Governments are trying to figure out what to do with the Occupy movement that’s moved into public spaces in major cities all over the world. Some have figured out only as much as getting them out of there; mayors from Oakland to New York have evoked concerns about public safety, sanitation, and good old law and order to justify forced evictions of campsites. And as we saw with the recent pepper spraying incident at UC Davis, the clash between the users of public space and the stewards of public space has underscored a startling disconnect. Whatever the response, the fact that these protests have persisted for weeks and months in parks has put a spotlight on public spaces in general. But that fact has also complicated the response. These spaces are part of our cities so they can be used by the public. They’re also explicitly not intended to play campground for extended amounts of time. But when the public chooses to use its public space in ways it wasn’t intended to be used, who’s right? The public or the public space? This seems to be a core if under-appreciated debate overarching these occupations nationwide and worldwide. Whether it knows it or not, the Occupy movement is actually calling for an entirely new kind of public space.
The crux of the problem is that public space doesn’t always mean what we think it does. We look at the protests and the encampments and we see the public asserting its constitutional rights to gather. We – the movement, the city officials, the proponents, the opponents, and even the indifferent observers – see the parks and public spaces of these protests as the appropriate setting. That’s what these places are for, we presume. But the public spaces we’re looking at should be more appropriately defined as publicly accessible places subject to the rules of its owner, the government, which we, in theory and by a sometimes seemingly distant extension, control. Public means us, but it also means the government, and in the case of our public spaces, the two spheres in that Venn diagram have a nearly complete overlap. We are free to use these spaces, almost as we please, under certain circumstances.
Many have looked on the Occupy movement as participation in democracy – petitioning, rallying together, working within the definitions of our own system of government to express frustration and desire for change. But within the camp environment, a different form of democracy is playing out. Sure, there are the bureaucratic similarities of committees and focus groups and the voting and seconding. But there’s also a sort of emergent democracy, one that’s growing and adapting to the open-ended nature of the movement. In the same way the echo of the human microphone developed in Zuccotti Park after amplification was prohibited, it seems clear a new form of public space needs develop to fit the need and circumstance of the moment. Of any moment.