Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Democracy is fine when it's 9,000 kilometers away, not 2 blocks away: two editorials in the Washington Post

Excuse our mess democracy in progress, in the Occupy DC encampment in McPherson Square
A sign posted January 8, 2012 in the Occupy DC encampment in McPherson Square in Washington, DC. Today marks the 100th day of occupation in DC. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images).

The Washington Post is okay with civil society and the role of protest in Egypt, based on this editorial, "Harassment in Egypt," but not in the U.S. and specifically DC, and not at McPherson Square, which is 2 blocks away from the Washington Post offices, and is probably not so pretty to look at up close, based on this editorial, " It may be time for Occupy D.C. to leave McPherson Square."

From the second editorial:

NATIONAL PARK SERVICE officials have bent over backwards to accommodate the First Amendment rights of the Occupy D.C. protesters at McPherson Square. Those rights, though, must be carefully balanced against other public interests. That’s why federal officials are right to take seriously the warning from D.C. officials about the health and safety risks posed by the increasingly unseemly encampment. The time may well have come to reclaim this public space.

From the first editorial:

ON DEC. 29, Egyptian security forces and troops launched an unprecedented raid on 17 offices of American and U.S.-funded civil-society groups ... Egyptian officials seeded local media with stories that portrayed the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as part of an international conspiracy to interfere in the country’s politics.

... the U.S. NGO offices as well as those of several Egyptian groups remain closed. Their computers have not been returned, and staff members are still being summoned for interviews with prosecutors who say that they are conducting a criminal investigation. In short, the Egyptian government is openly flouting the administration’s demand for a quick reversal of its harassment.

U.S. officials say that they are still pressing the issue hard. But in public, the administration’s rhetoric has been softening.

If the problem with the protest encampment in McPherson Square is rats, deal with the rats and other public health issues. Don't use public health concerns as an excuse to suppress democratic expression.

Don't shut the encampment down out of some mealy-mounted concern about public health, unless you also argue that the same kind of false messages being spread by pro-government groups in Egypt are equally accurate.

You can't have it both ways.

Protest and opposition and social movements aren't always pretty. And they don't follow a convenient, straightforward, linear narrative.

Ironically, the Post did editorialize in favor of democracy in DC, in the piece, "Fortress Washington," about the transferring of a part of the National Mall, Union Square, between the Capitol Grounds and 3rd Street, from the jurisdiction of the National Park Service to that of the Architect of the Capitol. (Also see "Capitol claims control of part of Mall.")

From the editorial:

“IN THE NAME of security.” It’s a phrase to which residents of the District have become wearily accustomed, as streets have been closed to traffic, ugly barriers and bollards erected and historic views blocked. Now comes word of the surreptitious decision to strip part of the Mall from National Park Service jurisdiction for security reasons. It’s only natural to worry that the public will be further restricted in what can be seen and done in the capital. ...

Because of Washington’s fortress mentality, numerous streets around the Capitol have been closed, the landscape has been littered with unsightly barriers and visitor flow has been restricted. Now it seems that national protests and other events will be moved farther from one of the great symbols of America’s open society. That’s wrong, and unnecessary.

Union Square on the map. Washington Post graphic.

The NPS should not be more bound than Congress by the Constitution in terms of the First Amendment, which reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances

but there are legitimate concerns that under the Architect of the Capitol's control, this space will be excised in significant ways from public access and demonstration. (Also see the letter to the editor "Assessing the Union Square shift.")

The Post needs to be consistent in recognizing that expressions of democracy need to be supported, whether they take place "overseas" or in the U.S., even Washington, DC.

Statements about "security" aren't any different that statements about the state of "public health" at McPherson Square with the Occupy DC encampment or that civil society groups in Cairo are not really Egyptian but controlled by foreign agents.

This photo ran with the Post editorial on the McPherson Square encampment.
Do not litter sign, in the Occupy DC encampment in McPherson Square
A battered U.S. Park Service sign sits among Occupy DC protestors tents in McPherson Square Park in Washington, Friday, Jan. 13, 2012. Washington Mayor Vincent Gray has called on the National Park Service to remove Occupy D.C. protesters from McPherson Square, citing rat infestation and other health issues. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

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