For many years I overlooked the ‘Beurs’, the Brussels stockexchange, from my balcony in the Ortstraat. I could witness an event passing almost every day: soccer fans after a match, union actions, protests and demonstrations. As if the topicality found it’s stage there. Yes, I really had the feeling that I was looking at a political and social theater; a glimpse of the world, not just a nice street view. The stairs and the front square of the Beurs almost literally form a theatrical space where politics and history get a tangible and visible shape. It was a beautiful and thankful scenery for the television camera. Later in my life I often participated with short, improvised speeches. But that’s all in the past…
When I arrived last year (at the end of August August 28 2013 to be precise) joining an emerging manifestation against an intervention in Syria (in 24 hours we got 200 people and national radio and television), I was shocked that the stairs and the square of the Beurs where denied to us by the police. Their excuse was that it had become the entrance of a museum and thus political manifestations no longer belonged there. I couldn’t believe my eyes. They obliged us to continue our demonstration on the other side of the street in between the concrete flower boxes. A pathetic place, no visibility, no amphitheater, no political stage. The camera crews of the television had also a hard time finding a good angle there.
It is important to realize what is happening here: the most public space of Brussels, maybe even Belgium, a true amphitheater of social and political life in our country is being taken away from us. For many years this was the place where you could not only measure the true temperature of our time but also track the topicality. Outrageous soccer fans, angry unionists or indignant participants all chose the stairs and fore square of the Beurs as their stage. And they knew why. It was simply the place to be.
Naturally the use of the stairs can vary. I wonder if the police would also stop soccer fans after a glorious win? Obviously not. The mayor of Antwerp thought it was smart to tolerate the manifestation of the soccer fans last year although they didn’t ask for a demonstration permit instead of giving them fines. This in contrast to the administrative fines (the so called GAS-boetes: ‘gemeentelijke administrative sancties’, where the executive power is judge and party at once) that where given to the people in Antwerp protesting against multinationals like Monsanto for the privatization of sowing seeds through patenting of GGO’s.
The bottom line is that political action is not welcome and celebrating or protesting soccer fans are politically innocent and therefore winsome (and most of all potentially aggressive). Anyway, this strongly illustrates the subtle expropriation of our public space (in the strong sense of the word) as a political stage.
And this is obviously not all a coincidence: the neoliberal city doesn’t like political expressions. The Belgian beer-temple, the future destination of the Beurs, has to become a place to boost Brussels as place to be for tourists. As in a shopping mall or a theme park: keep it cosy: “We don’t do politics here”.
But that can’t be an excuse. By the way, tourists like a little spectacle so that they can witness with their own eyes that Belgians are actively engaging in democracy. Even I want to help the tourist services draft a complete marketing plan to transform this into a true ‘must see’. You can see imagine that tourists would be disappointed if they didn’t see a group of people with signs, a megaphone and the media on the stairs of the Beurs the day they pass there. Anyway, maybe I’m taking this too far but you know what I mean.
Nor the temple nor the tourists have to fear for the nuisance of demonstrators. Even more so now they announced that the Beer-temple would get it’s entrance on the side of the building. So an undisturbed entrance is guaranteed. Now the stairs are certainly available, they are ours, they are everybody’s and nobody’s.
The stairs of the Beurs are also more than just a platform for protest. It’s a fixed meeting point for very diverse people. From homeless people to businessmen or tourists. You meet at the Beurs and if you have to wait you sit down at the stairs. It’s just an amazing meeting point. Especially now it will soon become a car free zone. But at the same time we have to make sure that implementing this car free zone won’t be used as a cover up to frame the center as an even more unpolitical theme park. Honestly I am pessimitic.
Most cities would envy a place like the steps of the Beurs: the ultimate spot of democracy, because next to the daily visitors, newspaper stands, sounds of joy and protest, it’s a domain for freedom of speech, a true symbolic realization into a material space of ‘the public sphere’ that represents itself in newspapers, television, radio, internet… basically a virtual space. This is more impressive then Speaker’s corner in Hyde Park.
That’s why I think that the city council should reconsider its decisions or to point the managers of the building to hold themselves to their civil duties. It’s about a true duty to democracy, maybe not according to the law but de facto. As inhabitants of Brussels and even as Belgians we can’t let them take this unique place away from us. Hereby I call up the Picnic the Streets network, in collaboration with the unionists and several activist organizations, to organize a ‘Reclaim the steps!’.
But that isn’t all. My open letter to ‘Picnic the streets and co’ last year was too focused and therefore a little short-sighted (maybe that’s why it didn’t leave the shelf…). All the demonstrations I participated in since then (and there are a few), started traditionally at the north station but were guided away from the usual route to Brouckère and Beurs. So now the procession runs around the city. All screaming towards nothing, towards nowhere. No audience. The demonstrations get almost literally deprived from there public character: a protest without passengers or spectators might as well just pass through some empty fields.
A demonstration has its place at the heart of the city. A political action belongs in the heart of the city. Right? In my opinion there is method in the madness. The stairs of the Beurs are only one sore point (yes, it’s painful for me), but it actually covers the whole downtown area. They want to preserve the city from all the noise. The pentagon has to be a peaceful theme park for tourists and one big shopping mall. ‘Winter pleasures’ (that horrible christmas market that transforms Brussels into an unbearable light show and a no go zone because it’s flooded by tourists for several weeks), but then the whole year through.
Political protest doesn’t fit in that image. So we have to zoom out from the stairs of the ‘Beurs’ to the whole downtown area if we want to defend the ‘right of centrality’ for protest. Differently said we have to yet again start crossing the city explicitly with our manifestations and if necessary occupy (or at least dismiss commercialization) to preserve it from total depoliticization. Hence this message to the inhabitants, a call to the entire civil society, to all organizations who will rganize demonstrations: it has to be straight through the center. Tell that to the police. A forbidden area around the parliament, fine… but no blocking off downtown! The city is ours. Reclaim the steps? Also. But more importantly: reclaim the city! (goddamned.)
The opening of the KunstenfestivaldesArts 2015, an action curated by artist Anna Rispoli and architect Koen Berghmans, took this message to heart for it was a re-enactment of 50 years of protests on the steps. From miners, to Catalans, over the Palestine and the Iraq war, it was all there. I was there too, with the Brussels tribunal that organized together with the peace movements a protest marathon against Bush coming to Brussels in 2005… This re-enactment was quite magnificent as a mass theatrical event, and it had a beautiful energy and it brought urban activists together. It was beautiful because it was totally impossible to decide whether this was art or a political manifestation, or both or neither. And therefore a good example of what cultural actors can do. The message was clear (but could have been clearer): Reclaim the steps!
[Translation: Jara Vlaminckx]