Cities are living systems, made, transformed and experienced by people, Urban forms and functions are produced and managed by the interaction between space and society, that is by the historical relationship between human, consciousness, matter, energy and information. While the structure of the urban dynamics can ultimately be described in such terms, the decisive input of purposive social action in the shaping of space and material conditions of everyday life has been highlighted by historical experiences (Castells, 1983, xv).

In The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements, Castells document the relationship between urban environments and urban social movements. In this book, he asks a series of questions regarding social movements, why they take place, who the actors are, how they relate to spatial form. It is imperative to understand Castells work on social movements and organizations due to its focus on urban environments and the relationship they have with urban crises.

Social movements have always occurred in the histories of cities. Some may be familiar with the movements that took place in the 1960s in American cities; civil rights, feminism, anti-war, gay rights movements and more. However, social movements have a deeper history dating back to the 16th century, where citizens of the Castilian cities revolted against the royal authority of Carlos V (Castells, 1983, p. 6). This was a movement by citizens that were challenging the feudal order, they were not pleased at the power Carlos V had on the cities, and the privileged people who sat in the assemblies. They wanted better representation in government and they did not want only people of privilege to sit in the assembly. They wanted elected officials, wanted it to be a free city and the decentralization of municipal powers at the ward level (p. 6). It is intriguing reading these demands from the 16th century and comparing them to municipal and federal governments of today and seeing how those demands influence future governance.

Castells (1983) identify three major themes related to urban protest movements:

  1. Demands focused on collective consumption, that is, goods and services directly or indirectly provided by the state.
  2. Defense of cultural identity associated with and organized around a specific territory.
  3. Political mobilization in relationship to the state, particularly emphasizing the role of local government (p. xviii)

These themes remain constant and present in both urban protest movements in the past and movements that continue to take place.

Moving forward, social movements have always challenged the norms that are created by people or groups who hold the most power. There is actual meaning behind activists and groups that protest for demands and rights, it is not for amusement. These movements often get dismiss by those who are ignorant to issues that they are fighting for or part of that group that is ‘benefiting’ from these policies.

That last statement is very reminiscent of the social movements that have taken place in the past 10 years, Idle No More, Occupy Wall Street, and the Arab Spring. All were movements that were challenging political authority and economic inequality. What set these movements apart from movements in the past is that they all used technology to help raise awareness and communicate with others. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have allowed for these groups to not only communicate with members but present their message to a wide and diverse audience. Black Lives Matter (BLM) has successfully used technology to their advantage, by discussing police brutality cases, educating others, and the planning of protests and marches.  Some may be familiar with the hashtag on Twitter, #blacklivesmatter, the hashtag is commonly used after a case of police brutality, anti-blackness, and organizing.  Those unfamiliar with Black Lives Matter, it is an organization that was founded in 2013 by activist Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi (Clark, Freelon, & Mcllwain, 2016, p. 9). BLM “demands specific forms of redress for one relatively well-defined political/legal/policy issues…[it] aims mainly to improve the everyday lives of oppressed racial minority – Black people in general and black youth in particular (p. 9)”. Castells remind readers that “movement develops not only in relationship to its own society, but also in relationship to a world-wide social system (p. xviii).” This is the case for movements like Idle No More, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the environmental movement, that have a global reach. Urban social movements play a critical role in not only highlighting issues being faced by a particular group but attempting to create change.

Castells summarizes the power structure and the reasoning for urban crisis and revolt beautifully:

Random individual decisions are supposed to affect public policies according to some abstract rationality aimed at optimizing profit or power. Either way, people and the state, economy and society, cities and citizens, are consider as separate entities; one may dominate the other, or both may behave independently, but the logic of the analysis never allows them to interact in a meaningful structure. As a result, we are left with urban systems separated from personal experiences; with structures without actors, and actors without structures; with cities without citizens, and citizens without cities (p. xvi).

There is an abstract rationality for these decisions, whether it be for profit or power or both. We see this misuse of power especially in the judicial system, where there is bias in laws that are created and how some of these laws specifically target marginalized groups. Two cases immediately come to mind, one in Ferguson, Missouri and one in the Greater Toronto Area.  In Ferguson, the police were targeting a predominately black community with violations and offenses. These charges range from the grass being too tall to driving with a broken taillight. (Shapiro, 2015)  Most community members could not afford to pay for these fines and offenses, so they would increase to the point there would be a warrant for their arrest. This leading to the cycle of mass incarceration. The Depart of Justice did an investigation and concluded that the county was giving out these offenses and fines so that they could generate money for the city (Shapiro, 2015).

In the case of the Greater Toronto Area, we have the practice of carding by a number of police departments. Carding is “the police practice of arbitrarily stopping, questioning, and documenting a person – then entering their information into a database – to which young black men are disproportionately subjected (Goldsbie, 2015).”  Carding is a policy that criminalized black and brown bodies. It says a lot when the police assume that you are either a threat or may know of illegal activities taking place because of the colour of their skin.

Dr. Rinaldo Walcott, an associate professor at the University of Toronto in the Women and Gender Studies Institute had this say :

We have yet to be provided evidence that carding impacts crime in any shape or fashion. We have yet to be provided evidence that the database developed from carding impacts crime and its resolution in any way. Instead, we have been offered anecdotes from a police perspective. We have been offered fear. We believe that by ignoring the available evidence, that the mayor, the Toronto Police Service, and its board have clearly declared black communities collectively a public safety threat. The only way to think of such a declaration is to call it anti-black racism (Goldsbie, 2015).

Both of these cases highlight decisions made by people who hold power to either optimize profit or power. And even with one group telling the other that these policies are unfair and specifically target marginalized communities, those in power either ignore these comments or fail to have a meaningful discussion. Also, in both cases, Black Live Matter organized and protest for both of these issues. In Ferguson, it raised attention not only city wise but throughout the United States and resulted in the Department of Justice to investigate. In, the Greater Toronto Area the work of Desmond Cole and Black Lives Matter lead to some discussions on anti-blackness in Canada. A ban on carding was made by the Ontrio government, yet many police and police unions believe that this practice was beneifical and not racist.

As I have shown, social movements are critical in urban environments, they are able to identify the issues that are at hand and attempt to repair them. Some movements are successful and their demands are met by authority or some form or negotiations are made. While other social movements fail for having too broad of demands or a lack of leadership. One item that remains important is social movements have always and continue to shape cities and challenge societal norms. The Black Lives Matter movement is a prime example of urban protests movements that address a series of issues, one including the criminalization of black bodies.

Castells, M. (1983). The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements – Manuel Castells – Google Books. Berkeley : University of California Press. Retrieved from

Freelon, D., Mcilwain, C., & Clark, M. (2016). Beyond the Hashtags. Washington. Retrieved from

Goldsbie, J. (2015, May, 13). Police Carding: Racist, Anti-Black, and Useless. Now Magazine. Retrieved from

Lorio, B. C. (Photographer). (2014). Millions March NYC [Photo], Retrieved from

Shapiro, J. (2015, August, 25). Ferguson, Mo., Judge Withdraws Thousands of Arrest Warrants. NPR. Retrieved from

Recommend Readings:

The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements – Manuel Castells

Pedagogy of the Oppressed – Paulo Freire

End of War on Black People – The Movement for Black Lives Matter




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