Protests don’t have to be mass protests. Individual actions like this one can be very high profile. Or you can go subtle, like this:
A small Ukrainian flag in the middle of Red Square, Moscow
However, I think it’s fair to say that mass protests are usually more effective, not necessarily in the sense of achieving the stated ends but in the sense of achieving something. Hence the recent spate of massively popular urban demonstrations. Maidan, Tahrir, Taksim… The list goes on and on. Someone counted the number of protests during the last couple of years and there’s indeed a steady increase:
37 of the 834 events counted had one million or more protesters!
Analysis of these protests often focuses on the role of social media, but just as interesting and somewhat forgotten is the role of urban planning and architecture. Most mass protests take place in and around central squares of large cities and it’s easy to see why these are favorite protest spots:
- Public squares allow large numbers of people, sometimes very large numbers to congregate at the same spot. Centrally located in capital cities, they typically have many access routes. They are also Schelling Points (“a solution that people will tend to use in the absence of communication, because it seems natural, special or relevant to them”).
- There’s often some kind of symbolic meaning to these places (maybe they’re named after national heros). They tend to be close to the institutions of power, which isn’t merely symbolic: it’s those institutions that are claimed to be responsible for the grievances of the masses and that need to hear the message.
- Large numbers of people are also more difficult for security forces to attack, in the sense that an attack would be very visible and public and therefore potentially embarrassing – at least for those rulers who aren’t beyond embarrassment. The importance of large numbers of protesters doesn’t lie in the fact that the police or the military have a larger force against them – they usually have the means disperse even very large groups of people and a sense of safety in numbers is therefore mostly illusory among protesters. The problem with dispersing large groups is that it doesn’t look good on TV.
- The ease of TV coverage is itself a reason for holding mass protests in large open spaces in capital cities (reporters often don’t venture outside of the capital). Protesters need to be seen together and when they take over central squares in capital cities – places that are normally buzzing with economic activity – then the world takes notice. The choice of location enhances the impact of protests.
- And finally, large groups enhance the intensity of the protest through solidarity, mimicry etc. Physical unity translates into intellectual unity, and physical unity is easier in large open spaces.
A particular urban setting – intentionally designed or grown over the course of history – can promote the occurrence and intensity of mass protests. It’s no surprise therefore that the urban planners of dictators try to design cities in such a way that potential protesters are discouraged. Focal points such as large squares are not designed away – a dictator needs them for the theatre of power – but they are policed and fenced. Small streets that could be used by protesters to escape and barricade are demolished and replaced by wide avenues:
December 5, 2011 in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar. Nay Pyi Taw is the capitol city of Myanmar, formally in Yangon until the Burmese government created a new secluded capitol closed off from much of the world until recently. (Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)
These avenues can then be used to send in the troops if need be. For example, Beijing’s avenues were instrumental in the attack on Tiananmen square.
The model of pro-autocratic urban design is of course the rebuilding of Paris in the 1850s and 1860s. Baron Haussmann turned a medieval city full of narrow streets into a rational, centralized, geometrically ordered system with grand boulevards that would be both harder to barricade and easier for troops to march through. The hope was that this would stop the revolutionary fervor in France. Here’s a before/after image of 19th century Paris:
Before and after the renovation of the Bastille area
All dictators ever since have tried to replicate this model, if necessary by way of the construction from scratch of new capital cities in the middle of nowhere. If international embarrassment becomes less painful than a fall from power, the central squares and large avenues can be used to crush dissent. In Tiananmen the crushing took place by way of tanks, but usually the means are less extreme:
A protestor is hit by water sprayed from a water cannon during clashes in Taksim Square, Istanbul, Turkey, 11 June 2013. Police used water cannons and tear gas as they moved into Istanbul’s Taksim Square, where two weeks of protests have been held, as some demonstrators threw rocks and Molotov cocktails. Photo: KERIM OKTEN/EPA
Photos of a woman in a red summer dress, being sprayed with teargas by a masked policeman, has become a symbol for Turkey’s protesters.
Teargas at Tahrir Square
So you have your classic double edged sword: large open spaces can facilitate protest, but also the reaction of the state.
Some bonus pictures of the Majdan protests in Kiev:
Majdan, before and after
Majdan, before and after