WAF Newsletter - In Practice - June 2020

In Practice

Paul Hyett, 15 June 2020

The square dance of public space and democracy

I composed this piece on the eve of the re-opening of Jallianwala Bagh Memorial Park, pride of the city of Amritsar, writes Paul Hyett.

It had not been closed to prevent public gatherings or demonstrations, but use of it was suspended during the restoration of the memorial that bears its name, that process delayed by the impact of Covid-19.

In similar vein, some 7,500 miles to the west, workers are currently completing the clean-up of Lafayette Park in Washington DC, having demolished the barricades hurriedly assembled during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations earlier this month. Through all that turmoil, one small tarpaulin tent remained standing, declaring the steadfast intent of those who manned it uninterrupted, night and day, over the last four decades:

‘38+ years Anti-Nuclear Peace Vigil – Rain or shine, coronavirus, hurricanes, sleet, blizzards or tornados’

Many see the ongoing presence of this small structure as an indication that the square is, thankfully, returning to ‘normal’.

London has seen its share of demonstrations, and with them the need to balance the right of protestors to question and challenge authority with the interests of others who simply wish to go about their lives uninterrupted. For example, enough was deemed enough at 7.30 pm on 17 January 2012, as police started a three-hour operation to dismantle and remove the tents that had stood in Parliament Square since May 2010. Known as ‘Democracy Village’, its community had engaged in a prolonged complaint against a multitude of issues including the Afghanistan War. Its presence was ended by the introduction and subsequent enforcement of the Police Reform & Social Responsibility Act, which outlawed all and any encampments around Westminster.

Lafayette Park, known affectionately by Americans as ‘our public square’, is a place of enormous significance, offering the opportunity for public protest in sight of the White House. It is this proximity to the seat of power – as with Democracy Village in London ---that affords demonstrators such a great sense of purpose: the Black Lives Matter message was brought to the very door of the American president, and here in the UK to the gates of Parliament.

Protesting the death of George Floyd in Washington DC

Many Americans were outraged when the right to demonstrate peacefully was abruptly challenged, and indeed suppressed, as the 45th US president’s path was rudely cleared for that infamous St John’s Church photo session – an event that has sufficiently unnerved and divided the American establishment for the country’s most senior military officer, General Mark Milley, to publicly apologize for his part in the drama.

They are right to be cautious, for when name and place become synonymous with shared memory, historical record and conflict, the political stakes escalate dramatically. Perils abound for those in power who misread such situations and misjudge such moments.

Lafayette is symbolic of so much: as a young and adventurous lieutenant, the Marquis commanded American forces during the American Revolutionary War before returning to his native France to play his part in the French Revolution. Lafayette helped to write the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen’, aided by Thomas Jefferson: the very name represents the principles of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity (though it must be acknowledged that he was a slave-owner).

By historic standards, the recent clearance of demonstrators at Lafayette Park, which appeared so brutal to our modern western sensibilities, was a relatively mild affair. Compare it with Tiananmen Square in 1989, where troops with assault rifles and tanks caused deaths estimated at between several hundred and several thousand together with thousands wounded. Or back to Jallianwala Square where, on 13 April 1919, Colonel Reginald Dyer of the British Army ordered troops to fire their Lee-Enfield rifles on a non-violent gathering of unarmed civilians: 379 men, women and children were killed there, with some 1,100 wounded. The British establishment and its public were united in outrage.

But Lafayette Square is located at the heart of the world’s most important democracy where peaceful protest is a citizen’s right. And things have moved on since that terrible massacre in the Punjab. Furthermore, in contrast to the riots of 1968 and the days of Martin Luther King and Malcom X, the demonstrations that have been ignited around the world as a consequence of George Floyd’s murder are of noticeably mixed races: this is not just an outcry of an oppressed and desperate Black minority, but an expression of disgust by a very disparate, and in many cases well-heeled, multi-race majority.

As the dust settles, those keen to find a way forward might do well to revisit the work of great thinkers such as the eminent Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson who, as a black man, argued back in 1984 that the ‘structure of the US economy (was) more responsible for the plight of poor Blacks than racism’. Or Charles Murray who took square aim at liberal social policies arguing that socio-economic programmes ‘intended to support poor people – particularly poor Blacks’ represented ‘a new form of unequal treatment which undermines initiative… and is as harmful as historic racial discrimination’. Equally persuasive arguments can of course be made for the opposite view.

Such complex territory is the basis for socio-economic and political debate, but its expression will inevitably on occasion effervesce onto our streets. Then it also becomes a discussion about place, and urban form, about architecture, planning, and memory.

And that is why the likes of Tahrir and Maidan squares in Cairo and Kiev where sustained protests toppled Presidents Mubarak and Yanukovych; Taksim and Azadi squares in Istanbul and Tehran where the authority of prime minister Erdogan and the government of Iran were respectively challenged; and with those places why Vijay and Wenceslas Squares in New Delhi and Prague; Senate Square in Finland and the Plaza de la Revolution in Havana as well as Tiananmen Square, Bebelplatz in Berlin, and the 9/11 Urban Plaza in New York, all invoke such powerful emotions.

In each of these settings the mood of the people has found necessary expression (sometimes repeatedly) and collective memory has been immortalised. Thereafter, during periods of calm in between inevitable flash-points, such locations exist as tourist destinations, or simply as ‘stars’ in the mental maps of local citizens, or as Kevin Lynch affirmed in his wonderful book The Image of the City, nodes by which we navigate.

But as with Trafalgar Square, while such places are playgrounds for celebration at times of national jubilation, they are also platforms for the expression of outrage and anger at times of frustration and distress; as such, they are important safety valves and should never, ever be shut.

Read other WAFN Articles.

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