Artwork and writing by Eden Gallanter.

Eden is a professional artist, author, and scientist, and is the creator of the Cheimonette Tarot, sold in over 30 countries, across 6 continents.

Filtering by Category: Politics

The Maiden and the Beast, or, How I Crossed the Egyptian Border in a Bikini

View of the Red Sea from Eilat I've talked about Fortitude before on this blog, but it's one of those cards that keeps coming up this summer. I wanted to focus on this card specifically, rather than just on its connection to the Devil.

Fortitude: where did it come from?

Fortitude is the eleventh trump card in the tarot, today commonly known as "Strength" (in the A.E. Waite deck, Strength shows a young woman and a tamed lion genuflecting at her feet, and older decks, dating back to the 16th century, usually depict a person either subduing a lion or breaking a stone pillar). In my card, the central characters of "the maiden and the beast" remain, but the maiden is a naked, winged woman, blindfolded as though she fancied herself the statue of blind Justice on the steps of our Supreme Courthouse, and the beast is a headless, charging horse.

Weridly, a headless horse with open, seeing eyes.

Although I created this image in 2004, my understanding of the beast in Fortitude didn't really crystallize till the summer of 2012, when I was in Israel/Palestine, working as a researcher and urban planner on the pilot project of an NGO think tank based in Tel Aviv. To inexcusably collapse what is a very long and involved story, I consistently had a difficult time with border guards and other IDF staff while I was there. I don't know precisely why it happened, but my luggage was always given a special search, I was always taken aside for meticulous questioning, and I usually had to provide contacts from work for them to call to confirm that I really worked there. Sometimes there were more profound intrusions into my private affairs and possessions. I obviously wasn't an ordinary Jewish tourist, and I didn't have any family to vouch for me there. The fact that I was there to work for several months baffled and alarmed the guards, and I quickly learned that my naïve explanations about working for human rights and social justice only made me suspicious and strange.

About a month before my contract was up, I planned to take a trip down to the Red Sea to do some diving. I hopped on a bus after work, rode with a pile of sullen young people dressed for a European discothèque and a scattering of shrieking tourists and their comatose, sunburned children, and was deposited at the door of a tiny diver's hostel at 11 pm. The temperature had dropped (it was late July) to about 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and the labored breathing of the four walruslike men sleeping on the bunks in the dorm room mingled with the waves breaking on the beach just outside to create a peaceful white noise. I fell asleep in my bathing suit, which, as daytime temperatures regularly reach 125 degrees in the Negev desert, became my only outfit for the three days I was there.

After two days of good diving, someone at the dive shop suggested I go to their partner dive shop, just over the border in Taba, Egypt. Egypt's relationship with Israel no longer had any pretense of friendliness at that time, and the Israeli dive instructors and divers couldn't go, but I could. They told me to grab my passport and dive log and get in a car, as one of the staff was heading that way anyway. It was a small miracle that I decided, at the last minute, to bring my sandals. I had (and I should certainly have known better) thought we would simply drive over the border and I would be left at the Egyptian dive site for the day, but to my astonishment, the young driver cheerfully indicated that I had to get out and walk over the border. "Taba dive shop just over there," he said. "Walk on left side of road through border patrol and turn left after donut shop." Of course I was still in my usual round-the-clock outfit: a faded, flimsy, purple bikini.

I was nearly alone, standing in line. Desert insects droned, and the border terminal was quiet. A German family outfitted in tropical print clothing stared humorlessly at me. The immaculately dressed Egyptian border guards continued to gaze straight ahead, impenetrably grave. The resort town of Taba, in the middle of the day, was mercifully somewhat deserted, but occasionally a traditionally dressed couple would stroll by, carefully training their eyes at the pavement, away from me. Both religious Muslims and Jews have a culture of modesty in dress, especially for women, and I was sure that I seemed like an affront, an alien and an outsider without the humility or common decency to respect local traditions as I intruded myself into their home. I had always been careful to dress plainly when I was in traditional communities, with my arms, neck, and legs covered and my hair tied back, and here I was in a string bikini. I was at this point heavily encrusted with the salty residue of evaporated sea water, my bruise-colored bikini was frayed in several places, and I found out later that there was a ribbon of seaweed tangled in my hair. I took some comfort, at least, in the fact that I didn't look like I was trying to be sexy.

The young guard at the border had the good grace to giggle a little when he asked me if I was carrying any concealed weapons.

After one of the best days of diving I had ever experienced, I had to walk over the border again, this time through the Israeli terminal. My scantily dressed swamp monster appearance did not seem to dampen the usual suspicion I created, and I wound up in the private office of a soldier, perspiring into a leather chair while she regarded me dubiously from behind her desk.  For the first time, I was asked if I was Jewish (I had always offered this information before). I said that I was, and, visibly relaxing, she began explaining why they had to ask me so many questions, excusing herself as though to a troublesome relative at a family reunion. I mumbled something I can't recall anymore, and dragged off towards a bus shelter, where I waited glumly for the Eilat dive shop to remember to pick me up again. Somehow, the apologies were even worse than the suspicion: I felt even less understood than I had before. It was, in fact, a somewhat risky thing I had done by going to Taba for the day. At that point in my trip, I had gone into the West Bank to stay at the headquarters of a Palestinian resistance movement in a small farming community. I had attended a protest against the acquisition of Palestinian land by local settlers. If the soldier had learned about any of this, I certainly would have been kept much longer for questioning, and I may have had more difficulty leaving the country as well. I doubt I would have had to spend time in jail, but it was not out of the question that I might have been held for 9 or 10 hours for questioning, or even had my electronic devices temporarily confiscated and forcibly inspected on my way out of the country. I was grateful to have gotten through relatively easily, but it was so strange to feel so naked and also so invisible. From where she was sitting, she really couldn't see me at all.


The headless beast in my card represents things that behave like people. The impetus that drives a person's life, work, or desires is bigger than interpersonal relationships, and includes abstract concepts and imaginative ideals: a cultural narrative, the dream of a better life, a union with the beliefs of a religious community, a story of a higher calling and heroism, the promises of a powerful corporation, the mythology of a whole nation. These entities (a nation, a corporation, a religion, a cultural norm, a philosophy) sometimes influence us as though they had feelings and thoughts of their own. As though they had desires. As though they understood us, and whispered the truth into our ears.

The State has eyes, but it has no mind. It may wander aimlessly, be guided by those who care for its power, or even race blindly towards its own destruction. The maiden's leap from the back of the beast is, like all leaps, a leap of faith. Despite being less powerful than the beast of a human institution such as culture, or religion, or country, she has come to trust herself more than she can trust authority. Even if she is leaping to her own death, she has a need to decide for herself. This courage, which is stronger than death, is Fortitude. And when I sat, shamed, nearly naked, confused and misunderstood by the agent of a mindless limb of the State of Israel, in the leather chair of the IDF soldier who thought she recognized me as one of her own, I realized I had not only taken that leap many years ago, but that the leap does not happen just once. It happens again and again and again, as new situations arise, and the beast attempts to fit us onto its back once again.

Is she foolish in her decision to leave the beast, and all its norms and known quantities behind?

The answer seems to be no: she has wings.

This post is part of a series about my deck, the Cheimonette Tarot.

The Wishing Well

The Nine of Swords is widely considered to be one of the worst cards that can turn up in a tarot reading. It is associated with nightmares, insanity, suffering, cruelty, and suicide. A total calamity of the internal self. The card depicts the collapse of a city, the Queen of Swords in a tree, insane and howling at the moon. Is it the moon (with its inhuman face) that is causing this destruction, as it does in the Tower card? And what is that tree doing there, as the single anchor the mad Queen clings to?

Nine of Swords

The swords suit, which embodies the rational mind—the intellectual aspect of the human experience—would suggest that it is really the Queen herself behind the destruction of the world. Is the moon a sort of mirror for her? Is it some divine being influencing the Queen from some mysterious external source, within the solipsistic universe of her dream? Well, we don’t really know. The moon is a stand-in for that which human beings cannot comprehend—like our own bewilderment when we have a prescient nightmare, or a dream in which our experience is beyond our own understanding.

So what do we get when we stop raging against the tide, and accept the fact that this card signifies great trouble for us?

I was marching with Occupy Wall Street on the freezing cold morning of November 17th, 2011. I had been running around New York City’s financial district all night, and I was tired and dizzy, and wondering if I might be thrown in jail at some point during the day. We were committed to challenging the American status quo of authority structures, the mundane lives of individuals (especially those working on Wall Street), the widespread assumption that we have to sit quietly and accept what our government does with our lives, our money, and our voices. Within that group, shouting for change, were those who hungered for the total dissolution of our political and social systems. They wanted to topple the whole world, not out of any relish for seeing the suffering and death that always accompanies such an apocalypse, but to dismantle civilization’s existing mechanisms that cause suffering and death for so many already. They were driven by the conviction that we can build something better.

Perhaps the Queen sees the beauty of the world falling down around her. Perhaps she is indulging that part of humanity that desires to lose hold of reality, that part of herself that seeks to die.

As afraid as I was the following year, when I faced the IDF in the West Bank, I couldn’t help smiling when the soldiers charged us (a little band of Palestinians and internationals, waving flags and chanting songs). I was afraid for the little boy who made a peace sign and held it in the face of one of the soldiers, while the soldier, with his riot gear and Uzi, loomed over the child, and for the other Palestinians, who would suffer far worse consequences than us for protesting. But I couldn’t help but feel glad that we were all there together, and even to feel a kind of glee when they came for us.

It’s an odd thing to admit, but I will be one of the people running around and laughing when the world explodes.

(ashes, ashes, we all fall DOWN.)

This post is part of a series about my deck, the Cheimonette Tarot.

Atlas/ Alas/ At Last

They say that to dream of the moon is a sure sign of impending good fortune, but I dreamt last night of the full moon in Beit Ummar, in the occupied territories of the West Bank, where good fortune is notoriously hard to come by. The Separation Barrier at BethlehemLast year at this time I was working in Israel, putting together the beginnings of a research report that would delve into the Arab and Jewish history of a beautiful small town in the northern Galilee named Safed. During the Golden Age of Qabbalah in the 16th century, this little town was the center of the world: from which vast quantities of art, music, mystical literature, and poetry poured out, and from which much modern Jewish tradition derives. As I found (but which is not widely known any longer), the Arab Sufis had a great deal of discourse with the Jewish Qabbalists at that time in Safed, and these two spiritual communities shared many techniques and ideas for religious meditation and practice. (You can read an article I wrote on that research here)

In the course of time, I traveled all over Israel, and by July I found myself in the West Bank, staying with a wonderful Palestinian family and learning about them and about the political situation in the occupied territories. I was staying in a little guest room they had, with a pretty view overlooking the few farming lands left to the community there.

I woke up in the night, just as the Muslim Call to Prayer was sending its first sonorous echoes across the landscape, sounding like a lonely love-song. Outside on the bare soil between the olive and fig trees, skinny dogs dragged their chains. One uttered a low howl, but the other kept silence, her head down, her black feet raising the dust as she slowly paced the circumference of her captivity. The full moon hung so low over the trees I felt I could touch it. The Call to Prayer seemed to be pulling it down out of the sky. I was sure that unless the Call stopped, the moon would crash into the earth, breaking open and spilling bright water into every pore of the parched soil. The Call did cease, and the night insects (as if they had quieted themselves to listen to its beauty, though they were as ignorant of Arabic as I was) resumed their clockwork sounds, ticking out the time until morning.

I did not sleep again that night; I lay and listened to the sound of the dragging chains, the heavy sounds of the thirsty dogs, the memory of the Call, the night insects, and I watched the way the moonshadows slowly dripped over the landscape, turning black and blue and then fading like a bruise to pale purple as dawn approached.

Last night I dreamed of that night last July. The dogs were black wolves, and the moon still did not break open and water the earth. I woke up as hot as I had been that night in the tremendous heat of summer in the high desert, and with the taste of fresh figs in my mouth.


Atlas was the god with the worst job (or, rather, it would be the worst job if there weren't so very many others). Atlas, while his Titan brothers were imprisoned in Tartarus, was singled out by Zeus and condemned to carry the the celestial spheres on his shoulders, in order to keep the primordial father and mother (the sky and the earth) forever apart. Atlas was a tragic giant with a monstrous burden (which could only have gathered in bulk as, over the centuries, human beings discovered just how deep the sky really went).

I love Atlas for his burden, because the world is indeed a heavy, heavy place. But I think that the god that holds up the universe isn't a strong man at all, but a baby, a madman and a madwoman, a beggar, an animal, a wandering idiot.  A Fool.

The FoolThe Fool doesn't take on burdens, doesn't try to help or to fix problems or even to heal wounds. The Fool is simply the Fool, ignorant, self-centered, and unable to rise even one inch above personal survival. The Fool stands on the top of a mountain because to a Fool, every direction is down. Any little movement will decide the whole course of existence; the Fool will keep falling, and the direction of life from there on out will be initiated and perpetuated on its own, like a glacier slowly and irresistibly carving a canyon out of a high, rocky steppe.

An innocent adventurer, the Fool is built to learn rather than to help. And in this way, naturally obviating the well-intentioned trap of paternalism, does not rob others of their own powers of salvation. The Fool has nothing to give, and everything yet to understand. The two tails reveal an animal nature: a person driven by physiological needs and the animal instincts enshrined in every human being's genetic makeup. The Fool may someday reach the black sea (or perhaps it is a dark stretch of desert) beyond the mountains, but at present the Fool is frozen in infancy, neither male nor female, whose two tails recall the number zero, an empty shell, a womb, a hollow world inside which to dance out the stuff of human existence.

I went to Israel and to the territories knowing next to nothing, and without any thought of working for peace or helping an oppressed people. I felt I did not know enough to know where or how to help. I traveled and I spoke to anybody who would share their thoughts with me, which turned out to be quite a diverse lot of people; a foreigner of unstated political beliefs can be a blank slate upon which people of all faiths, political positions, and personal values will write in great profusion, if I could only keep quiet and polite, and listen. And I found I could; my curiosity was stronger than my outrage. And it turned out that being there to understand rather than to help ended up helping more than I would have imagined.


Franz Kafka knew all about fools, and he wrote a beautiful little story called "Children on a Country Road". It ends this way:

"There you'll find queer folk! Just think, they never sleep!"

"And why not?"

"Because they never get tired."

"And why not?"

"Because they're fools."

"Don't fools get tired?"

"How could fools get tired!"


 This post is part of a series about my deck, the Cheimonette Tarot.

WHOSE CITY? Occupy Wall Street and Public Space in the United States

Abstract:  Since September 17th 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement has inspired, confused, and empowered people across America. It has illuminated an important aspect of urbanism: conflicting goals for the use of publically dedicated urban space in the United States. Public space is conceptually at the heart of the Occupy movement. The vision of reclaiming public space has been a metaphor for reclaiming power since the movement’s inception.  Providing for political dissent is one of the founding principles of America, but this right has never been secure. The Middle Eastern countries of the Arab Spring revolutions have not tolerated groups of any size publically speaking against their government, and American authorities currently tread perilously close to making the same mistake. The United States has a strong history of preserving the institution of urban commons under public control, but regulation of publically dedicated spaces has increased dramatically.  In modern America these spaces are increasingly privately owned, heavily programmed, or dominated by stringent liability regulations.  Urban planning can and should be instrumental in making our cities democratically controlled and publicly accessible. Occupy Wall Street has provided planners with a blueprint for creating socially equitable space that tangibly, truly belongs to the American people.

Keywords:  Occupy Wall Street, Public Space, Social Justice, Urban Planning, United States


Part One: Theory

Land is power.  As old as civilization itself, the right to control land has signified the security of continued survival and the freedom of self-determination.  Throughout history, the control of land meant the ability to produce food to provide against future uncertainty, it meant the ability to construct housing facilities, and access to natural resources such as water, vantage points, building materials, fuel, and game.  Land has remained the most concrete and overt, the most primal, symbol of power.

Occupy Wall Street uses peaceful occupation of public space as a multifaceted tool of grassroots empowerment.  The movement claimed that power not only in its occupation of publically dedicated land, but also in its choice of location.  It chose to occupy Zuccotti Park, near New York City’s famous Wall Street financial district, to create a visible contrast with America’s iconic corporate bureaucracies. The New York Stock Exchange and the other financial markets at Wall Street, the policy and legislation that supports them, and their collective culpability in the 2007-2010 financial crisis, is the target environment of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  As a strategy for being seen and heard in an environment where the movement could have the most contrasting socio-economic and ideological backdrop, Occupy Wall Street was an instantaneous success.

When I first saw the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park in New York’s financial district, I was immediately struck by the rarity of seeing people using public spaces in American urban centers for anything other than getting to and from work.  Before the protests, Zuccotti Park and its surrounding streets were filled with professional men and women during morning, evening, and lunch rush hours, hurrying to and from work, hastily eating their lunches so they could get back to business (Austin, 2012).  In New York City’s imposing financial district, with its monumental expanses of stone, concrete, and glass, it’s famous bronze “charging bull” sculpture, and little Zuccotti Park, geometrically paved over and planted with a uniform stand of manicured trees, it is clear who really owns the public spaces.

Calling a public space “programmed” means that there are specific intended uses that the designer of the space had in mind.  “A program for an environment, whether a park, an office building, or a mall, is the menu of activities that the space is designed to facilitate.” (Austin, 2012)  To the extent that programming is a reaction to the specific needs of a space, it is an appropriate consideration.  Hiking trailheads, for instance, benefit from drinking fountain and restroom facilities.  Streets with bike paths need bike racks.  Sidewalks should be designed to be both safe and comfortable for pedestrians.  However, urban spaces are increasingly designed for highly specific activities, with little truly flexible space for creative or adaptive use.  This increase in programmed space is enhanced by New York’s Privatization of Public Spaces Incentive program, which gives legal benefits to developers in high-density areas for providing spaces for public access.  Programming space is also an approach to addressing security issues: deciding whom the developer is intending to serve, and what activities the developer would like to encourage, are issues that are usually implicitly addressed by a combination of design and regulation.

Privately owned public spaces such as Zuccotti Park are situated in an amorphous legal no-man’s land, due to a lack of clearly defined regulations, the loophole that allowed Occupy Wall Street to set up camp.  There was an obvious breach of the owner’s intentions for how the space should be used.  In lieu of the Occupy Wall Street encampment, Zuccotti Park’s legal owners, Brookfield Office Properties, wanted to “restore the park to its intended purpose [of passive recreation].”  (Berg, 2011)  As political protest was ostensibly one of the intended purposes of civic space throughout American history, what the Occupy Wall Street protests have done is to highlight how Zuccotti Park is not a civic space. “First Amendment protections don’t really apply when the owners of a space are non-governmental.”  (Reynolds, 2011)  Thus, Occupy Wall Street has shown the world that the phenomenon of privatized public spaces are slowly taking away the civic spaces, and the rights that go with them, from the American public.

So what’s going on here?  How have private interests come to be in such conflict with community interests in the public realm?  Big business, structured for economic gain, has been granted by the American government the right to own what were once public institutions, “public spaces that are not really public at all but quasi-public, controlled by their landlords.”  (Kimmelman, 2011) Private businesses are not structured with the goal of protecting public interest, but of making money.  A financial district where people don’t act out, where people are encouraged to move along to work, and discouraged from eating a leisurely lunch in the park, is simply aimed to increase productivity.  “There’s a basic tension between the public purposes these kinds of spaces are supposed to serve and the actual interest of the private property owners”. (Yglesias, 2011) The privatization of civic spaces is an effort by the government to finance public services through imposing regulations on private entities, but this places public services under the yoke of private interests, which are ultimately aimed at increasing profits and not at community benefit.

As American society has expanded its acceptance of the diverse communities it consists of, it has at the same time become more homogeneous in its behavior. The existence of Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park (and in cities across the United States) as encampments, assemblies, and marches across the public realm has highlighted the ways in which the country has grown to favor corporations and the wealthy by integrating capitalist interests into policy and legislation.  (Moynihan, 2011.)  Privatized public parks are just one example, and Occupy Wall Street has ventured into trade ports, disused farms, and abandoned buildings, and has attempted to interfere with evictions and hold general strikes.  All these actions are meant to reclaim public interests by reclaiming the space that has been appropriated by corporations and wealthy institutions for the purpose of making money. Whether these measures are successful or not is immaterial to the concept that land that exists for the public good must belong to the public, and not to private interests.  The theory of Occupy Wall Street is: we own the space we occupy; let’s occupy the spaces which supposedly exist for our welfare, and remind our government and the American people that these places belong to us.


Part Two: History

The nature of public space in America – its purpose and its limitations – has changed with the years, and Occupy Wall Street is by no means the first instance of civil dissent to challenge perceived social injustices by leveraging their right of assembly in a publicly dedicated space.  The most significant example in recent history, the 1971 May Day protests against the Vietnam War, blocked Washington, D.C.’s key bridges and streets, and overflowed the city’s jails.  “The protesters failed to shut down Washington, but they made clear that the government could not wage war in Vietnam and have peace at home.” (Mills, 2011)  What makes Occupy Wall Street singular is its lack of a central demand or specific goal.  This revolution is more of a state of mind and a flexible outlet for frustration, disconnection, and a wide variety of grievances against American government, institutions, and corporations.  It is precisely because the movement does not have a single goal that can be satisfied that it has been so internationally appealing.  The lack of a list of demands is itself a demand of the systems and individuals in power: we are angry, and it is your job as community leaders to help us change the systems we live in.  We are not going to figure out the solution for you.  We are going to have to work together on this, and we will not cooperate with you until you cooperate with us.

Occupy Wall Street, the beginning of the international Occupy movement, was initiated by Adbusters, a Canadian activist group.  It began on September 17th, 2011, and a few hundred protestors began to camp in Zuccotti Park, which was open overnight, an anomaly in New York City’s municipal public parks, due to its status as a privately owned public space.  It was inspired by the Spanish anti-austerity “indignado” protests and Arab Spring revolutions of 2011, especially the Egyptian Revolution’s protests in Tahrir Square.  The Arab Spring, primarily depending on civil resistance and social media as tools for organizing, communicating, and advertising their grievances against oppressive regimes, though taking place in a far more overtly hostile political climate, was a blueprint for Occupy Wall Street.  The Arab Spring has so far toppled four governments and widely provoked governmental changes, and, although Occupy Wall Street and the other Occupy movements around the United States have not aimed to overthrow the American government, the themes of nonviolent protest, online networking, citizen journalism, and, most of all, occupation of public space, have proved consonant with the objectives of the American Occupy protests[1].

And what are those objectives?  This question has circulated in American media and academia endlessly because traditional society and traditional politics have little context for a movement with no central leader and no central demands.  This state of affairs was confusing to the American public and governmental agencies alike, but the purpose of Occupy Wall Street began to be clear, nevertheless.  When I traveled to New York City to see the demonstrations in Zuccotti Park, I didn’t know what to make of what was happening.  Exploring the encampment, talking with demonstrators, and participating in the general assembly all showed me that what was taking place was a microcosm of the kind of small-scale, community-based urban structure that the protestors believed was possible.  There was a medical tent that served as a free clinic, a library with open donations and borrowing policies, a kitchen where free meals were served, funded by donations collected online and at the park.  The camp wasn’t clean, but it wasn’t filthy either.  There were cases of theft and harassment within the camp, but for the most part, everyone looked out for one another.

Before I arrived in Zuccotti Park in November 2011, I didn’t understand the purpose of the protestor’s insistence on the encampment, but after I spent a few days at the park, it was clear.  The movement needed to build a community, and living together was the quickest way to accomplish that.  The challenges the group had to face together – day-to-day living, internal conflict resolution, dealing with troublemakers, helping every person who wanted to speak be heard in the “human microphone” of the daily general assemblies, where a person speaks and the group repeats her words – bound this community and made it strong.  And the Occupy communities, in the cities in which I demonstrated, Oakland, New York City, and Washington, D.C., were very eager to work together.  They seemed hungry for the companionship, for the power to be seen and heard.  Above the din of petty name-calling and grandiloquent analyses in the befuddled media during Occupy Wall Street’s early days, the voices of the protestors could be heard, chanting, conversing with protestors and onlookers, and challenging the police.  They became citizen journalists on twitter, livestreamed video footage, posted photos, and interviewed for news casts around the world.  I arrived shortly before the November 15th Zuccotti Park eviction, and, after a long night of reconvening, protesting, and avoiding police barricades, I found myself sitting for the emergency general assembly at Foley Plaza as the sun rose.  Later that day I would be interviewed on broadcast radio by the BBC, and I told them what I told the NYPD officers who were telling us to go home: this is our land, and we have a right to be here and to be heard.

Throughout history, American governance has struggled with balancing security with freedom.  While there are foundations for using public space for congregations of political discourse and dissent in the United States Constitution, there are also foundations for retention of central power by elected officials for the purposes of security and freedom for the public majority.  Democracy demands that public property be ruled by popular opinion, but there are many entities (corporations, institutions, activists, and government itself), which attempt to influence and manipulate popular opinion.  As more of the public realm continues to be privatized, manipulating public action and opinion becomes increasingly a matter of good business practices.  At their worst, public spaces in the United Space have become a free-for-all of fearmongering and greed.

In Oakland, where law enforcement is chronically overtaxed and underfunded, and where police are rigorously prepared for the higher level of crime specific to that city, the Occupy protests received some of the worst treatment by law enforcement in the entire movement.  Oakland became a national example in the early months of the protest, as television, news, and YouTube were flooded with images of the Oakland Police Department pepper spraying protesters at close range, firing flashbang grenades and rubber bullets, and manhandling unarmed protestors.  The protestors, too, responded with anger, and there were some instances of assaults and vandalism, eroding the support of the local community and worsening the relationship between Oakland’s municipality and the Occupy Oakland movement.   Oakland, and other cities across the United States, showed the world that at least one system, law enforcement, needed to reform its techniques.  How many of our economic and political systems, many asked, also needed reform? The movement was a beacon: as more bureaucratic systems were suddenly called into unexpected action, problems in local and national legislation came to be identified.  Rather than a movement with a list of demands, Occupy Wall Street served as a catalyst for Americans to ask questions about the framework of their country.

As a professional with a background in landscape architecture, ecological design, and urban planning, it seems natural to me that raising public awareness, pinpointing problems, and effecting positive change relies directly on the accessibility and visibility of the public realm and its legal protections.  For instance, it is easy to overlook a homeless problem that is stowed away into disused areas of a city, difficult to fix building systems that are not easily accessible, and natural to spend more time walking instead of driving when there are safe, attractive, and comfortable routes to jobs and other destinations.  Transforming the anger and frustration of the underserved 99% of American society into the visible entity of the Occupy protests, which invites interaction and participation, follows this line of thinking.  Returning American public spaces to their originally intended use for congregation and the exchange of ideas and resources, explicitly inclusive of peaceful political dissent, is an act with which planners of sustainable urban spaces can connect.  Give a common space to a neighborhood, ensure resources for its maintenance and safety, and community gardens, barbecues, playgrounds, and music events will arise on their own.  When Wall Street business men and women walked past the Zuccotti Park occupation last fall, they stopped ignoring the human aftermath of the economic crisis in 2009 and began either listening to the protestors, or defensively speaking out against them.  Either way, a dialogue was begun, by making a problem normally invisible to Wall Street workers into a full-fledged encampment, at the very steps of their workplaces.

By October 9th of 2011, Occupy demonstrations were active in over 600 communities in the United States, many forming organized encampments with shelter, medical services, libraries, meeting points, and places for general assemblies.  This was a strong statement; the Occupiers were literally living in the public spaces that were presumably dedicated for their use.  Different cities responded in different ways, with evictions, compromises, ambushes, and crowd-control measures, some brutal, some not.  Such efforts usually increased the power of the movement.  Marches swelled in size after encampment evictions and instances of police brutality.  This wave of reactive energy was strong, and the message that came across was of power and autonomy.  “The people no longer trust their leaders and are even starting to indict the system itself.  They think we can do better.  We are all leaders.” (Gautney, 2011)

Protest, like all public gatherings, builds community.  I knew this before I joined Occupy Wall Street in New York City.  What I didn’t know, and in fact discovered quite suddenly, while I was marching in a crowd of over 50,000 over the Brooklyn Bridge during the November 17th, 2011 demonstration, was that public protest inspires patriotism.  I realized that I had never felt particularly like a citizen of the United States.  When I traveled to other countries, I felt about as much at home in any city I happened to like; it wasn’t until I took part in the protests last fall that I felt involved, even at home, in the politics of my own country.  More than reading a history book, or the newspaper, or visiting the D.C. monuments, or even voting, I felt like I was doing something effectual and important when I was with the demonstrations.  I was talking with total strangers of all different backgrounds about politics and history and what kind of country we wanted to live in, and we had a chance to act on what we came up with.  One day I felt moved to link arms around a building on Wall Street and block workers from getting to their jobs, and another day I did not, and simply showed my support by talking with angry business men and women about what we were trying to say.  I had never before felt as though I had actively participated in my country’s political system, and this experience, more than anything else in my life, made me love my country enough to want it to change.

Occupy Wall Street is patriotic, and it is distinctly American.  It quickly developed its own proud, inclusive subculture: language, organization, resources, and online presence.  It drew musicians, religious leaders, performers, and celebrities with its infectious culture.  People who felt marginalized, powerless, and alienated, found solidarity.  Those dispossessed of their houses found a home.  The right of the public to stand up against perceived political injustices is as critical to democracy as it is to universal suffrage.  Despite all the confusion and complexities, occupation of public land was an elegantly simple approach.  Everyone took notice.


Part Three: Rebuilding Democracy

The events surrounding Occupy Wall Street in New York and other cities across the United States have shown that the public realm is less friendly to the right to public assembly and public political dissent than it has a constitutional right to be.  A material reason for this, derived from New York City’s Privatized Public Spaces’ total lack (and understandably so) of advocacy for civic and community interests, is that corporations and capitalist business interests have intruded into the public realm.  As an urban planner interested in building and retrofitting green, connected, sustainable communities, I believe that an abundance of publicly owned space is essential both to building healthy communities and to furnish a stage for political participation, locally and nationally. These spaces cannot belong to private entities if they are to truly serve the public, they must exist as publically owned property, and their rules must be based on democratic decisions, preferably on a regional level.

One issue with Occupy Wall Street that has repeatedly surfaced is a conflict about security.  Law enforcement and municipal authorities argue that their actions are for the sake of keeping the peace, protecting innocent civilians, and protecting property, and protesters make the same argument.  That law enforcement is willing to use weapons and force and the vast majority of protesters are not is where the clash becomes most visible.  When I saw police in New York, Washington, D.C., and Oakland crush unresisting protesters against the ground, yank a cameraman off a bus shelter, and punch an angry middle aged woman in the face, I thought about what security means, and where it comes from.  In every instance of police violence I witnessed, I could see the crowd of protesters get angrier.  The crowd-control tactics of tear gas, rubber bullets, kettling, and pepper spray did not calm the crowds.  At most, they might send people home or to medical care for a day or so, and then more would return, with more energy, more assurance, more anger.  This is not where lasting security comes from.

Governmental backlash against dissent, protest and revolution has tended towards violence to the extent that the government in question distrusts its relationship with its own people.  The impetus to control what one fears is a part of human nature that is as old as the drive to procreate.  What isn’t so readily apparent is that the softer aspects of control, such as the progressive marginalization of grassroots empowerment by a governing body, also leaves a trail of blood.  A people who are systematically stripped of their right to challenge their government, their right to use their own judgment in regards to their safety and happiness, their right to use land that has been deeded in perpetuity for public use for peaceful purposes, will not be contented. Discontent manifests itself in many ways, erupting not only in revolutions and riots, but also in self-destructive action and directionless violence.  The micromanaging of public spaces in the United States will only increase noncompliance.  Lasting security doesn’t come from tighter control.

Security does come from a balance of consensus government and individual self-determination.  By creating an environment that enables individuals to form communities, to challenge authority, to educate themselves, to live decently, and to think for themselves, a governing system becomes flexible instead of brittle, and thus achieves enduring strength.  In other words, governing bodies and corporations do not deserve protection as much as people do.  The concept of corporate personhood, a term that has suffused some of the political discourse that Occupy Wall Street has generated, is a good example of this.  Giving corporations some of the same legal rights as American citizens is a development conceptually related to the privatization of public land; both are representative of modern policies where private interests take priority over community interests. Occupy Wall Street re-created community by bringing the intentions of individuals back into the public realm.

Advocating the use of public space for peaceful protest is one of the most meaningful symbols possible of a democracy.  One of Occupy Wall Street’s most valuable functions is to make social injustice and hypocritical policy visible.  Indeed this is in part the function of all protest.  When people participate in their own government, which is the ultimate intention of all democracy, they must share ideas, they must be seen and heard by both their elected officials, by their own communities, and by the general public.  When corporations and government institutions become more worthy of protection than individuals and public needs, the foundations of human rights and social justice are threatened.  Through acknowledgement of the public realm as the property of the public, ultimately governed by their communities and protected by the active consensus of local businesses and residents, a country can uphold democracy on a very tangible and visible level.  By empowering individuals to use the space dedicated to them, while remaining peaceful, active, and engaged, a nation can achieve the best and most long-lasting security: a strong, participatory citizenry.  On every level, cities must belong to communities rather than businesses or institutions that do not represent public interests, and the Occupy movement in the United States has made it clear that changes need to be made for cities to be returned to their rightful owners.






Danver, Steven L. (2010), Revolts, Protests, Demostrations, and Rebellions in American History: An Encyclopedia, Vol. 1. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, LLC.


Purdy, Jedediah (2011), The Meaning of Property: Freedom, Community, and the Legal Imagination.  New Haven: Yale University Press.


Electronic Publications


Austin, Drew (2012), “Overprogrammed Cities”, Blog, Kneeling Bus, April 26. Accessed on 05.11.2012 at


Berg, Nate (2011), “Occupy Wall Street Protest Poses Public-Private Conundrum”, The Atlantic Cities, Politics, September 29. Accessed on 05.11.2012 at


Boykoff, Jules (2011), “Occupy Wall Street: Reclaiming Public Space, Reclaiming Dignity”, Oregon Live, Opinion, October 12.  Accessed on 05.11.2012 at


Brown, Eliot. (2011), “What Occupy Wall Street Owes to Zoning”, The Wall Street Journal, Developments Blog, October 17.  Accessed on 05.11.2012 at


Cristiano, Robert J. (2011), “Arab Spring – American Winter”, New Geography, October 29. Accessed on 05.11.2012 at


Davies, Pete (2011), “AIA Ponders Public Spaces in the Age of Occupy Wall Street”, Curbed New York, December 19. Accessed on 05.11.2012 at


Erikson, Amanda (2011), “How Occupy Wall Street is Reinventing Public Space”, The Atlantic Cities, Politics, November 7. Accessed on 05.11.2012 at


Fractenberg, Ben (2011), “Zuccotti Park Can’t Be Closed to Wall Street Protesters, NYPD Says”, DNAinfo, September 28. Accessed on 05.11.2012 at


Gauntney, Heather (2011), “Occupy Wall Street and the History of Force”, The Washington Post, National, November 15,  Accessed on 06.08.2012 at


Goodman, Amy, with Denis Moynihan (2011), “Globalizing Dissent, From Tahrir Square to Liberty Plaza”, DemocracyNow!, October 26.  Accessed on 06.06.2012 at


Kimmelman, Michael (2011), “In Protest, the Power of Place”, The New York Times, Opinion, October 15.  Accessed on 05.11.2012 at


Miller, Aaron David. (2011), “Arab Spring, American Winter”, The Los Angeles Times, Opinion, November 13.  Accessed on 05.11.2012 at


Marcuse, Peter (2012), “#10 – The Changes in Occupy and the Right to the City”, Peter Marcuse’s Blog: Critical Planning and Other Thoughts, March 25. Accessed on 05.11.2012 at


Marcuse, Peter (2012), “#11. Reforms, Radical Reforms, Transformative Claims”, Peter Marcuse’s Blog: Critical Planning and Other Thoughts, March 25. Accessed on 05.11.2012 at


Mills, Nicholas (2011), “Wall Street Protest’s Long Historical Roots”, CNN Opinion, October 11.  Accessed on 06.08.2012, at


Moynihan, Colin (2011), “Park Gives Wall St. Protesters a Place to Call Home”, The New York Times, City Room Blog, September 27.  Accessed on 05.11.2012, at


Orlov, Dmitri (2012), “The Strange Logic of Dreams”, Blog, CLUBORLOV, April 19. Accessed on 05.11.2012 at


Reynolds, Francis (2011), “After Zuccotti Park: Seven Privately Owned Public Spaces to Occupy Next”, The Nation, October 14. Accessed on 05.11.2012 at


Roy, Ananya (2011), “Occupy the Future”, Society and Space – Environmental and Planning D: An Interdisciplinary Journal Published by Pion, November 18.  Accessed on 05.11.2012, at


The New York City Department of City Planning (2012), “Privately Owned Public Space”,, the Official Web Site of New York City.  Accessed on 05.11.2012 at


Yglesias, Matthew (2011), “Another Problem with Zuccotti Park: It isn’t a Very Good Park”, The Atlantic Cities, Politics, October 13. Accessed on 05.11.2012 at


Radio Broadcasts


Chomsky, Noam. (2011, December) Arab Spring, American Winter.  Speech presented at the University of New England’s Center for Global Humanities, Westbrook, ME.  Accessed on 05.11.2012 at

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