Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Protest in the city: Urban spatial restructuring and dissent in New York, 1960–2006

Patrick Rafail
Dept. of Sociology, Tulane University

Why does protest happen where it does? Though there is widespread agreement that accessible space is a necessary ingredient of protest mobilization, we know surprisingly little about how urban space is used by activists. This is especially true for how the built environment of cities intersects with protest, and how this relationship evolved in the face of neoliberal policymaking. In “Protest in the city,” I analyse the historical evolution of protest spaces in New York City at more than 6200 demonstrations, rallies, and other forms of collective action taking place between 1960 and 2006.

Protest spaces speak to fundamental and pressing social issues. They tell us about the relationship between individuals and the state, how power is distributed and grappled over, and shed insight into the impact of urban policy decisions that strongly shape how and when people act together. I argue that the urban built environment can produce attractors and detractors that either push dissent away or pull it in. In particular, I focus on: (1) physical spaces, including public parks and privately owned public spaces (POPS); (2) centres of power, which are areas in close proximity to powerful institutions; and (3) colleges and universities that are traditional hotbeds of activism. Taken together, these three elements go a long way in explaining where protest takes place, and how the spatial patterns in collective action are linked to broader neoliberal changes that have brought out extensive urban privatisation.

The data used in the paper come from two sources: first, all New York City events in the Dynamics of Contention, which contains information on all protests reported in the New York Times between 1960 and 1995, Second, I collected data using a comparable methodology that includes events from 1996 through 2006. I geocoded the location of the events to census tracts, allowing me to place them in time and space, and linked the protests to databases on public parks, POPS, City Hall, courthouses, colleges and universities, and demographic characteristics, drawing from a wide variety of sources. The end result is one of the most detailed, temporal and geographically referenced databases of protest activity and the spatial context surrounding events that has been examined at the time of writing. 

Zuccotti Park, a privately owned public space in the financial district of New York, NY.

Photograph by MusikAnimal, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After analysing where protest occurs, we see a striking pattern. Protest has noticeably shifted away from public spaces towards privatized spaces. POPS are present in between 1.7 and 4% of census tracks, yet these are home to more than 25% of protest events. Protest is also more likely in spaces in close proximity to powerful institutions or to colleges and universities. Overall, I show that the neoliberal restricting of protest has dramatic consequences: over time, protests are more likely to take place in spaces that are hostile to mobilization, and have weakened protections when it comes to the individual rights to assemble. 

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