On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

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Eroding the One-Percent’s Territorialism: California Coastal Access (Part II) (July 17, 2015)

Being both a native Californian and one consistently suspicious to the various antidemocratic machinations of entrenched socio-economic elites, I was delighted to read Ann O’Neill’s reporting on the opening of public beach access to Carbon Beach West in Malibu. Territorialism, it is important to remember, is not just the province of nation-states or violent street gangs, but occurs in everyday contexts—namely, whenever someone or some organization seeks to restrict or control access to some area (I here follow Robert Sack’s classic formulation in Human Territoriality). As readers of this blog will already know from my discussion of this subject last year, a simultaneously fascinating and grotesque case of systematic territorialism has long existed in California coasts: despite clear laws determining that the beach is a public space to which access cannot be restricted, mostly rich landowners seeking to dominate public spaces have often used various ruses to control access to public spaces.

Thanks to the California courts, territorialist actions by shameless rich landowners to flout clear laws about public beach access will be less viable in Carbon Beach West, which has, tellingly, become known as Billionaires Beach

In her article, Ann O’Neill wonderfully captures the ugly classism that lies behind rich territorialists who have sought to seal off common, public space either by tricking (through such deceptions as fictitious “no parking” signs) or intimidating (through security guards) would-be beachgoers: O’Neill writes of the “riff-raff” and “hoi polloi” whom the super-rich sought to remove from what they treated as their “private backyard.” O’Neill gives a wonderful survey of the recent legal history of protecting coastal access as a public good, with conservationist interests aligning with a sense of fairness and democracy.

With such a legal counter to the ugliness of what the Occupy Movement has taught us to call the One Percent, one realizes that our legal system is not always, as it sometimes seems, only aligned with the rich and well connected. Of course, California’s coastal laws are fairly singular—and coastal access is often indeed the space of private backyards for the super-rich (now that I live near the opposite coast, I have seen that East Coast sensibilities are strikingly unlike those of California). But now is not the time to dwell on the grotesque territorialism of the super-rich. Much as I discussed earlier when I wrote on the wonderful techniques activists can sometimes employ to strike back at elitist territorialists, I think it is best now simply, like the conservationists celebrating in O’Neill’s article, simply enjoy today’s legal victory as the proverbial day at the beach.