Who Owns the Public Square?

One year ago, citizens protesting the Wall Street practices that created the current economic turmoil marched in New York City’s financial district. They descended on Zuccotti Square and occupied it, setting up a protest encampment which acted as a springboard for further demonstrations and was itself a form of dissent against the prevailing economic order.

For months, the Occupy Wall Street protest lived out this form of dissent. It inspired similar encampments across the United States and elsewhere, and similar protest actions against Wall Street greed and government corruption.

Eventually, the occupation of Zuccotti Square came to an end when police forcibly cleared the park of protesters.  Other encampments across the country faced similar fates, in what appears to have been a coordinated effort by the Department of Homeland Security with local law enforcement.

The square was once known as Liberty Plaza Park and was created by the property owners in conjunction with the city of New York as a space for public use. After being renovated in 2006, the park was rechristened Zuccotti Park for the man who is chairman of the company that owns the space. John Zuccotti once sat on, and also chaired, the city’s planning commission. It is a popular spot for workers in the area who eat their lunches at its tables and in the shade of its trees.

When Occupy Wall Street arrived, they reclaimed its original name, welcoming people to “Liberty Park.”

Because the space is privately owned, city ordinances–including a curfew–do not apply to Zuccotti Square. It is meant to be available to the public 24 hours a day. Though a court ruled the protestors should be able to return to the space after police removed them by force, police barricaded the park, refusing to allow the activists back. Higher courts subsequently ruled the protesters could not camp or spend the night in the park.

In Boston, a similar protest took place at Dewey Square, a part of the Rose Kennedy Greenway project of the city of Boston. The greenway was the result of the “Big Dig,” the project that removed an elevated highway that sliced through Boston’s downtown. The space that was created in its absence is a green space for the city’s people, a civic space for residents to enjoy together.

I love those urban spaces in which the public can gather. Strolling through lower Manhattan this past Sunday, I was reminded of that love. It was a beautiful sunny day, warm and clear. Sunbathers, guitar players, drummers, magicians, Tarot card readers, people tossing frisbees, walking, picnicking, blowing bubbles (no, really!) rollerblading… In Washington Square there was a group with homemade signs that were promoting “good vibes.”

But what happens when the public uses these spaces for dissent? What happens when economic, political, and social opinions are expressed in these public squares?

Why, the police are called, and these citizens are pepper sprayed, maced, caged, handcuffed, beaten, kicked, and arrested by law enforcement officers.

In other words, certain forms of expression are criminalized. Any kind of dissent–even popular dissent–is treated as a criminal activity. In Quebec, in response to a student strike opposing tuition increases, the provincial government last May actually passed a law punishing protest activities.

What kind of society has no public square? No place where residents gather in solidarity, not just to enjoy the sunshine and blow bubbles, but to express their political beliefs? What kind of a society represses the free expression of its citizens? What kind of a society creates a deliberately freezing effect on the expression of dissent by subjecting protesters to excessive force, subduing them with violence?

Not a free society. Not a society committed to democracy and democratic ideals.

The public square is so symbolic, and in many practical and significant ways has been replaced by the Word Wide Web. But the physical assembly of citizens creates something that individuals alone at their computer terminals do not. Assembling freely in public is so sacred to the democratic spirit it is enshrined in the US constitution as a right.

It is precisely for this reason that the powers that be have an interest in regulating the common spaces of this republic.

Take for example the whole notion of needing a permit from the police in order to hold a protest march. A 1939 US Supreme Court ruling declared that using sidewalks and streets for political speech was constitutionally protected. Marching down the street, picketing on a sidewalk, handing out leaflets, getting signatures on a petition—all are protected forms of speech.

At the same time, the ruling delineated that such speech needed to be “exercised in subordination to the general comfort and convenience, and in consonance with peace and good order.” Lower courts have elaborated on this to restrict protest—a restriction enforced through the granting of permits—which the Supreme Court deemed “prior restraint” on free speech. Which is to say, permits are a form of government censorship.

Subsequent Supreme Court decisions, nevertheless, have upheld the permitting system, even while recognizing it is a form of government control of citizens’ political speech. Many people have become used to the idea that if the police do not grant permission, the protest is “illegal.”

I think the public square belongs to the public.

And it is being taken away from us. Our access to it is denied or controlled. The public’s right to raise our voice in public spaces is being curtailed. Even when granted a permit, protestors in US cities like New York and Chicago have been allowed only remote, fenced-in pens in which to rally. These pens are not the public square; they are a physical embodiment of the state’s power and desire to limit and contain popular protest.

The forces that would have us not question the excesses and crimes of Wall Street, the complacency of federal agencies, the corruption and incompetence of Congress, would like to see us silent, ignorant, afraid to speak up and–most importantly–completely preoccupied by endless distractions (the Kardashians! Snookie! a new iPhone!).

They win when we are afraid. They win when fear keeps us away from a legal protest march or picket line. When we are isolated from each other, cowering fearfully in our private corners, they win. When all we can see and hear are mindless stories about pop stars or kitten videos on YouTube, they win.

If Occupy Wall Street does nothing else, it should reawaken in the citizenry an awareness of how many of our constitutional freedoms are being chipped away at. Bit by bit, basic civil liberties like the right to freely assemble, are being denied. We’re being gently corralled into accepting censorship and silencing.

Like many other public institutions, governments (often strapped for cash) are collaborating with private interests to create or maintain public parks, plazas, and squares. And like other public institutions, the influence those private interests have on public spaces curtails what can happen within them. Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto is one such space, a private-public square which can be “booked” for events, including rallies, for a fee. When the site first opened to the public years ago, a lone person in the square holding a sign which simply read “Peace” was arrested.

Advertising in urban spaces is allowed, but protesting is not. Unsightly billboards and giant, flashing video screens are allowed, but holding picket signs, distributing flyers and handbills and newspapers, gathering signatures on a petition can get you arrested–even though these are constitutionally protected.

The corporations that are now shaping our public spaces–our spaces–want only what propertied, well to do consumers will tolerate as they shop. So a whole host of activities (skateboarding, begging, cruising, busking) and people (youth–especially youth of color, homeless, sex trade workers) are deemed criminal. In the name of making the city “safe” and “clean,” they make repression seem reasonable and desirable.

Many city centers in North America have come to resemble outdoor suburban malls. Ubiquitous chain restaurants and big box stores have replaced mom-and-pop stores.

This happened by design when Yonge-Dundas Square was created.

With a handful of notable exceptions, Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, another example, is no longer home to locally-owned small businesses. Independent diners, hardware stores, bookstores, five-and-dime shops are all gone, replaced by chains, or taken over by chains (the cinema, the foreign language bookstore). The nature of Harvard Square–who now uses the square and its sidewalks and for what purpose–has changed.

In many urban areas, thriving sexual subcultures have been shut down completely and “red light districts” made safe for suburban shoppers—no whores or homeless people or queers. Times Square in New York is the most well known of this trend, though the forced disappearance of Boston’s “Combat Zone” is another. Suburban theatre-goers shouldn’t have to walk by prostitutes or adult cinemas! They need to get from their SUV to Applebee’s to the Disney Store to the theatre to see The Lion King unsullied!

Here in the US, taking our democracy back from the corporations to which Congress has sold it is the most urgent task of our time.  That is what the Occupy Movement is all about. The microcosmic, symbolic but no less urgent need to reclaim the public square is part of that democratizing project.

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2 thoughts on “Who Owns the Public Square?

  1. Agreed. The entire notion of a “public” has evaporated in the fireball of corporate marketing, influence and power/wealth. Media pundits and politicians collaborate daily to heap insults on anything that represents “the public”, including “American government”. We are truly losing our form of government, as “the people” spoken of in campaign speeches refers not to ALL people, but the “good” people who profit from the world of free-market capitalism, in clear distinction from the “bad” people who are unemployed, and sinking deeper and deeper into the swamp of social darwinism this country has become. Occupy itself is in danger of being co-opted by corporate media spin, and struggles to be a truly public phenomenon every day. Blogs like this … and the truly free pulpits that still survive … are perhaps the last vestige of free speech in America.

  2. Interesting examples from the US and Canada, Peter. For a European perspective, two examples spring to mind: the Indignants of Puerta del Sol in Madrid from May 2011, who inspired the New Yorkers; and Occupy London protesters. The UK group wished to set up camp outside the stock exchange but had to go next door to St Paul’s Cathedral, precisely because the former open space is private and the latter is one of the few genuinely public spaces left in the City. The privatisation of public space is a growing issue; I recommend http://m.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/jun/11/granary-square-privately-owned-public-space?cat=uk&type=article this round-up [“Public spaces in Britain’s cities fall into private hands”]. And of course, London now has to face its “Olympic legacy”: not just the bills but also the private corporate parks. Having grown up in Montreal, in the hungover shadow of 1976, you can imagine my views.

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