Speakers corner and the politics of space

This week our theory focused on the politics of space, namely how the concept of space, especially public space, plays a role in influencing social movements and political discussion. There is much theory dedicated to this idea and the idea of a politicised space is not an uncommon one, there has long been movements dedicated to using public spaces as a platform of protest. However, I decided that because this blog is about London I should look to the most famous point of protest in the city, Speakers Corner.

Speakers Corner is situated in Hyde Park and after a series of clashes between authorities and protesters, the government allocated a space for free speech in every public park . This is how the space came to be granted to the people by the government via the 1872 Royal parks and Gardens Regulation Act.(Roberts,2000,p.272). Over the years it has hosted a great number of radical voices, from William Morris ,to Lenin, to Gandhi.

Prior to its official adoption , the site had been used for centuries as a gathering place for dissenters, probably beginning with the act of giving the ‘last dying speech’ of the criminals hanged at nearby Tyburn tree, which was the first legally sanctioned instance of free speech in the park. (Roberts, p.278) But most notable would be the Chartist occupation in 1855 against the Sunday trading laws, which Roberts argues transformed the park into a space of working class dissent. (Roberts,2001,323-4). It was, he says, the moment the park became a political sphere as the speakers addressed the gathered crowds against the wishes of the police, and were protected from arrest by the very same crowds. (ibid, p.324-5)

However from this we can easily see that it was precisely this kind of public behaviour that led to the government sanctioned space we see today, it was this period of public dissent that led the government to re-think the way the park was policed by allowing an ‘officially demarcated space for public address’. (Cooper,2006,p.754)

Michel De Certeau defined the difference (albeit somewhat confusingly) between a place and a space, a place is an area, a distinct location whereas a space is somewhere that is used and transformed because there are people there. (De Certeau, 1984, p.117). In other words a space is a place with a purpose and that is what makes Speakers Corner a space for protest rather than just another spot on a park footpath.

So is Speakers Corner’s still a  legitimate space for protest because of its link to the government or does this fact mean that the political weight of activity here is somewhat diluted by the fact that whatever happens there has been sanctioned by the government rather than rebelling against them?

Fran Tonkiss says that one of the most visible forms of exercising power is to occupy or assume control of a space, this could be performed via a sit-in or a march,(Tonkiss,2005,p.60) in the case of speakers corner it represents the soap box which you stand on to air your views. Seeing as though the area was given to the public by an act of parliament it generally means that any protest that occurs there has been granted permission by the power-holder (not very radical!).

Does this mean that speakers corner is any less of a platform for protest than say, an impromptu and unsanctioned, mass protest on Whitehall? While its existence won’t necessarily make what people say there any less controversial,  I would argue that by giving this space over to protesters the government has not created a centralised place of protest, they have simply moved the gathering spot for dissenters somewhere else.

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