From Michael Kimmelman’s thoughtful piece about… well, about America’s rediscovery that movements to effect social change are often sparked by large, sustained public gatherings of protesters:
THE ever expanding Occupy Wall Street movement, with encampments now not only in Lower Manhattan but also in Washington, London and other cities, proves among other things that no matter how instrumental new media have become in spreading protest these days, nothing replaces people taking to the streets.
Maybe I’m wrong, but the movement also seems to point to a conflict between our First Amendment rights of assembly and petition, and contemporary laws and notions regarding public space. As Kimmelman notes, public spaces in American cities — usually, small parks — often amount to “token gestures by developers in return for erecting bigger, taller buildings.” Most public parks in New York are closed to the public at night.
Zuccotti Park is “quasi-public.” Its owner, Brookfield Office Properties, must abide by a zoning variance that allows it to remain open the the public 24 hours a day, and that’s the only reason protesters were able to establish a camp there. Without the variance, no Occupy Wall Street and, probably, no similar movements in cities around the world.
However, the quasi-public Zuccotti Park is fundamentally no different from most so-called public spaces in cities, in that most of them ultimately are “controlled by landlords.” Zuccotti Park is still occupied, thanks to the zoning variance, but the occupiers are violating Brookfield’s prohibition of tarps and other personal effects and therefore are subject to legal eviction if and when the Brookfield decides to have them kicked out. Kimmelman writes:
The whole situation illustrates just how far we have allowed the ancient civic ideal of public space to drift from an arena of public expression and public assembly (Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, say) to a commercial sop (the foyer of the Time Warner Center).
It also illustrates how precarious the rights to assemble peaceably and petition for redress of grievances are in a country where police can chase people from public spaces because the sun is going down, or because users of the park are carrying bedrolls or other belongings. (BTW, this describes what happened to Occupy Denver this week when cops simply moved in and removed the protesters. So much for their right to assemble.)
I hope Kimmelman or someone else in the corporate media directly addresses this apparent danger to the OWS movement, and to our First Amendment rights. Where’s Nat Hentoff when you need him?