Monday, August 14, 2017

The War On Public Space

http://www.citylab.com


Hello Everyone:

This has been quite an eventful summer because once again, current events dictate the day's post.  The images coming from Charlottesville, Virginia were disgusting and horrific.  A torch light parade by white supremacists, chanting racist slogans, a man plowing his car into a crowd of counter protestors, injuring 19, killing Heather Heyer and two state troopers.  We have the image of President Donald Trump offer a rather pathetic condemnation of the events, leaving members of his administration to explain what he meant by violence on many sides. Then there was this morning's press conference, where POTUS came off like a schoolboy being forced to give an apology for something he did while persistently not condemning white nationalism.  Too little, too late. Yours truly is struggling to maintain something that resembles composure in the face of it all.  Rather than spend an entire post venting anger and disgust, Blogger prefers to take a look at the urban aspect of this horrifying event.

Public space is the great market place for democracy.  It is also a scary place for the free exchange of idea.  The ramifications of an increasingly visible white nationalist movement (http://www.theatlantic.com; Aug. 12, 2017; date accessed Aug. 14, 2017) are far reaching-for conservatives that offer them refuge, for liberal Charlottesville the scene of torch rallies, the victims of racism and bigotry.  (Ibid). Kriston Capps, in his CityLab article "White Supremacists Are Waging a War Against Public Space,"The idea of the public square is under attack.  and he extremist alt-right is waging a campaign to shut public the square, using both violence and intimidation, especially under open-carry laws."

The concept of public space as a public fora evolved in 19th century Great Britain.  "In 1866, United Kingdom Home Secretary Spencer Walpole banned the Reform League from hosting a universal manhood sufferage rally in London's Hyde Park."  Undeterred, the Reform League argued that Hyde Park was neither public or crown property.  The Home Secretary was equally undeterred, engendering rioting and on the third day of violence, "some 200,000 people knocked down the gates and stormed Hyde Park."  A mosaic memorializes the Hyde Park Railings Affair at the feet of the so-called Reformers' Tree, which burned down during the riots. (http://www.royalparks.org.uk; date accessed Aug. 14, 2017). The charred remains serve as a reminder for the right to assembly.

Don Mitchell, the author of The Right To the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space, told Mr. Capps,

Thos rights we take as 'immortal,' such as the right to assemble in and use public space, are not only relatively new, they are always hotly contested and only grudgingly given by those in power...Always hotly contested: rights over and to public space are never guaranteed once and for all

This latest act of vehicular terrorism is taken from the IS handbook-and Saturday's act of terrorism was the first on American soil.  Following the same game plan, the perpetrator drove a muscle car into the Charlottesville Downtown Mall, with the express purpose of inflicting maximum damage.  Mr. Capps reports, "Charlottesville's Downtown Mall is one of the most successful pedestrian malls in the country, a core feature of public life in the city. It is one of the few car-free pedestrian malls in America that has lasted for decades."

A quick history of the Downtown Mall.  The Mall was designed by Lawrence Halprin, the landscape architect responsible for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington D.C. and that Mecca of Chocolate Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, California, as well as other many much loved public spaces.  The Downtown Mall began its life, in 1973, as part of a urban revitalization program. Businesses were fleeing the city center and Charlottesville stepped up with a grand overture to the downtown's fortunes around.  It was successful.

Kriston Capps writes, "Charlottesville's Downtown Mall has been the site of regular protests since last year, when the city declared its intent to remove a Confederate statue celebrating Robert E. Lee."  White supremacists, across the spectrum from the KKK to the Proud Boys, descended on The Mall to show their support for the statue-the rallies have witnessed an increasingly large counter protests.  Blogger has to interject at this point.  

Yours Truly has long advocated keeping the symbols and places that remind us of our dark evil history.  In this case, Blogger supports the removal of symbols of the Confederacy because the reminders of a way of life predicated on the human suffering and exploitation.  These artifacts, while useful as teaching tools, do not belong in the public sphere as an ever present reminder of the racism and bigotry that fueled the Confederacy and sadly, continues to this day.

The "Unite the Right" rally, this past weekend, was in one respect about public space.  Mr. Capps writes, "It's organizers aim to defend a statue that affirms their his history, one that affirms white supremacy as official power."  ((http://www.theatlantic.com; Aug. 13, 2017; date accessed Aug. 14, 2017; posted on Blogger's social media pages today). The choice of park-Emancipation Park-was very deliberated, one "the city deemed unsafe for a white supremacist rally."  Fascinating.  The organizers of the rally.  The day before the rally under the Robert E. Lee statue was scheduled, a federal judge issued an injunction permitting the Unite the Right rally to be held in the park.  The decision was made late Friday evening after a two-hour debate and a 30 minute meeting between U.S. District Court Judge Glen E. Conrad and lawyers for rally organizer Jason Kessler, the city of Charlottesville, and downtown businesses.  (http://www.dailyprogress.com; Aug. 11, 2017; date accessed Aug. 14, 2017)

That is the basic explanation for why this park in this city.  The organizers framed their argument as a protest rally about a statue in a park.  Yours Truly is sickened over the way the rally organizers co-opted a typical preservationist argument as a premise for hateful assembly.  However, as Mr. Capps puts it, "But the alt-right's fight is also with public space.  Fascism rejects the free flow of speech and ideas.  It is an attack on the public sphere."  The proof is in the pictures and news accounts from Saturday.

Imtimidation is also a form of attack on the public fora.  Thirty-one states have open-carry gun laws and depending on which state you live, you must have a license or concealed handgun permit.  Virginia is one of those 31 states that permit open-carry for anyone 18 years-old and over with a license or CHP.  The far right takes advantage of these laws to hill free speech.  Representative Tom Perriello (D-VA) tweet a video of a private militia member, dressed as a national guardsman, hired to protect the Unite the Right rally and provoke confrontations.  (http://www.twitter.com/tomperriello)

Sadly, lawmakers in open-carry states have abdicated their law enforcement responsibilities to these individuals.  Open-carry rights do not extend to African-Americans, at least not in any safe or meaningful manner, thus any debate between minorities trying to make through the day without being shot at and Caucasians trying to suppress them is moot.  Open-carry is a contradiction of the concept of public space and free speech.  Therefore, a public space is not possible in open-carry states.

As with the vehicular terrorist attacks in London and Nice, public space are ripe targets because they are purposefully designed to be broad, open spaces, accessible to large numbers of people for a variety of purposes.  Interestingly, a vehicular assault in May in New York City's Times Square-the most visible public space-raised fears of a terrorist attack.  Really, the driver was under the influence of drugs and was suffering from serious mental problems.  One person was killed and 22 were injured.  The crash would have been ar more lethal had there not been anti-ram steel security bollards that prevented the driver from doing more damage (http://www.citylab.com; May 18, 2017; date accessed Aug. 14, 2017). 

Would those bollard worked in Charlotte?  Absolutely not.  Kriston Capps writes, "Those bollards wouldn't work on 4th Street in Charlottesville, which is open to traffic and crosses the pedestrian mall.  The problem in Charlottesville was not a design problem, but a philosophical one."  Racism, bigotry, and fascism co-exist, to a far lesser extent, with the public fora.  They cannot be weighed equally with other philosophies in considering how to guarantee the First Amendment right to lawful and free assembly.  The are an attack on a key feature of democracy itself.

Blogger would like to add this thought.  The was a brilliant editorial posted on Saturday in the Miami Herald, written by Leonard Pitts, Jr. (http://www.miamiherald.com; Aug. 12, 2017; date accessed Aug. 14, 2017).  The editorial, "Why Did Charlotte carnage happen?  Because we lie to ourselves."  We lie to ourselves when we say racism, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, et cetera do not exist.  We lie to ourselves when we refuse to engage in any meaningful discussion on the subject.  When we refuse to condemn it out loud.  We can shout all the slogans we want, wave signs, come up with clever hashtags but until we confront it, all of our words are hollow.