#OWS and Public Space

by Cosmo Houck

I have written a number of posts pertaining to the Occupy Wall Street movement. I’ve even had a friend from New York come in and offer his thoughts. It would not be a mischaracterization to say that I have been broadly supportive of the actions of the protesters; this stems from the fact that I am convinced that this country faces endemic systemic problems with the way our polity functions, the way our society functions, the way our economy functions,  and the way we think about all of those things (I’d also like to note that I don’t think you can really delineate these things).

There have been thoughts I haven’t yet shared, however, and I’d like to bring a few up now in response to this piece over at “Democracy in America” by W.W., but also this one at and by Julian Sanchez, “What Democracy Looks Like”. The second post draws from this one at “Outside the Beltway”.

I worry that this may end up being a bit scattered, so here are a few of the things I’d like to touch on:

This became a bit scattered, so I decided to focus this first post on questions of public space. I’ll probably get the subsequent posts up later today. Sorry for how disjointed this is.

1) Who gets to use public space and how

2) The exaggerations (or myths) political extremes tell themselves to silence opposition

3) How sometimes those exaggerations, instead of being dismissed, should be synthesized

4) How lack of concrete resolution can be tremendously unsatisfying

First, the public space issue. This has been something that has been nagging away at a lot of people, for a variety of different reasons, and for awhile.  Sanchez, quoted by W.W. at D&A and responding to the “Outside the Beltway” post, succinctly notes that “There’s no First Amendment right to camp out in a park”. The First Amendment right to peaceably assemble is, like all of our our rights, qualified. This is the natural byproduct of a country having over 300 million people and a lot of things going on.

In effect, Sanchez argues OWS protests privatize the space they are camping out at. They take space that is intended for the public use of anyone who desires it, and by “occupying it”, privatize it for their own group, that they claim represents everyone. That’s all well and good, but not everyone in the 99% agrees with the principles behind the movement, and are being actively excluded from space that they ostensibly have a right to as well. The protesters don’t have to do anything special for this to be true, and don’t have to be particularly inhospitable for it to be relevant: even if a group of protesters is perfectly friendly, it’s easy to understand why a banker and his kids might not want to go on a stroll through Zuccotti Park.

In  the public space part of the post that is primarily what Sanchez focuses on, and I think he’s right on. I thought it was funny, though, that one of the primary problems (to hear them tell it) that the protests have been having is the fundamentally public nature of the spaces they are occupying. That allows all sorts of riff raff to drift through, that don’t understand “the cause”. It also means that things get attributed to the protesters when they actually have no connection to them, like the crazy guy who last week shot at the White House. Because of some idle speculation by some guys at the police department, suddenly protesters are being smeared as harboring a crazy nut who wanted to kill the President. The protesters haven’t really “privatized” this space: instead it’s somewhere in-between.

However, I don’t really have any problems with Sanchez’s basic point, and the point of the post he draws from: that there are probably reasonable limits, content excepted, that can be imposed on the utilization of different kinds of public space. For instance, the prohibition of camping. W.W. thinks that this is part of what bothers a lot of people about the OWS protesters, and I think there’s probably some truth to that.

There are two things that do very much bother me, however: how limits get decided, and how they get enforced. Most people concede that “fundamental” rights are not, in fact, absolute. We have rules about what kinds of nasty things you can say about other people and to other people. I think many of us would agree that slander and libel laws have a place in our society. As far as peaceable assemblage goes, I think it’s reasonable to expect public spaces to be well maintained, and available for the use of all. So I’m sympathetic to Sanchez, but think that there are other, more important concerns regarding public spaces.

Small restrictions can be easily abused, and ceding to government the power to dictate the time, place, and manner of political expression serves as a particularly insidious method of limiting speech. It doesn’t really matter if the content of political speech remains unchanged if the protesters are limited to doing it safely out of sight. Most ludicrous are government “Free Speech Zones” tightly controlled protest areas surrounded by fences and safely out of sight. That’s not the future of protest I want to see.

As I see it, decisions about how to best utilize public space are, like everything else in a really big country, a matter of trade offs. On the one hand, if protesters are not allowed to camp out and make a mess and all of that, you will probably have a nicer and quieter area in which to walk your dog. This, day to day, has a pretty big value.

On the other hand, OWS represents a variety of problems that many people in the U.S. are pretty frustrated about. It undoubtedly does not actually represent 99% of Americans, but in terms of the people who agree with them, it’s still a pretty sizable chunk. It’s something that resonates with many people. My question is, even if OWS does not resonate with you, is it conceivable that something could happen that would be so outrageous, that you would need the attention of the whole country? That you would want to camp out for, and protest? I’ll bet there is. And you don’t get that in “free speech zones”.

W.W. quotes a post in which 33% of Americans support OWS. That’s about 103 million people. When you erode their ability to express themselves in public space, you erode your own ability to do it in the future. This isn’t a trivial movement (not that that should make a difference). On some level, arguments about whether OWS is privatizing the space boils down to a simple question: is it always important for everyone to have access to public space, even if they aren’t doing anything important (something I would classify most social movements as, regardless of whether I think they are valuable or not) with it, or is it sometimes ok for a portion of the population to temporarily dominate the public space for a cause they believe vital to the community’s interest? It’s about deciding what we want to prioritize. I’ll just conclude that point by observing that the government has made its position very clear.

The second problem that really worries me is enforcement. If we do decide that public space can’t be monopolized by groups, there comes the question of how we prevent that from happening. Camping out at a park, or on a campus, strikes me as a crime slightly worse than jaywalking and decidedly below speeding in a car, which I do all the time. Camping doesn’t jeopardize anyone else’s safety (maybe camping in giant groups does, but we’re a nation of individuals). Not only that, but while we may want to prohibit it most of the time, we probably also want to leave a reasonable amount of flexibility in, just because sometimes civil disobedience is necessary.

It is with that in mind that I would like to point out that the actions of the police in preserving public space for the use of all, of late, has seemed less interested in everyone’s right to use a park and more concerned with deincentivizing political protests. From this:

to this.

I find the actions of Chancellor Linda Katehi at UC Davis repugnant. The same for the police officers. Sitting, arms linked, is not a crime that warrants being shot in the eyes with pepper spray, which is ostensibly issued to police officers for their defense and not, instead, offensive use. To casually walk up to non-violent protesters and inflict that upon them, and then proceed to force them into the ground to arrest them, is only one instance of the growing malignant use of force to suppress political speech in this country. As for Chancello Katehi, I have nothing to add to this.

So in regards to public space, I suppose that is what I have to offer: a) perhaps it is occasionally worth sacrificing public space to vocal causes, simply because we decide that we want to protect vibrant political protest, and b) regardless of what we decide in regards to (a), non-violent political speech should never be met with state violence in a society that claims to value free expression.