‘Print this Map. Get off the Internet. Take to the Streets’: 5 of the Left’s Best Mapping Moments
by Sam Hind
5 February 2015
Mapping and activism have a long history. In the final days of the Paris Commune the military advances of the Versailles army were mapped on a daily basis as the revolutionaries sought to keep them at bay. Fast forward nearly 100 years and the Situationists were once again mapping Paris in altogether more abstract ways – this time to resist the advances of the modern city. In more recent times we’ve seen the rudimentary mapping of protest camps in Madrid, New York and Hong Kong. With these in mind, here are five more seminal cartographic moments worth remembering:
1. Where Commuters Run Over Black Children on the Pointes-Downtown Track (1971)
Detroit, 1967. The city is gripped by race riots. The Michigan National Guard is policing the streets and Lyndon B. Johnson has sent in the US Army. Sound familiar? Four years later a group calling themselves the Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute (DGEI) published a map of fatal road traffic accidents.
It’s unashamedly bold, yet decidedly minimal – but this isn’t a document spat out by some policy wonk in the planning department. It’s a map by a civic education collective showing where affluent white commuters kill poor black kids on their way home from work. The affluent suburb of Grosse-Point – the setting for Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, a satire of private school life in the US – lies barely a couple miles east of the map. The racial divides were stark. Finding the data didn’t come easy, though. As Gwendolyn Warren, Director of the DGEI, suggested at the time:
“…naturally, these deaths of the children or the injuries or whatever it happened to be were disguised as something else. We had to use political people in order to use them as a means of getting information from the police department in order to find out exactly what time, where, and how, and who killed that child.”
Yet it’s a story of black deaths and police lies that still resonates from Detroit to Ferguson today. It’s a cartographic case that powerfully asserts that black lives do indeed matter.
2. Summit shutdown maps (1999/2001)
David Graeber’s Direct Action is a vivid depiction of a coordinated assault on the ‘Summit of the Americas‘ being held in Québec City in 2001. Two years prior, Seattle was (in)famously shut down in a similar manner. The anti-globalization movement was at its peak. Loose affinity groups such as Direct Action Network (DAN) and Ya Basta! were leading the charge, new playful tactics and temporary affiliations in the form of ‘pink blocs’ and tute bianche were being tried and tested (with remarkable success), and otherwise disparate struggles from labour unions to green activists were coming together.
These maps helped to create victories. Their deployment helped to ‘shut down’ both cities – re-claiming them for the disaffected. The first map is downtown Seattle. The WTO summit that was taking place at the time sits slap bang in the middle of it. The hatched lines surrounding the conference centre are educated guesses by anti-globalization activists as to police lines, and each ‘zone’ (A to L) the responsibility of a separate activist bloc.
The second map, as shown in Direct Action, is Québec City. Once again, the summit sits at the centre. Again, police lines are marked (thick, black). But this time so is the approximate area of tear gas deployment (thin, black). Each bears witness to a tactical engagement through which particular situated activist knowledges were produced, circulated, and above all, remembered.
3. Geography of the Fürth Departure Centre (2004)
The appalling conditions at Yarl’s Wood. Fortress Europe. The end of Operation Mare Nostrum. The immigration debate has been well covered on these pages. But back in 2004, An Architektur – a radical German architecture collective – collaborated with students from the Nuremberg Academy of Fine Arts to map the country’s ausreisezentren (‘departure centres’) for An Atlas of Radical Cartography.
The Fürth centre was built in 2002 – and was the first in Bavaria, capable of holding up to 50 asylum seekers. The map itself contains a wealth of data meticulously gathered from state documents, independent reports and personal evidence, and served two primary functions.
Firstly it sought to trace the dimensions of the actual premises (excerpt above), drawing attention to the haunting administrative structure itself; turnstile entrances, interrogation rooms and sleeping quarters – akin to James Bridle’s recent digital renderings of the UK deportation system. In short, the immediate geography of detention.
Secondly, it drew socio-spatial connections out beyond the Bavarian State (above), depicting the ‘facilities’ at further centres in Trier, Halberstadt and Braunschweig where detainees are subject to regular interrogations, bans on German language courses, and partial cancellations of subsidies. Whilst a map of UK sites has also been produced – by the Global Detention Project – An Architektur’s is an infinitely more visceral rendering of this bleak world.
4. Squaring up to the Square Mile (2009)
It’s March 2009 and the London Metropolitan Police are panicking. The G20 are rolling into town. Whilst they expect opposition they’ve still no idea how it’ll play out. Now, some kind of confirmation. They’ve seen something that’s been posted online. This time it isn’t a written manifesto. Nor is it poster or a flyer. It’s a map of the City of London.
Some of the older members of Scotland Yard have been here before. June 1999 in fact, when ‘anti-capitalists lay siege’ using a similar map. Once again, the media are frothing at the prospect of the Square Mile being overrun. Police describe the threat as ‘unprecedented’. ‘Dozens of banks’ are to shut in fear of being targeted. But it’s not just banks that the map’s creators have in their sights, it’s also auditors, exchanges, rating agencies, arms traders, law firms, carbon traders and energy corporations. In short, it’s the whole neoliberal enterprise.
Despite having a number of factual errors (the London Stock Exchange had moved to Paternoster Square five years previous, for example), it was enough to spread fear amongst those who had been mapped. And with no idea of which of the 47 sites were to be targeted, the map succeeded in fostering a spatial unpredictability that many direct actions had hitherto lacked. ‘Print this map. Get off the internet. Take to the streets’ was the rallying cry.
5. Sukey takes the kettle off (2010-2011)
Barely 18 months later and the streets of London were full again. This time the shutdown came courtesy of students protesting against an increase in tuition fees. On 9 December 2010 – like anti-G20 activists in 2009 – they found themselves kettled. This time in far colder conditions. For nine hours. Liberty brought more legal action against the Met’s flagrant disregard for both general human welfare and the democratic right to protest, but it seemed as if the damage had already been done. That is until a secret weapon was developed by a group of programmers at UCL: an ‘anti-kettling’ smartphone app called Sukey.
For the first time anywhere in the world, activists were able to use the power of digital, mobile mapping technology to harness the collective knowledge of the crowd. Rather than facing the prospect of being kettled, students were able to anticipate the movement of police lines and see an overview of action across the city. Moreover, instead of relying on mainstream media reports, they could file their own.
When the TUC-organized ‘March for the Alternative’ came round in March 2011, protesters were furnished with a live map comprising ‘traffic light’ (red = blocked road) indications of free movement, and a rolling twitter feed. Whilst it didn’t stop the Met kettling protesters in Fortnum & Masons, it did allow them free run of the city, playing cat-and-mouse games with the police well into the night. Sukey may be gone, but in its short life it allowed the student movement to not only glimpse a world beyond sterile A-to-B demonstrations, but also to realize one in which the power to map was firmly in the hands of the otherwise disempowered.