The Radical Act of Taking Up Space

Selfish, reckless people, we are told, are responsible for the extent and speed of the spread of coronavirus. The general public are flocking to parks and beaches in spite of the current lockdown. ‘How dare they?’ we hear, when the truth is that the general public have more time and less money than they are used to living with, and the prospect of several months alone in a small flat is not an easy one.

The virus has been described as ‘indiscriminate’ in the sense that it can spread to rich and poor alike. One example of this is the widely publicised UK Prime Minister’s stint in hospital fighting his own personal battle with Covid-19.

The difference, though, between Boris Johnson and the other patients on his ward, is that early on in the pandemic he refused to stop shaking the hands of the infected for the sake of publicity. He has continued to fail to meet the WHO’s guidelines on testing for the disease, sufficient PPE for NHS staff and time and again refused to take Covid-19 seriously in spite of access to so much information advising otherwise.

He also comes from an extremely wealthy family, and benefits from access to several homes. (As Foreign Secretary his official residence was in Chevening – a Grade I listed 17th century country mansion). There are unlimited resources at his disposal for social distancing, quarantine, and recovery from the coronavirus. This is not the case for the majority of Britons.

The problem is that the blame for the spread of the virus is being misdirected (by big media) onto the wrong people. It is not the average Joe going for a walk in his local park who is responsible for Britain’s precarious position, but rather the decade of austerity measures keeping the NHS working at its limit with less funding than ever.

This kind of scapegoat rhetoric erases the ongoing, rapidly intensifying class struggle that is unfolding. Blame should not be on those who are in the public space so much as those who have continually privatised and sold off public space to the extent that we do not have enough for everyone who needs it.

The reality is that this threat does not pose equal danger to the working class and the middle class, or even the middle class and the upper class. Some can afford to stay at home and still have plenty of space. Private space. Private space is a luxury that has been unequally divvied up. Private space is something extremely expensive and, by its very nature, exclusive. Those who have greater access to private space do not have the right to deny those who do not from using public space in its stead.

This privilege is best illustrated by the attempts by those who can afford it to separate themselves from more high-risk, densely populated areas by fleeing to holiday homes in smaller towns and villages. Hoping to make this quarantine into a kind of holiday and ‘hunker down’ in luxury while the average member of the public struggles on in the only home they can afford (if they’ve not been turfed out by their landlord).

Several politicians have been made to apologise for visiting second homes in rural areas. Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood resigned after being caught in breach of her own Covid-19 lockdown rule by leaving her home in Edinburgh to visit her coastal holiday home in Earlsferry (44 miles away from the capital). This is the problem. Extremely preventable trips taken by the wealthy to small communities with less infrastructure than is available at their usual residence. Residence with lush furnishings, roomy gardens, and several floors worth of space.

It is telling that the public should face such threats as “If you don’t follow the rules, the police will have the powers to enforce them, including through fines and dispersing gatherings”, when at the same time, those select few deciding to flee to a second home, or to continue to make their non-essential employees come into work everyday to keep profits up, or who use cleaning staff just because they can afford them, are not seen as the problem.

Celebrities have been criticised for vlogging their personal complaints while relaxing in mansions with acres of green space at their fingertips. Ellen DeGeneres posted a video in which she made a joke comparing her quarantine in a $24m home to being in jail. This illustrates the disconnect between the wealthy elite and those for whom incarceration is not an abstract idea but a daily reality. Covid-19 has already claimed the lives of inmates who did not have the autonomy to effectively distance themselves from one another. The USA leads the world in the percentage of its own population currently held within the monetised prison system.

In reality, the people who are going to the park, to green public spaces, deserve to be in that space. It is theirs.

The number of people who are forced to seek out public green spaces to get some fresh air, exercise, or simply improve their mental health, is a symptom of increasing class inequality. This is made necessary only by the privatisation and development projects which seek to exchange such public land for profit, and by the resentment of those who do not wish to be taxed proportionately to their income in order to fund the vital conservation and maintenance work required of local councils.

Spaces other than your home and your work such a libraries, churches, parks and beaches are known as ‘third places’. These are increasingly monetised, meaning that on top of rent or mortgage payments you need money to be able to afford to be in social spaces such as coffee shops, leisure centres, botanical gardens, pubs, historical sights, or car parks. While public art galleries and museums remain free in the UK, you often have to pay to get into exhibitions.

This is important to note because it actively limits the amount of people who have access to these spaces, and it makes this distinction based on wealth alone.

While many cinemas and similar institutions provide discounts for students and pensioners, these reduced prices do not extend to the unemployed, or many of the working poor in Britain today. When NHS nurses are forced to resort to using food banks, it’s hard to imagine them being able to afford access to places other than their home. The few places which remain for the public to enjoy without having to pay for the privilege to do so are more important than ever.

In conclusion, it is important to take up space and to fight for your right to do so.

You exist in a body which takes up space. This is not a radical fact.

Yet, public space is divided, categorised, and organised without the needs of the general public in mind. Spaces are often designed to accommodate the thin and the young and the able-bodied among us. For example, seats on public transport are small to keep profits up and costs down, regardless of the diversity of bodies who depend on them daily. The public is thereby made uncomfortable in space which is supposedly designed for them. The act of your body taking up more space than designated is radical, and you should not need to defend your right to do so.

Larger public space, too, is controlled closely by the state, who work to minimise and contain any radical use of said space. The state also operates to keep people separate. Public space is policed space. The aim is to keep the poor away from the wealthy. To keep some neighbourhoods ‘safe’ at the expense of others.

The fact is, you are not selfish, lazy, or ‘antisocial’ simply for using public space to meet your needs. You should not feel guilty for going to the park when you are expected to stay at home. To stay at home and pay rent even though you cannot work.

To spend time on activities which do not cost money, where you are not increasing corporate profits, is a radical act.

So if you have a garden, enjoy your garden. If you have a local park, enjoy your local park. If you have a large country estate, stay the fuck at home and let the public use the fucking public space.