There is a fine line between protest and occupation, liberation and tyranny and that is why Occupy Wall Street continues to be a mystery to me. Hence the Delacroix, above.
In the past day, Mayor Bloomberg has evicted Occupy Wall Street protestors from Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan. Here is my question — was he right to do this?
Political ideologies notwithstanding, it’s interesting to think about this action in relation to the distinction between public and private spaces.
Zuccotti Park is a privately owned park that Brookfield Properties maintains and opens up for NYers to enjoy. Brookfield does this through a special permit from the New York City Department of City Planning. Here’s how it works: participating allows Brookfield to increase the size of building(s) on their property (beyond standard zoning regulations) because they also have to maintain the open space for everyone to enjoy. So participating creates two advantages for the developer: an increase in the number (and quality) of tenants and an aesthetically pleasing development which reaps economic advantages, as well. This, of course, does not begin to include how this affects the overall urban development of the city and sustainability.
Before moving forward, I want to be clear. I am a believer in privately-owned public spaces for two reasons. First, I do not think that municipal organizations have the resources (financial and otherwise) to maintain the amount of public space that cities (especially NY) need in order to be truly inhabitable. Secondly, I believe that private businesses should participate in the development of their community in a way that is advantageous to both their organization and to the public at large.
Also, let me also point out that I do not live in NYC right now, so all of these opinions are based on my own historical knowledge of NY and my experience working in design and construction. I know many people who are there right now and I hope that they comment on what I am writing here today.
Those things being said, is it right that Mayor Bloomberg evicted the Occupy Wall Street protestors? Does the First amendment cover the freedom to “occupy” as a form of freedom of “speech?” This, of course, is something for the courts to decide, not me, but I do have a gut reaction to this.
I believe that public spaces are, indeed, public, even if they are (partially) privately owned. That is, corporations who have this special permit do not have the right to strictly determine who enters a public space. On the other hand, public interest groups do not have the right to prohibit or discourage other people from entering a public space either, which is what I believe is happening at Occupy Wall Street.
Everyone should have access to the areas that are meant for community and dialogue. All race, gender, religion, ideology, ethnicity distinctions should, to the fullest extent possible, be neutralized in a public space.
Unfortunately, protest is never pretty and it never manifests itself in the way it is first dreamed up. I do not believe that Occupy Wall Street ever intended on being exclusive or a public safety issue. The truth is that protest is passionate and dramatic. It’s extreme. Which is why we protest against governments whose opposite characteristics — structure, consistency, and banality – oftentimes do not encourage change. In short, rarely can protest meet government in a way that is neat and tidy or in a way that can be accurately portrayed in the media. They are too different from each other.
So, what do I really think?
I think that there is a fine line between protest and occupation. Occupy Wall Street has every right to make it’s declarations heard for as long as they want and wherever they want but they still have the responsibility to act as citizens, who enjoy and benefit from the rules and guidelines they are asking corporate America to follow. For me, to live for months on end in a way that prohibits others from enjoying a space meant for inclusion, is similar to having a public space that can only be utilized for a select group of people (to an extreme – segregation?). So, true to their name, their camping out is an “occupation” of a neutral space. Occupations are rarely seen as positive and occupations are the antithesis of public.
But, if not for this park, where else could they protest?
This is where I have a harder time coming to a conclusive decision. Is a city street (blocking traffic) a better venue because it is truly “public?” Must we require corporate organizations to “underwrite” a protest (and it’s associated costs – venue, food, etc)? Neither of these seem like good answers.
If I were part of Occupy Wall Street, what would I do? Where would I go? I mean, there are protest ordinances and permits, isn’t that enough? Do I need to take over a park? If so, should I be angry that someone says I must leave?
Here is the more important question: If I were truly concerned about making a change, why would I continue to create ”public space” where crime and sanitation issues get in the way of my ideology? Isn’t this antithetical to any type of protest meant to create better living conditions for citizens? Wouldn’t I be amazed that I had gathered enough people to have this problem and come up with a better and more visible solution?
Here’s what I do think:
No. 1: A government cannot begin control a multi-billion dollar economy, from a logistical or moral perspective, if they can’t control a protest in a public park. You can’t ask one set of people to follow rules while another isn’t required to.
No. 2: Governments need to find a better way to deal with everyone’s right to protest in an effective manner. Yes, it’s true, the park is a mess but where else can they go?
No. 3: Public space is meant for the voice of the many, not the voice of the few who claim to speak for the many. Once one group speaks so loudly that others aren’t heard, there is a problem.
No. 4: Protest is only a childish past time if it cannot articulate its beliefs and negotiate ways to make life better through solutions . How can I put any amount of faith in a group of people who cannot organize more effectively? Why would I listen to them for guidance as to how to change major governmental issues?
Will Occupy Wall Street teach us something about how citizens communicate with the government? Absolutely.
Do I think that camping out in a park is the only way for Occupy Wall Street to make it’s point? Absolutely not.
Perhaps focusing on communicating its message intellectually instead of primarily through the visible demonstration of their disdain will require this group to crystallize their message in a way that might actually make a difference.
You know, to the Man.