In the great civil protests the year has seen thus far, there’s at least one common element: ample public space for the peaceful protesters to gather. These spaces, from Tahir square in Egypt to the Capitol building in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, give citizens an integral venue to gather and be heard. That’s the point Jay Walljasper, author of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, raises in a recent piece for Yes magazine.
He writes that, while much of the attention in the media has been focused on the revolutions’ use of social media technology, “the importance of a much older form of commons in these revolts has earned scant attention—the public spaces where citizens rally to voice their discontent, show their power and ultimately articulate a new vision for their homelands.” And Walljasper points out that to “celebrate their victory over the Mubarak regime, for example, protesters in Cairo jubilantly returned to Tahrir Square, where the revolution was born, to pick up trash.”
Now, it should be pointed out that the social media networks that have gotten so much attention are a new form of public space — especially Twitter, but Facebook as well, etc, are open to everyone, with few caveats. Those public channels can be flooded with a show of dissent too, and can also yield a powerful example — that’s why an open Internet must be preserved at all costs.
But it is indeed the hallmark of a strong democracy when occupying such physical public spaces like city squares or government capitals is tolerated — or better, encouraged. In a way, Egyptians, Tunisians, and now Yemenis, Bahrainis, Libyans, and so on, are fighting for the right to peacefully occupy these public squares. More often than not it’s been dangerous for civil protesters to do so — and in some cases they’ve been cleared out with gunfire and other violent means. But occupying a presumably public space — taking it back for the people — is as symbolic a gesture for a revolution as there is. The sight of Egyptians gathering in Tahir, chanting, praying, channeling their anger peacefully, is not one we’ll forget soon.
The revolutionaries in the Middle East are fighting for a form of a right we enjoy in the US — the right to protest, show discontent, and engage our peers and government on issues of the day.
The protesters in Madison, WI, for example can flood the capital building with no such fear of violent retribution. Unfortunately, Walljasper worries that the ability to do this, which relies heavily on ample open spaces, is slipping away:
the exercise of democracy depends upon having a literal commons where people can gather as citizens—a square, Main Street, park, or other public space that is open to all. An alarming trend in American life is the privatization of our public realm. As corporate-run shopping malls replaced downtowns and main streets as the center of action, we lost some of our public voice. You can’t organize a rally, hand out flyers, or circulate a petition in a shopping mall without the permission of the management, which will almost certainly say no because they don’t want to distract shoppers’ attention from the merchandise. That’s why you see few benches or other gathering spots inside malls. The result is that our ability to even discuss the issues of the day (or any other subject) with our fellow citizens is limited.
Now, there have been moves to the contrary on occasion — New York City famously opened up Times Square as a pedestrian zone (ironically, perhaps, because it was a boon to commerce there). But by and large, the trend has been going in the direction Walljasper points to, especially in the smaller cities across the nation: More and more commercially and privately owned spaces, and fewer public areas. It’s a trend we should seek to reverse.
Image: Tahir Square, Madison Capitol, via Minnesota Public Radio