Friday, December 9, 2011

Public Space is Vital to Maintaining First Amendment Rights

I had some requests to post this op-ed piece I wrote over the weekend. Although it's very specifically focused on events and issues here in Minnesota, there are also broader points that I feel cut across any given location. \

As winter approaches, and the Occupy movement continues in Minneapolis and around the nation, the issue of public space has risen to the forefront. Not only have the Occupy groups challenged the ways in which 1st Amendment rights are being upheld in public spaces, but we have also demonstrated the severe lack of free, open and available space for groups to assemble, demonstrate, and exercise their rights. Nowhere is that lack of public space more evident than in downtown Minneapolis.

Other than the Hennepin County Government Center Plaza, the only other significant public space in central downtown is Peavy Plaza. Neither space is very large. While Minneapolis alone has nearly 400,000 residents, it’s unlikely that either location could comfortably accommodate more than 1500-2000 people at a time. This not only places a limit on politically motivated gatherings like Occupy, but also upon opportunities for free, public entertainment like concerts, outdoor theater, or seasonal celebrations.

Even in the recent cold weather, we had between 400-600 people attending two major demonstrations in support of our continued presence on the plaza. Furthermore, while the regular standing crowds of protesters have dwindled to less than 20, we regularly squeeze between 30-60 people in the skyway attached to the Government Center for our General Assembly meetings. And beyond the General Assembly meetings, there are several committees that meet in locations scattered all over downtown. Simply put, the Occupy movement has outgrown coffee shops and church basements. In order to do the work of participatory democracy, we need public spaces to gather, free from the harassment and unnecessary restrictions that have come from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department, in cooperation with the County Commissioners. The fact that Occupy needed to file a lawsuit to defend the right to publicly display political signs on the plaza should cause everyone to wonder what the future might bring.

While Hennepin County continues to stand behind claims that the restrictions being placed upon Occupy Minneapolis are about health and safety, the reality is that the county itself is financially under attack by the same Wall St. friendly policies that led many of the protesters to the plaza in the first place. The 2012 Hennepin County budget calls for 3.13-percent reduction, much of that a result of trickle down funding cuts at the state and Federal level. Instead of doing what they can to drive away the Occupy Minneapolis group, perhaps Hennepin County officials should be using our presence to help advocate for a restoration of the 100+ jobs that will be lost under next year’s budget.

The loss of public space to corporate interests, coupled with the kinds of restrictions of freedom of speech and assembly that have been upheld by the nation’s court system, represent a threat to the very health of our democratic society. Regardless of whether or not you support the Occupy movement, it’s vitally important to consider the broader issues of public space and the 1st Amendment. If more people don’t stand up now in favor of the 1st amendment rights of groups like Occupy, the more likely it will be in the future that such rights will diminish or disappear completely. And if there isn’t a sustained, mass effort by the general public to advocate for keeping public spaces, the odds are that what little we have will eventually be gone.


Anonymous said...

Minneapolis is quite known for its public space with much more land dedicated to its parks, lakes, trails, etc. than most cities. And, these spaces are widely used for public gatherings.

Regarding corporate is also important to remember that forprofit entities pay property tax (most nonprofits do not) and this contributes to the upkeep of public space.

Nathan said...

I live here. Perhaps you do as well. What I'm speaking about is the downtown area, not the rest of the city. Because it's true that the Twin Cities has an excellent trail system, numerous lakes, parks, etc. The downtown itself has lost public space over the past 50 years, much of it during the revitalization projects done in the 1960s and 1970s.

As for corporate interests, you're being too generous to them - especially the large corporations. For example, the Target Corp. received at least $60 million in public "financing" for it's downtown buildings about a decade ago.

Over the past decade, they have purchased more space downtown, as well as in neighboring Brooklyn Park, and with each purchase, they float building projects that are filled with large public funding requests, while also seeking to get waivers on local living wage laws.

That's just one example of what the large corps that dominate the downtown landscape are doing. I'm not terribly convinced that a lot of their property tax money ever ends up supporting public spaces.

Anonymous said...

Just compare the downtown areas of Minneapolis to St. Paul, or Chicago to Detroit or ... One sees the difference between thriving downtowns with economic vitality and what can happen without an ecomonic base.

Nathan said...

Economic vitality that mostly benefits those at the top. And is always vulnerable to the whims of the corporate interests involved (see Detroit).

I'm not saying corporations never add to the livelihood of our cities, but I think it's often questionable at best how much they're truly giving back - not only financially, but also in terms of general quality of life.

ZenDotStudio said...

good for your Occupy community for still being there! Sadly in Canada, under the ruse of public safety many of the camps have been broken up and people gone away quietly.

Nathan said...

Well we've been squeezed by similar approaches here, but we're learning to spread things beyond a single location. Which has helped.