The Return of Street Politics?

Titus Hjelm, UCL

The Arab Spring, the global Occupy movement, anti-austerity protests. It seems that we are witnessing ‘the return of street politics’, as a worried Al-Jazeera opinion piece put it in 2013. The street has also been the focus in the recent riots in Paris, London and Stockholm—although most media pundits interpreted these as mobs of out of control problem youth, rather than political events.

Street politics has of course existed as long as there have been streets where people could gather to discuss, protest and sometimes violently demand rights. The history of this kind of street politics is probably as well known from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and its theatrical and cinematic renditions as from history textbooks. It is the kind of street politics portrayed by Hugo and histories of the European annus mirabilis of 1848 that still dominates the media coverage. The barricade has given way to the square as the symbol of protest, but the sense of street politics as the politics of spectacle—now intensified manifold by instant global media coverage—remains.

Instead of spectacle, the project Youth Street Politics in the Media Age: Helsinki and London Compared focuses on the everyday politics of young people in urban space. By hanging around in Tower Hamlets, London and Malmi, Finland, our aim has been to ethnographically map young people’s use of urban space. One of the premises of the project has been that the street is no less political even when it is not a scene of a demonstration or a ‘riot’. This is most evident in superdiverse metropolises such as London, but smaller, less diverse cities such as Helsinki offer an interesting comparison. Urban space is thoroughly permeated by boundaries, whether these take spatial, virtual or cultural forms, and boundaries are by definition political. When a young man refuses to cross a particular street in fear of ‘postcode wars’, or a young woman avoids areas with sizable Muslim populations because she feels she is not welcome on account of the way she might dress, that is all street politics in the everyday sense. Most broadly speaking, the first thing that surprised us was—despite the ‘street’ being the focus of all media fears in light of killings involving young people—the noticeable absence of young people on the streets. Partly this was because of the said fears about youth on youth violence, but also—and this was disproportionally the experience of young Muslim men—because of recurrent stop and searches by the police.

In addition to rethinking and expanding the meaning of ‘politics’, we argue that in the media age the ‘street’ has to be reimagined as well. The street and its boundaries stretch beyond the physical street, being constantly reproduced in the mainstream and social media alike. For example, Tower Hamlets was (again) the focus of a debate about boundaries—of borough streets, of religion, of multicultural society—when the infamous ‘Muslim Patrol’ video surfaced on YouTube in early 2013. In the video, originally posted by the ‘patrol’ themselves, young Muslim men stop people because they are exhibiting inappropriate behaviour (drinking alcohol, wearing a dress above the knee, and one person harassed for being a ‘fag’) in a ‘Muslim area’. The motivations of the ‘vigilantes’ are one thing, but as a media ethnography of the discussion threads on most YouTube clips with the words ‘Tower Hamlets’ shows, the ownership of the ‘street’ is debated far beyond a small and controversial clique—and not often in very civilised terms.

In sum, to understand young people in diverse 21st century urban contexts requires expanding our sense of ‘street politics’. If politics is interpreted narrowly as party politics, or as extra-parliamentary ways of affecting governments, then we are witnessing a ‘return’ of street politics; the street politics of the spectacle. If, however, we want to focus on the social aspects of being young in the city—the politics of everyday life, if you will—street politics never went away.

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