Restaurants, nightclubs and cafes are almost completely open again. Some of us are also allowed to work a little more often in the office and the mouth plugs are removed. Return to “normal”, in the public space. But for some, it is a step backwards rather than a step forward.
“Now that everything reopens and we’re cleared out, I realize that inside, with no daily interactions, I almost forgot I’m black,” I recently tweeted. Hundreds of racist, sexist and insulting comments have emerged. For those who prefer to turn a blind eye to uncomfortable truths, reading other people’s experiences turns out to be a trigger, inadvertently proving my point.
Because of the confinement, it had escaped me for a while that public space is not for everyone. When you are on the inside, you are not constantly confronted with people who – because of arbitrary characteristics – make you the Other, and you can just be yourself. My observation was supported by other people of color, Muslims, trans people, and people with disabilities.
It’s not just about how you are perceived if you don’t belong to the norm, but also how ‘hostile’ public space can be. so there was recent review of a footbridge under construction in Nijmegen which cannot be crossed by wheelchairs, strollers or walkers. With which the city council implies that only citizens able to walk are willing or allowed to cross the road. In many (big) cities you have more of this kind of hostile architecture, like benches with armrests and sidewalks with spikes, to prevent the homeless from sleeping.
Hostile architecture is an architectural strategy in which the intention is to exclude specific people from public space. This can be done explicitly, because of the way the infrastructure is set up, but also implicitly, because a dominant group determines who has access.
I am currently making a documentary on the timelessness of black and anti-racist resistance. The theme of spatiality comes back again and again. One form of resistance is to take and occupy spaces that were not made for you and turn them into something else. In militant circles, it is therefore oftento take up space‘ speak. Sometimes placing a “foreign” body in familiar surroundings can already make a difference. To see the presence of deputies like Sylvana Simons (BIJ1) and Kauthar Bouchallikht (GroenLinks) who made a lot of noise.
While society is still ravaged by the coronavirus which continues to mutate – like a Gremlin from the film of the same name (1984) feeding you after midnight – age-old plagues like exclusion prove to be even more persistent.
In my previous column, I wrote about creating the future. It’s also about how we make spaces safer. In right-wing conservative circles (and outside) people often laugh at ‘safe spaces‘. Usually by those for whom public space is generally designed and therefore cannot imagine that others are in danger there. Exclusion is so normal for some that an attempt to do otherwise evokes contemptuous jokes.
However, this should not prevent us from redefining spaces. Whether it’s creating spaces for non-dominant groups, building accessible bridges, or putting cushions on benches for the homeless, we affirm that public space belongs to no one – and therefore to all of us. .
Clarice Gargard is a program producer and freelance journalist.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of July 1, 2021