By: Jordan Cosby

In 1968, the French Marxist philosopher, Henri Lefebvre, stated that the right to the city is “like a cry and a demand,” and Don Mitchell, author of The right to the city: Social justice and the fight for public space, in the aftermath of 9/11 exclaimed that the right to the city is a right bourne from struggle that must be heard now more than ever and put into practice. Today we turn once again to the right to the city, especially in terms of the right to occupy public space in peaceful protest. Our country finds itself in a political awakening, rallying around deportation, climate change denial, the abortion ban, Islamophobia, and various other social grievances. Public space is required to engage in political protest, although it is important to understand that the idea of public space and its role in urban life has never been guaranteed. Therefore, a new wave of urgency emerges for planners to join in the struggle to help preserve the right to public space for political protest and civic engagement.   

The idea of privacy drastically changed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. While the attacks reinvigorated a sense of nationalism and patriotism amongst the American people, the hastily adopted Patriot Act allowed the government to target American citizens through warrantless surveillance in hopes to intercept acts of terror organized from within the country’s borders. The NSA’s deliberate abuse of privacy was in direct violation of Fourth Amendment rights, and remains controversial today not only for its unconstitutionality, but for its ineffectiveness. Arguably the Patriot Act let the government exceed its authority over the American people, not effectively combat terrorism.

The idea and use of public space also changed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11th. In his book, Mitchell wrote that public space in urban areas was seen as a threat by security experts after 9/11, and there was a massive push to convert public space to ‘defensible space.’ He referenced an article in the New York Times written by David Barstow, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist who interviewed nine security and terrorism experts immediately following 9/11. Due to the attacks, each expert had embraced a “bunker, bomb-camp mindset,” and were willing to make New York City safe at any cost. When asked what it would take to make New York City safe without resource constraints, the experts envisioned a “city transformed,” complete with antiaircraft missiles protecting the Statue of Liberty, converting Times Square into a pedestrian mall to foil truck bombs, installing shatter-resistant film over the windows of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, police regularly patrolling Grand Central with the aid of bomb-sniffing dogs, and beefing up security throughout the city, incorporating previously unpalatable tactics, such as increasing profiling and intrusive random searches and seizures. Mitchell further explained that the experts also unanimously agreed that it was now necessary to close off and secure “the steps to churches, cathedrals, and synagogues, [install] hundreds of surveillance cameras around important public spaces and along ‘vulnerable’ streets, [as well as install] more bomb proof windows, trash cans, and so forth.”

The sentiment to secure public space following the attacks on 9/11 was understandable, however, it further stifled with the publicness of public space, which had already been fortified in an effort to secure the city a generation earlier. According to Mitchell, the purpose of enhancing surveillance in New York City during the nineties was not to protect the city from terrorists, but to protect the public from ‘inappropriate users’ of public space, including the homeless, drug dealers, loitering youth, and, quite deliberately, political activists protesting outside of city hall, marching in the streets, or rallying in parks and squares. Therefore, in an effort to enhance security throughout the city in the nineties, officials also advertently thwarted the public’s means for dissent. Americans in the aftermath of 9/11 were warned to prepare for the elimination of certain civil liberties as well, much like how the right to free speech was undermined during social movements of the 1910s  and 1960s due to “spatial restrictions on where one [could] speak.”

The struggle over human rights and the right to occupy public space in the United States has been a relentless uphill battle for several decades. Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon, tweeted in July that voting is “the most powerful non-violent tool we have.” Yet leading to the 2016 Presidential election, Lewis reminded the American people in an interview with ATTN: of the sacrifices required to win the right to vote: “People struggled to participate in the democratic process. People were shot, murdered.” Lewis proceeded to explain that during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, a group of activists attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery urging for the right of African Americans to be able to vote; however, the police ordered for the march to cease, and people were brutally beaten and trampled by horses. Nevertheless, the sacrifices of civil rights activists from what became known as Bloody Sunday were not in vain. Finally by August 6, 1965, African Americans won the right to vote when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

History has proven time and time again that struggle over basic human rights is a necessary precondition to guaranteeing and preserving the rights of American citizens. Necessary, yet oftentimes overlooked, however, is the role of public space in the fight for human rights. Access to expressive topography, or public space as platforms for public dissent, can be just as inequitable as access to the human rights we struggle for. There are several cases in the U.S. in which the privatization of government property has infringed upon access to public space and has negatively affected First Amendment liberties. In Brave New Neighborhoods: The Privatization of Public Space, Margaret Kohn examines how the public forum doctrine – a law that categorizes government-owned property by its level of openness to public assembly and expression – enabled the government to prohibit unwanted speech in airports in the case of Lee v. Krishna Consciousness in 1992. Airport terminals are not traditionally designed for public expression; therefore, in the case, the higher standards of constitutional scrutiny established to protect First Amendment rights were unnecessary. The results of the case insist that not all public spaces are equal: political activity is protected in traditional public forums, whereas political activity is unprotected in other government-owned places.

This January, in response to the Trump administration’s executive order preventing travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries from traveling to the U.S., some 80 countries around the world hosted protests lamenting the Muslim Ban. In Denver, Colorado, however, protesters were told by Denver Police Officers to put away their signs inscribing political messages because First Amendment rights were not protected without a permit. According to the airport’s rules and regulations, protest groups needed to apply for permits at least one week in advance. So although the ban was effective immediately, the public’s response was not afforded the same consideration. Their First Amendment rights were not accommodated. The demonstrations in and around airport terminals invoked incredible symbolic meaning as airports serve as the modern ports to the American Dream – for many they are also portals to safety and asylum – and they are precisely where supremely Syrian refugees and nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries were unlawfully turned away. Given the fervor amongst the American people to demonstrate their collective grievances provides all the more reason to protect their right to mobilize in public spaces, even in non-traditional ones. Like the Americans who struggled before us, we shouldn’t have to struggle for our rights, but we should be able to wherever our voices can be most effective and best heard.

Remaking cities in the likeness of openness and justice is more important now than ever as the new administration pushes for security and order. Considering the Administration’s proposed agenda for enhancements in defense spending and recent legislative proposals to limit protest rights, U.S. cities and public spaces are increasingly susceptible to being transfigured into defensible space – as had been done during the Civil Rights Movement and following the attacks on 9/11. As planners, we should do everything in our power to reorient public space to protect the ‘right to the city.’ Cities, as Anthony Vidler wrote in the New York Times, are the center of culture and public spaces define urban culture. From city streets to public parks and transportation, the purpose of public space should be re-prioritized for the present needs of the community, including civic engagement and protest.

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