Tag Archives: Talks

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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“Urban land and conflict in the global South” workshop

Back in March I participated in the “Urban land and conflict in the global South” workshop organized by Melanie Lombard of the Global Urban Research Centre at the University of Manchester.  It was a good occasion to reflect on urban conflict in the frame of urban informality and I am now preparing an article on the new informal boundaries in Beirut  post-2008 clashes.

Melanie wrote a brief thematic summary outlining avenues for future research. You can read it here:

http://citiesmcr.wordpress.com/2013/04/29/urban-land-and-conflict-in-the-global-south/

Sara Fregonese

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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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Imperial Humanitarianism

Colleagues in the Department of History at Birmingham are hosting this interesting roundtable on Imperial Humanitarianism. Dr. Ben White, who lectures modern history of the Middle East, is also leading the research theme “Saving Humans: Risk, Intervention, Survival” at Birmingham’s new Institute of Advanced Studies: http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/ias/inaugural-themes/saving-humans.aspx,
in which Adam is currently involved, so watch this space!

moderncontemporary

We’re holding a round table this Friday on ‘Imperial Humanitarianism’, with speakers including Alan Lester (Sussex), Matthew Hilton (Birmingham, talking about something we’ve posted about here recently), and—following a late change of programme—Ben White (also Birmingham). Full details are below; attendance is free, but please email to reserve a place so we can order enough tea, coffee, and cake. Yes! There’ll be free tea, coffee, cake…

Imperial Humanitarianism poster

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Hybrid sovereignties and the urban geopolitics of uprising.

As part of the Tabula Rasa seminar series coordinated by Adam Ramadan, this week I talked for the first time to my new Geography and Political Science colleagues at Birmingham about my work on  hybrid sovereignties, political violence and urban space in Lebanon and traced some links with my current reflections on geographies of uprising (see posts from 25 October 2012 and 15 January 2013).

In a recent EPD article, I call hybrid sovereignties those mergers, collaborations, and coordinations taking place between official state actors (army, police…) and armed unofficial groups in the perpetration of political violence and in the exercise of territorial and infrastructural control. I derived this idea while I was researching the ground dynamics of urban conflict in Beirut during the violent clashes of May 2008. In that occasion, it was clear that the control of Beirut, rather than being managed by a ‘straightforward’ sovereign state (a notion that does not apply easily to Lebanon) was fought out by rival militias, with the state stepping back officially, but mobilising militias unofficially.

One of the most compelling implications of the uprisings that have been taking place in several Middle Eastern and North African countries, and the state management of civil dissent, is the increasing number of instances where state authorities resort to collaboration and outsourcing of  violence to irregular armed actors like thugs, militias and vigilantes. I have referred mainly to examples taken from Mediterranean countries: the Baltagiya thugs during the Egyptian revolution, the Shabiha squads during the ongoing conflict in Syria, and the resort to vigilantes in Greece to target anti-austerity protesters. In these instances, the state steps back officially and mobilizes its own militias unofficially. It outsources public coercion and political violence to hybrid actors whose powers dwell between the legitimacy of the state and the irregularity of the non-state.

The overarching idea shaping my future research at Birmingham is that while terrorism was the primary key to understand urban security in the past decade, uprising is an increasingly important key to understand urban security in the current one. Hybrid sovereignty is a useful approach to understand how urban living and security are changing.

Sara Fregonese

 

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Spaces of Encampment

One of the tasks I promised to do during my job interview at Birmingham last June was run their human geography seminar series – Tabula Rasa. Now in post, the responsibility passes to me from January. I now have a great line up of speakers for next term, including Colin McFarlane, Paula Meth, Alex Vasudevan, Jessica Pykett, Stephen Taylor and Sara Fregonese.

In addition, I got to give the final seminar of the Autumn term this week. My paper was titled ‘Spaces of Encampment’, and it drew together various threads of work I have done, am doing and plan to do, on refugee camps, protest camps and prison camps. While these might all seem very different kinds of spaces, actually I think they are similar in at least three ways:
1. Camps are exceptional: outside the normal political order, spaces of exception, of blurred sovereignties, of experimental new political formations and relations;
2. Camps are tactical: they have a function, and achieve certain ends, whether for the state, for international humanitarian agencies, or for protesters.
3. Camps are enduring but temporary: materially, politically, camps are transient, liminal spaces. They serve a function, then come to an end.

The camp is an arena in which the geopolitical and the everyday are intertwined, shape and manifest each other. From Guantánamo Bay to Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park to Nahr el-Bared, the camp as an exceptional space for exceptional political acts has increasingly become the normal terrain and tactic for both state action and popular resistance.

Coincidentally, my paper on Spatialising the Refugee Camp has just been published by Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. In the paper, I offer a three-part analysis of how Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are assembled temporarily, outside the sovereign control of the state. This spatial analysis of the camp, understanding how it is constituted and functions spatially, is a way of grounding geopolitics in the everyday: understanding the small moments and acts that negotiate and constitute broader geopolitical architectures in the spaces of the camp and beyond.

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Nahr el-Bared refugee camp: exceptional, tactical, temporary. November 2007.

Adam Ramadan

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