and uprising have on urban security. The workshop considered the changing life in cities experiencing crisis and transition, both from the everyday perspective of communities and their spaces, and from the official perspective of the state and its security agendas. The speakers held presentations to an audience from across the University of Birmingham and conducted two briefing sessions in order to identify possible trends and agendas for research and policy. Disciplines and fields represented at the event included Geography, Law, International Sciences, Civil Engineering, and Resilience Studies. The workshop was international in nature and aimed to produce comparisons about urban responses to crisis across accepted regional divides like the MENA and the EU.

Discussions were guided by the following questions:

•Which security discourses, tactics and policies do states adopt to respond to protest and uprising?
•Which strategies do communities employ to respond, resist and adapt to crisis and transition?
•Do state and community responses trust, reflect and respect each other’s objectives?
•How are resilience and resistance understood, related and applied contextually?

This extremely content-rich day of discussions spanned the themes of spatial configurations of security and resilience devised by the state and by other actors of coercion, the relationship of urban communities with constituent power (especially the police) and their coping mechanisms during uprising and transition. While context is important in thinking about uprising and protest and we should stay clear of overarching statements, it is also important to trace possible links between cities that are usually considered as part of different global regions, such as the EU and the MENA.

Notice board outside Paternoster Square in the City of London.  Access to the square was limited after Occupy London attempted to occupy it on 15 October 2011. The square is a public space but has no public right of way, so it can be closed by its owners at any time.  Photograph: ©Sara Fregonese 2011

Notice board outside Paternoster Square in the City of London. Access to the square was limited after Occupy London attempted to occupy it on 15 October 2011. The square is a public space but has no public right of way, so it can be closed by its owners at any time.
Photograph: ©Sara Fregonese 2011

Configurations of security: states, non states, parastates and the market

Managing and rearranging urban space is a crucial part of state policing, for disciplining dissent and ‘disorderly’ environments. The case of the Arab uprisings and protests in Europe is not different, however what distinguishes it is an increasingly clear combined action by police (or army), law, irregular groups, and the private market – in different ways depending on the context – in rearranging urban space to exercise coercion and limit the possibility of protest. The languages and technologies mobilised for this purpose often used to be the realm of counter-terrorism, as suggested by Dr. Victoria Trimble.  Blockades, checkpoints, and even separation walls, for example, are common practices used by the authorities in post-revolutionary Cairo. In London, corporate privatisation and legal mechanisms have also been employed to ‘map out’ the Occupy movement from Paternoster Square and the Saint Pauls’ cathedral precinct, as Prof. Antonia Layard demonstrated. The former was sealed off to the public, tightening its (flexible) status of quasi-private space; the latter was mapped as a highway using transport law, which established a corridor where encampment was illegal.

The delegation of coercion during protest and uprising is another configuration of security that combines state, irregular forces and the private sector. Practices like the police hiring thugs and vigilantes, infilitrating protests, and the facilitation by the market of transnational police and military training, is posing serious questions about the State’s control of sovereignty in several countries like Egypt, Greece and Turkey. This opens questions about the state’s more or less strategic hybridisation with a range of irregular actors as highlighted by Dr. Sara Fregonese. Some of these contaminations, like the phenomenon of the ‘parastate’ in Greece, have longer historical genealogies, explained by Dr. Sappho Xenakis. However, their impact on urban spaces and communities deserves more research.

The state of urban communities/The state and urban communities

One aspect linking the study of urban conflict and the study of protest is the tendency by many researchers to adopt state-centred, official- and media-based accounts of events. According to Dr. Gennaro Gervasio, this tendency shadows the everyday strategies of resistance of ‘marginal’, emerging subjectivities and spaces, often in peripheral localities, which are important to understand how protests and strategies of resistance are shaped.

Urban space is crucial for resistance: by taking, occupying, reclaiming and reconfiguring spaces within cities, established power arrangements are subverted and resistance is made tangible. Reconfiguration happens also in notoriously destructive ways, such as the burning of historic buildings in Athens in December 2008. However, taking space is not a unique or novel feature of the present protests and the longer histories of occupation and reclaiming space need to be unpacked, argued Dr. Albet, in  order to grasp the rationale of current protests. Importantly, it is the periphery of the megalopolis, as specified by Dr. Gervasio, where the urban communities of resistance develop, before the centre becomes the iconic and performative site of game-changing protests, like those of Tahrir Square.

In times of austerity and transition, argues Dr. Xenakis, it becomes clear that urban security is for citizens rather than for other of the city’s dwellers – such as immigrants and slum dwellers. A striking case in question is that of street children – a particularly understudied subject, according to Nelly Ali’s poignant presentation – who despite their often conscious activism, have been the object of systematic violence by old, transitional, and new regimes. The youth is another crucial component of communities of resistance and the question of which role youth, and especially the post-Mubarak Egyptian youth, has to play in the changing public spheres of the MENA region remains an open question, says Prof. Michelle Pace.

The technologies of repression used by the state or its associates are being counteracted by growing solidarity and organisation in resistance. This is particularly the case with the increasingly commercialised and widespread use of ‘non-lethal’ weapons such as teargas. Witnessing, collecting and archiving evidence of tear gas use for controlling dissent are becoming crucial to activists and urban communities caught up in gas, and various organisations – such as Bahrain Watch – are mobilising, explain Dr. Anna Feigenbaum and John Horne. Such forensic of teargas could and should be accompanied by a ‘zooming in’ into the presence and actions of state-delegated, irregular, or corporate coercion against protesters, argued Dr. Fregonese, through witness reports, collection of visual evidence and recognition of specific practices (clothing, signalling, use of specific technologies) adopted by irregulars.

Concluding remarks

The workshop questioned the relationship between local urban communities and emerging national security practices and agendas for controlling (often violently) domestic civil dissent. It identified some outstanding and pressing issues about security and uprising in cities across different regions, revealing closer connections between them than commonly thought.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) for supporting this event and especially to Sarah Myring for the practical organisation; to the speakers and chairs; and to Simon Copeland for note-taking during the event.

You can review the workshop Twitter feed using the hash tag  #uprisingIAS

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Sara Fregonese

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One thought on “Workshop report: Responding to uprising. Urban security between resilience and resistance. Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Birmingham.

  1. @nellyali says:

    Reblogged this on nellyali and commented:
    It was a great privilege to be invited to speak at this workshop: Responding to the Uprising hosted by Institute of Advanced Studies and Birmingham University… I met great academics there too that I feel were long lost friends Sara Fregonese Ramadan Adam Ramadan Andrea Teti and Gennaro Gervasio and Johan and Anna and Michelle Pace!

    Also – this is where after my talk one of the speakers started to cry having been touched by the stories of street children and their involvement in the uprising, I was so moved by this because it helped me deal with my ethical dilemma of not wanting to speak about the children “clinically” after having faced so much with them.. This truly was a great experience, thank you!

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