From Middle East to Madison, Justice Depends on Public Spaces

What happens when people have no place to gather as citizens?

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 dictatorbusters.

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 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 Sqaure.

Last week in Tunisia, they changed the name of the main square in Tunis 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 ousting an oppressive regime in December 1989 helped bring down Communism. 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.

This is not just an Old World thing. The Boston Common has been a sight of protests, and public gatherings for three centuries. In 1713, two hundred Bostonians protested food shortages in the city and in 1969 100,000 protested the Vietnam War.

The state capitol in Madison, where thousands of workers now protest the Wisconsin governor's fierce attacks on collective bargaining rights, represent 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.

The people rallying behind public sector union workers at the Capital are actually protected by the Wisconsin state constitution, which forbids the legislature from denying public access to the building when it is in session. State law does permit capitol groundskeepers to clear the building in an emergency, presumably on orders of the governor, but those groundskeepers are presumably members of the same union the governor wants to crush.

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 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, who almost certainly will 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, which limits our abilities to even discuss the issues of the day (or any other subject) with our fellow citizens.

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

The moment when I first became aware of the importance of public spaces was when the Minnesota Twins won their first ever World Series in 1987. I did not have tickets to the game but gathered hopefully with thousands of others outside the stadium in Minneapolis to share in the joy of the victory. When the Twins won the game, thousands more poured out of the ballpark into the streets and we all marched to...where? Minneapolis has no downtown square or landmark gathering place so we milled around the streets for a while--an unsatisfying way to celebrate a World Series championship. If it had been the Red Sox, everyone would head for the Boston Common. We weren't so lucky.

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.