By Shirley Kressel
Thanks to the Occupy movement, we are snapping out of our “American Dream” and realizing that the system is thoroughly and mercilessly rigged. Big corporations and a financial elite have bought our politicians, Democrat and Republican alike, collaborated to steal our economy, and brokeour society by manipulating the laws of the land.
The widespread crack-down on Occupiers reveals that the perpetrators took care to include, among the laws they subverted, the free speech and assembly rights we’d need when we woke upto their malfeasance.
These civic keystones of democracy have been eroded by an ever-expanding collection of “time, place and manner” regulations on park use including requirements for permits, fees and insurance; prohibitions on sleeping; banning of microphones and tents, etc. Closing times – even in the iconic Boston Common, America’s first public park – have confined democracy to“office hours.” These rules let politicians and their police squads throw out anyone they deem “undesirable” and arrest “trespassers” as outlaws.
Cloaked in the language of “public safety,” these restrictions have mainly targeted the growing ranks of homeless people, whose ubiquitous presence is an indictment of our failed economy. But the rules are being invoked even more zealously against civic protesters, who threaten the very foundations of this corrupt system. In 1984, the Supreme Court, supporting restrictions in the name of “government interests,” ruled against activists who were highlighting the problem of homelessness by tenting in a park; but dissenting Justices Thurgood Marshall and William J. Brennan denounced “a bureaucracy that over the years has shown an implacable hostility toward citizens’ exercise of First Amendment rights.” They warned that “government agencies by their very nature are driven to over-regulate public forums to the detriment of First Amendment rights.”
Everyone knows about government park ordinances, but few people realize that public officials are finding a way to evade their obligations for civic rights altogether, abdicating responsibility for parks as unaffordable frills and shifting management and control to private parties who promise to pay for the upkeep. These include abutting property owners, conservancies, “friends-of” groups, corporate sponsors, and real estate developers who create open spaces in return for permitting favors, like Zuccotti Park, the original site of Occupy Wall Street in New York City. These private “benefactors,” who gain control by using philanthropy as a Trojan horse, have
Such public-private partnerships provide the political and economic elite with a virtually unlimited array of control
s over the public realm, blurring the boundaries between public versus private and obfuscating their specific roles in violating Constitutional rights.
The Rose Kennedy Greenway, the
The Conservancy, in reality, is nothing more than a private group of downtown corporations interested in keeping their front yard—which happens to be a public space—full of pretty landscaping and “nice” people. The Conservancy operates under an explicit legal requirement to treat the Greenway “as a public park and a traditional open public forum without limiting free speech.” Yet the Conservancy’s Executive Director, Nancy Brennan (ironically, the daughter of the above-mentioned free-speech advocate Justice William J. Brennan) gave Mayor Thomas Menino and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (both notorious corporate allies) an excuse to unleash hundreds of city, state, and county police officers on Occupy Boston – supposedly to protect the landscaping.
In New York, the Central Park Conservancy similarly uses its precious lawn to give Mayor Michael Bloomberg cover in denying protest permits. Zuccotti Park is one of New York’s privately owned “public” spaces. The owner, Brookfield Properties, simply changed the rules, without any public say, when they decided to drive out Occupy Wall Street protesters – and the city police were sent by Bloomberg to enforce the new rules. This regulatory ambiguity allows for a confusing flurry of charges as grounds for arrest and suppression, supplying ammunition to conservatives of all stripes while diffusing the issue of First Amendment rights.
Public parks serve important recreational, environmental and aesthetic functions. But a healthy democracy demands that public enjoyment of First Amendment rights be enshrined as the foremost and paramount purpose of public spaces, because, unlike landscaping and leisure activity, free speech has no other home.
As a society, we have
Occupy the public realm—or lose it.
Shirley Kressel is a landscape architect and urban designer.