AAG 2013 and Uprising Geographies

Over the past week, we both attended the Association of American Geographers annual meeting in Los Angeles, where we hosted a double session on uprising geographies (see previous post).

The main conference venue was the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, famously discussed by Fredric Jameson as a ‘postmodern hyperspace’. Although its labyrinthine and fragmented space was conducive more to disorientation than to encounter, we did manage to catch up with several geography friends and colleagues.

Between us, we attended many excellent sessions (and missed many more) particularly on the themes of urban space and protest, migration and borders. These included the session on Animating Geopolitics, two sessions on Global Urbanization and Local Politics in an Age of Austerity (IV and V), two sessions on Political Activism (I and II), the second session on The Urban at a Time of Crisis (it was good to hear papers from Sara’s special issue on Mediterranean Geographies of Protest being mentioned and cited), a triple session on the Geopolitics of Mobility and Immobility, one each of the session series on (Re)imagining Borders in an Era of Migration and Deportation (III), Violence and Space (IV), Geographies of Peace (II), and From Palestine to Mexico (II), and finally two authors-meet-critics sessions for Alex Jeffrey’s new book on Bosnia, The Improvised State, and John Agnew and Luca Muscara’s second edition of Making Political Geography.

Our double session (I and II) on Thursday afternoon almost filled the room, with an audience of about 45 at its peak.

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The opening speaker was Jared van Ramshorst, a masters student at San Diego State University. He presented on the emotional and affective workings of urban social movements in a variety of contexts, focusing particularly on student protests in California.

Sam Halvorsen then spoke on Occupy London, and the movement’s territorial practices and subversions of space. He discussed the capture and occupation of Finsbury Square as an example of ‘taking space’.

Anna Feigenbaum and Fabian Frenzel continued with the example of Occupy London, and offered some brilliant insights into the methodological challenges on conducting research on affect in protest camps. We’d really like some of their protest camp cards!

The fourth speaker was Nelly Ali, who spoke movingly on her work with street children in Cairo during and since the 2011 uprising. It was fascinating to hear how the children’s knowledge of life on the streets and the inner workings of the city were invaluable to protesters with whom they allied. Sadly, violence against street children – from police, from fast-tracked court proceedings and in prison – has not improved post-revolution. We are grateful to Nelly for agreeing to present at short notice, after Irene Bono was unable to attend the conference.

The second session was opened by Adam, who discussed a historical example, in the Palestinian ‘Revolution’ in Lebanon between 1970 and 1982.

Jonathan Rokem followed, outlining two lacunae in conventional urban theory. He argued that the ‘Arab Spring’ should be seen as an invitation for comparative urban studies, challenging the classic literature on the ‘Islamic city’ and the conventional focus of urban studies on cities like New York, LA and London.

Elisa Pascucci discussed the refugee protest camp in 2005 outside UNHCR offices in Mustapha Mahmoud Square, Cairo, and the brutal assault on it by Egyptian police. The relocation of UNHCR outside the city centre better allowed the state to contain protests.

The final presentation was by Sara, who compared state responses to uprisings and protests in Cairo and Athens. Both cases illustrated hybrid sovereignty practices, with the close and ambiguous relationships between police and thugs (baltagiya in Egypt, Koukouloforoi in Greece) blurring the line between state and non-state, legitimate and illegitimate violence and coercion.

Both sessions were closed by Prof John Agnew, who offered ‘instant wisdom’ as discussant. In particular, he drew parallels between the cases discussed and those of the late 1960s in Italy, France and elsewhere. He noted differences in the shift from a focus on ‘interest’ politics to the recent focus on affect, emotion and identity. In conclusion, he argued that coercion is the ultimate basis of political order, and uprisings – whether student protesters, Occupy activists, refugees or street children – must always challenge this coercion.

Both sessions were followed by discussion, and particularly the first session sparked a really useful debate about nature of uprising and the cases presented. A very thorough twitter feed of the second session is available here (scroll down to 11 April 2013).

All in all it was a really productive conference, and as we try to shrug off the jet lag, we have lots to think about!

Sara Fregonese
Adam Ramadan

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