It’s a Saturday afternoon in occupied Zuccotti Park. A woman with feathers in her hair stands on a rug labeled “People’s Stage” and reads a poem she’d scrawled in a leather-bound journal. A half-block away in the shadow of the red Joie de Vivre sculpture, the lead singer from the punk band Anti-Flag hammers out a song on his acoustic guitar. An acolyte of Ron Paul is having it out with a disciple of Karl Marx while a labor union Democrat tells them they’re both full of it. Folks of disparate ideological stripes peruse the People’s Library and pass out their own self-published tracts (like, I suppose, the one you’re reading). Yep, just another typical day in Zuccotti, meaning it’s pretty much the opposite of a typical day anywhere else in the country.

So what exactly is going on here? Why does this space that leaves many of us so exhilarated feel so foreign? And why is the dynamism we feel here so hard to explain? The answer, or at least a substantial chunk of it, lies in the fact that Occupy Wall Street has created something both radical and simple: an honest-to-god public space.

 

A Public What?

The way we’re using “public space” means something different than just being “in public.” Most of the places we consider public—roads, sidewalks, municipal buildings and courtrooms—are either pathways from one private place to another or spaces where the bureaucratic operations of government are played out. When people visit public parks—spaces designated for recreation and leisure—we tend to act like we do in commercial spaces like restaurants, cafes, and bars. You might exchange a few words with a stranger while strolling through Central Park, but if you’re like most of us, you’re going to save your extended conversations for the friends you came with.

The situation that has erupted in Zuccotti Park is not just a space in public, but a space for a public. Discussion, self-expression, the swapping of ideas—these things are not incidental to Occupy Wall Street. They are central to its identity. This is what we mean by “public space.” Since the occupation began on September 17th, it has established a physical home for public-minded discourse. There is no guest list, there is no strict agenda, and there are no opening and closing hours. Unlike Central Park, the culture of occupied Zuccotti Park encourages strangers to talk to each other, especially about “public” topics that affect us all, topics like politics, finance, and corporate greed.

 

Why is This So Unusual?

Non-commercial spaces that encourage people to gather as a community and participate in unregulated discussion, exchange, and learning are increasingly rare. This city, this country, and this world get a little more privatized everyday. Both physical space and intellectual space—think newspapers, TV stations, and book publishers—are dominated by private and profit-seeking enterprises. Hell, Zuccotti Park is owned by Brookfield Office Properties, a commercial real estate company. Even our public spaces are privatized!

As privatized space becomes evermore common, our culture adapts and accepts this as the norm. To see how this development has warped our view of what public space ought to be, check out this statement from Brookfield Office Properties regarding OWS:


"Zuccotti Park is intended for the use and enjoyment of the general public for passive recreation. We are extremely concerned with the conditions that have been created by those currently occupying the park and are actively working with the City of New York to address these conditions and restore the park to its intended purpose."


Anyone who has been to Zuccotti Park during the occupation knows that it is being used and enjoyed by the general public. In terms of both number of people there and hours spent in the park, it’s probably seeing more use and enjoyment than at any time in its history. The key to Brookfield’s quote can be found in the words “passive recreation.” The denizens of Zuccotti can be described in many ways, but passive is not one of them. On the contrary, the park is filled with “activists,” both seasoned and rookie.

In other times and other places, people would laugh out loud if you claimed, as Brookfield does, that the intended purpose of a public space is passive recreation. American colonists gathered under Boston’s Liberty Tree for boisterous debates about the potential for independence. In Enlightenment Europe, citizens met in publicly-oriented coffeehouses to discuss emerging ideas of rights and freedom. But under the current regime of a privatized world, Brookfield can maintain a straight face while it insists on the essentially passivity of space that is, by law, required to remain open to the public.

Surely, part of this mentality is a corporation’s distaste for any movement that stands in opposition to the interests of Wall Street, but it runs deeper than that. How many of us—the protesters, the resistance, whatever you want to call us—had forgotten what a public space could look like? How many of us never even knew? When most of our lives are spent in private and semi-private places (bars, restaurants, movie theaters, etc.) with strong taboos against raucous action and unfettered conversation, our minds become imprinted with a very limited view of how we can behave in public. If “passive recreation” is all we’ve ever been allowed, it can take an intellectual earthquake for us to see a fuller spectrum of opportunities. For many of us, Occupy Wall Street was that earthquake, shaking the mental schemas that had once seemed so solid, so immutable.

 

A Different Kind of Discussion

In America, we are predisposed to understand communication as a transmission of information. You have some bit of news and you transmit it on to me, and maybe I write a pamphlet to transmit the news onto others. However, American communications theorist James Carey noticed a second and very different use of communication, one he called “ritual.” This sort of communication need not have anything to do with religion; when Carey writes of the ritual view of communication, he is pointing to the link between communication and community. When we talk to one another, we don’t just learn from and about each other; we create a community and establish a culture. Most of us have struggled economically over the past few years, and many of us for longer than that. The lucky ones have had friends and family to offer us support and empathy, but outside of these small (private) circles, we’ve faced these challenges alone.

In Zuccotti Park—and in its sister occupations throughout the country and the world—we’ve finally come together.

This isn’t a matter of group therapy (though the emotional resonance of the occupation is nothing to mock). It’s about creating a space where ideas of real change—not just the sloganeering, political campaign variety—can be spoken amongst other interested people. OWS has no platform. It is affiliated with no party. It’s not that the occupiers don’t care about concrete solutions; we do, and passionately. We realize, though, that discourse is not a field separate from reality, it is a shaper of it.

This is why the talking heads and smug editorial scribblers seem so puzzled by the occupation. The constant refrain of “What are your demands?” betrays how narrowly they view what communication, culture, and protest can accomplish. Their dismissals imply that they think we have no right to talk unless we have a perfected program to transmit. The idea of a robust public space where ideas are discussed and considered is so foreign to them that they can barely conceive of it, just as it is so foreign to city authorities that they treat it as a borderline-criminal curiosity that requires the supervision of an army of police officers.

On September 17th, a group of brave souls took the Constitution up on its promise of freedom of assembly, and their action has begat meaningful conversations in Zuccotti Park, among people throughout the country, and, increasingly and amazingly, in the national media. This discussion will, in turn, beget action—real political and social change. But after years of being disappointed and deceived by political hucksters who promised us solutions, we’re going to take some time to talk things over. So read on, friends. In the pages that follow, you’ll find some ideas worthy of that discussion.

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Whose Park? The Public’s Park:

Zuccotti Park as Public Space


Pic courtesy of Death + Taxes.

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