03 March 2011

Public Uprisings and Public Spaces

The last sentence is brilliant!

xcerpt from YES! Magazine, 22 February 2011

'The influence of the new digital commons in democratic uprisings from Tunisia to Egypt to Bahrain has been chronicled at length in news reports from the Middle East, with Facebook, Twitter and other social media winning praise as dictator-busters.

But 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. 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.

It’s the same story all over the Middle East. In Libya’s capital city of Tripoli, people express their aspirations and face bloody reprisals in Tripoli’s Green Square and Martyr’s Square. In Bahrain, they boldly march in Pearl Square in the capital city of Manama. In Yemen, protests have taken place in public spaces near the university in Sanaa, which students renamed Tahrir Square. Kept out of the central Revolution Square in Tehran by the repressive government, Iranian dissidents gather in Valiasr Square and Vanak Square.

Last week in Tunisia, the name of the main square in Tunis was changed to honor Mohammad Bouazizi, an unlicensed street vendor whose suicide in December in response to government harassment sparked the revolution that toppled the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

The course of recent history was rewritten by events happening in Prague’s Wenceslas Square as dissidents ousted an oppressive regime in December 1989. Those protests were inspired in part by events in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that seized the world’s imagination earlier that year when democracy activists unsuccessfully challenged the power of China’s dictatorship.

The state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, where thousands of workers now protest the governor’s fierce attacks on collective bargaining rights, represents another case of a public commons becoming a staging ground for political resistance. The capitol, which sits right in the heart of downtown Madison, was named by Project for Public Spaces as one of the great public spaces of the world. “This is truly the town square that early Americans imagined as the crux of democracy,” the PPS website explains...

This all shows that 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.

Of course, public spaces enrich our lives in many ways beyond protests. Local commons become the sites of celebrations, festivals, art events, memorial services, and other expressions of community...

I’ve often wondered if this lack of a central commons in Minneapolis and most other American communities somehow inhibits our civic expression. With no place to voice our views as citizens, do we become more passive about what happens to our country and our future? I don’t know the answer, but I imagine Hosni Mubarak wishes he had built a shopping mall in Tahrir Square.'

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