Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Restrictions at Zuccotti: Fencing out public space and a movement fighting back

In recent months, there has been an ongoing debate about the legality of the new park rules at Zuccotti Park, posted after the November 15th raid.   Many have come to suggest it is up to us to push back. The new rules state:

Zuccotti Park is a privately owned public space that is designed and intended for  use and enjoyment by the general public for passive recreation. 
For the safety and enjoyment of everyone, the following types of behaviors are prohibited  in Zuccotti Park:  Camping and / or the erection of tents or other structures. 
Lying down on the ground, or lying down on benches, sitting  areas or walkways which reasonably interfere with the use of benches , sitting areas or walkways by others. 
The placement of tarps or sleeping bags or any other property.
Storage  or placement of personal property on the ground, benches, sitting areas or walkways which unreasonably interfere with the use of such areas by others. 
The use of bicycles, skateboards, or roller blades.
Removal of objects from roller blades. 

The operative word here is reasonable. Nowhere in the rules does it say someone cannot bring a meal or a sign into the park.  Food and visual communication, this is part of what makes a movement.  When these activities are restricted, so is the movement itself. 

Today, with OWS livestream operators arrested, activists facing daily harassment for simply stepping into the streets, and ongoing harassment of reporters covering the movement, the movement feels under attack
Before Christmas, a friend was pulled over by police as he walked down the street alone.  Asked why, the police said because he looked like an OWS protestor.  This is the new profile. 

 Two days after the new park rules were established at Zuccotti in November, I ran into Norm Siegel who noted he was concerned that the city is pushing these rules too hard, especially when people are facing restrictions in bringing prepared meals or instruments to this parks. Yet, this has happened over and over again over the last two months.  People trying to do regular things such as prepared food into the space have been told to move on.  For example, on Christmas, Alternet reported the, “NYPD Keeps Occupiers from Bringing Holiday Cookies into Zuccotti Park”

Occupy Wall Street protesters convened for a
Christmas celebration at their old campsite in
Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan yesterday,
but when volunteers showed up with bags of
cookies and food for a planned afternoon potluck,
New York Police Dept. officers prevented them
from entering the square, Manhattan news site reports.

The First Amendment right to eat a sandwich when and where one wants in public space is pretty clear.  If a business man wants to eat a meal in Zuccotti, she is able to.  But someone who looks like a supporter of OWS cannot.  The police are clearly selectively enforcing these rules. It is up to us to point out this injustice, filming such restrictions on space, documenting those restrictions in a journal.  Speaking with lawyers about this issue, the operative word is ‘reasonable.’   If the police restrict a group of people from bringing cookies or sandwhiches, this is an unreasonable restriction.  And we need to litigate.  If you run into such a problem, please document the problem and contact myself or one of the other lawyers supporting OWS.

Over the next few months, it will be useful to activists to ground the movement in a public space once again.  Here retail politics, conversations, and friendships thrive.  People run into each other.   And the movement benefits by having a central hub everyone can access, not just those in the know, getting emails about a meeting at 60 Wall Street.  I hope we can re establish the movement in a public space where meet times are posted and conversations thrive.  This is part of what makes OWS thrive.   And this is why the powers that be are trying to restrict it. 

Without access to public space, discussion of democracy pretty much goes out the door.  It is up to us to defend our right to public spaces and democracy itself.  We don’t lose this overnight, it happens gradually.  Today, Bloomberg and Kelly are gradually taking away our right to the public commons.  

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