bostonoccupier.com | The Boston Occupier - Free Press | LOCAL/REGIONAL
Public-PrivatePartners SellOut the PublicRealm
By Shirley Kressel
Thanks to the Occupy movement, we are snapping out of our “AmericanDream” and realizing that the system isthoroughly and mercilessly rigged. Bigcorporations and a financial elite havebought our politicians, Democrat andRepublican alike, collaborated to stealour economy, and broke our society by manipulating the laws of the land.The widespread crack-down onOccupiers reveals that the perpetratorstook care to include, among the laws they subverted, the free speech and assembly rights we’d need when we woke up totheir malfaesance.These civic keystones of democracy have been eroded by an ever-expandingcollection of “time, place and manner”regulations on park use includingrequirements for permits, fees andinsurance; prohibitions on sleeping;banning of microphones and tents, etc.Closing times - even in the iconic BostonCommon, America’s first public park - have confined democracy to “officehours.” These rules let politicians andtheir police squads throw out anyonethey deem “undesirable” and arrest “tres-passers” as outlaws.Cloaked in the language of “publicsafety,” these restrictions have mainly targeted the growing ranks of homelesspeople, whose ubiquitous presence is anindictment of our failed economy. Butthe rules are being invoked even morezealously against civic protesters, whothreaten the very foundations of thiscorrupt system. In 1984, the SupremeCourt, supporting restrictions in thename of “government interests,” ruledagainst activists who were highlightingthe problem of homelessness by tentingin a park; but dissenting JusticesThurgood Marshall and William J.Brennan denounced “a bureaucracy thatover the years has shown an implacablehostility toward citizens’ exercise of First Amendment rights.” They warnedthat “government agencies by theirvery nature are driven to over-regulatepublic forums to the detriment of First Amendment rights.”Everyone knows about governmentpark ordinances, but few people realizethat public officials are finding a way to evade their obligations for civicrights altogether, abdicating respon-sibility for parks as unaffordable frillsand shifting management and controlto private parties who promise to pay for the upkeep. These include abuttingproperty owners, conservancies, “friends-of” groups, corporate sponsors, and realestate developers who create open spacesin return for permitting favors, likeZuccotti Park, the original site of Occupy Wall Street in New York City. Theseprivate “benefactors,” who gain controlby using philanthropy as a Trojan horse,havedeliberately defined parks as socialand decorative rather than civic places.They usually seek to impose barriers,through regulations, by more subtledesign or psychological strategies, all toexclude people who don’t fit in with thischarming ornamental imagery.Such public-private partnershipsprovide the political and economicelite with a virtually unlimited array of control over the public realm, blurringthe boundaries between public versusprivate and obfuscating their specificroles in violating Constitutional rights.The Rose Kennedy Greenway, thesiteof the Occupy Boston’s encampmentfrom September 30 through December10 of last year, exemplifies the dangersof this trend. The Greenway is a state-owned park, but management has beenassigned to a private non-profit corpo-ration that calls itself the “Greenway Conservancy.” This group managedto wrangle a lease for the land and asubstantial amount of public funding(which it is squandering, as the BostonHerald has reported, on salaries for a self-serving bureacracy, a bevy of consultantsand media flacks). The Conservancy presents itself as the steward of the park,making rules and permitting events.Small wonder, then, that many people,including the Boston police department,think that the Greenway is Conservancy property.The Conservancy, in reality, is nothingmore than a private group of downtowncorporations interested in keeping theirfront yard—which happens to be a publicspace—full of pretty landscaping and“nice” people. The Conservancy operatesunder an explicit legal requirement totreat the Greenway “as a public park and a traditional open public forum without limiting free speech.” Yet theConservancy’s Executive Director, Nancy Brennan (ironically, the daughter of theabove-mentioned free-speech advocate Justice William J. Brennan) gave MayorThomas Menino and MassachusettsGovernor Deval Patrick (both notoriouscorporate allies) an excuse to unleashhundreds of city, state, and county policeofficers on Occupy Boston - supposedly to protect the landscaping.In New York, the Central Park Conservancy similarly uses its preciouslawn to give Mayor Michael Bloombergcover in denying protest permits.Zuccotti Park is one of New York’sprivately owned “public” spaces. Theowner, Brookfield Properties, simply changed the rules, without any publicsay, when they decided to drive outOccupy Wall Street protesters - and thecity police were sent by Bloomberg toenforce the new rules. This regulatory ambiguity allows for a confusing flurry of charges as grounds for arrest andsuppression, supplying ammunition toconservatives of all stripes while diffusingthe issue of First Amendment rights.Public parks serve important recre-ational, environmental, and aestheticfunctions. But a healthy democracy demands that public enjoyment of First Amendment rights be enshrined asthe foremost and paramount purposeof public spaces, because, unlike land-scaping and leisure activity, free speechhas no other home. As a society, we havetoo long stood by as our laws—and our values—have beenmanipulated to shrink our democraticpublic domains, both physical, politicaland legal. Our Constitutional rights arebeing extinguished as we eliminate theplaces available to exercise them.Occupy the public realm—or lose it.Shirley Kressel is a landscape architectand urban designer.To many people, a connection between mainstream religion- especially Christianity - and the Occupy movement mightseem to be out of the question. Those folks probably haven’theard of the Protest Chaplains.
Protesting in the Name of the God
The relationship between Occupy movement and sympa-thetic Christians dates back to just about a week before thefirst sleeping bags hit the ground at Zuccotti Park in New York City. A small group of students from Harvard Divinity School and a few members of the Christian organization TheCrossing decided to take part in the action they had readabout in Adbusters that summer.Heather Pritchard, a member of the original group thatventured to Occupy Wall Street, recalls that “we wanted tobring an explicitly Christian voice to the protest.” Dressedin full Albs and carrying a cardboard cross through lowerManhattan, the Protest Chaplains were born amidst the sameburst of activist energy that would find its way to Boston justa week and a half later. Five of the Protest Chaplains came toOccupy Boston’s first General Assembly on September 27th, where they immediately formed the Faith and Spirituality Working Group. As Occupy Boston grew in size and diversity, so did theChaplains. In the face of the inclusive and egalitarian ethosof the Occupy movement itself, the group decided to acceptother faiths into their group: Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, andanyone whose drive to protest inequality came from a spiritualconviction. Yet the original, singularly Christian intent of the group is what makes them so unique within this movement. As a resultof the Chaplain’s efforts, many congregants who otherwise would have never approached the protests came down to see what was going on. Many of them ended up coming back;some for the Vespers services held at the encampment’s mainstage, and others to just sit and talk with the protesters.“A lot of individuals at Occupy Boston came to themovement wanting to promote secular things. They’re nottrying to make this a religious movement,” Pritchard explains,“but a lot of people bring their faith. They believe in thingslike equality and human rights because of their faith.”Speaking of her fellow protest chaplains, she added, “Westrongly believe that Christ came to this earth to liberate thepoor and the oppressed. That’s why he specifically spent histime with the beggars and the prostitutes and the lepers.”
The Altar on the Left
Since the 1980s, the Christian Right has been a politicalpowerhouse, able to mobilize droves of supporters at the dropof a hat and strong enough, in some areas of the country, tomake or break the candidacy of those vying for elected office.Their focus has been on a handful of divisive areas of domesticsocial policy: abortion, gay marriage and prayer in schools, toname a few. Generally speaking, the Christian Right has novoice of its own on matters of economic policy; the grouplargely follows in lock step with traditional conservativeRepublicans. All the more reason, it seems, to reconsider of a term notfrequently used: the Christian Left.“It’s not a phrase I’d use naturally,” said Dan McKanan, aprofessor at Harvard Divinity School and author of the book Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American RadicalTradition. McKanan describes the Christian Left as a groupfocused on those parts of Jesus’ teachings which advocate for acompassionate economic system, from the story of the GoodSamaritan to the Beatitudes (“blessed are the poor in spirit”,for example).He also describes them as a group that, despite havingthese strong faith-based convictions about the need for socialand economic justice, isn’t nearly as organized or culturally relevant as the Christian Right.“Part of the reason that left Christian organizations don’thave the same muscle as, say, Focus on the Family, is that alot of religious leftists are putting their time and energy intoorganizations that aren’t specifically religious in character,”McKanan says. The Occupy movement is just one example.That the Occupy movement could conceivably partner with mainline Christianity would be no surprise to McKanan.He points to a long history of radical Christian activism tosupport this, from labor-rallying Catholics Dorothy Day andCésar Chávez, to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SouthernChristian Leadership Conference.Both at the national and local level, the stage appears tobe set for a revival of this strain of Christian thought. Whenthe battle over Wisconsin’s state budget came to a fever pitchlast year, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki issued astatement in support of the state’s public unions, quoting atlength from Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical.“The repeated calls issued within the Church’s socialdoctrine…for the promotion of workers’ associations thatcan defend their rights must therefore be honored today evenmore than in the past,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote.Here in Massachusetts, the Unitarian Church, the Black Ministerial Alliance and a number of other faith-based orga-nizations have come out against the state’s new “three strikes”bill, which would require mandatory maximum sentences forrepeat felons. Churches have partnered with and community organizations (including Occupy the Hood) to build a grass-roots campaign against the bill.In collaborations like this one, activists are taking up themessage that legendary Boston activist Mel King delivered atOccupy Boston’s Martin Luther King Day community gath-ering in Arlington St. Church last month. King, a long-timeBoston community activist and political leader, urged thegathering to make the churches and their congregants theirallies.On one hand, Mel King is challenging Occupy activists toorganize outside of their comfort zones. On the other, he ischallenging Christian congregations to answer and act on thisquestion: “Which side are you on?” As groups like the Protest Chaplains and others maketheir way through Boston’s houses of God, America’s oftenoverlooked Christian Left seems poised to grow, and perhapsanswer King’s question. If so, money lenders – among others- may once again have to worry about their tables gettingturned over.
Continued:Return of the ChristianLeft
The Occupy movementfocuses directly on the“pivotal issue of our time,”Ferguson asserts, “whichis whether democracy in America can survive.” Helauds the movement’s“culture of non-violence,tolerance, and respectfor individual persons,”remarking “the contrast”borne between this and “thecults of violence growingup elsewhere in the systemis obvious and infinitely refreshing.” American studiesprofessor Paul Atwoodreasoned that, as a publicuniversity, UMass oughtto care for the poverty inits backyard––Dorchester,Roxbury and Mattapan––rather than transform itself into another expensive,hi-tech research institution.“We have enough of thosein Boston,” he told theHarvard Crimson. “Weneed an institution of highereducation for people whodon’t have the privilege of being born into the elite.”Though the studentbody has generally receivedOccupy with passivesupport or indifference,there has been opposition.Unsympathetic studentshave admonished activiststo “get a job,” or to “getout of the campus center.” An online petition titled“Umass Boston Students Against Occupy” boasts 55signatures. Eleven refer tothemselves as “anonymous,”five express sympathy withthe movement’s values butdeem its manifestationa futile nuisance, whilethree names—HassanSajjad, Peter Dimas, KevinMojica––appear on the listtwice. By contrast, a change.org petition in support of the occupiers has yielded460 signatures.On the morning of Tuesday February 7,students protested theUMass Board of Trusteesmeeting held at the CampusCenter Alumni Room. Junior psychology majorKyle Forrester describedhow he and several otherprotesters arrived early at the board meetingand briefly occupied thetrustee’s seats in a symbolicact before holding up a signin a less disruptive sectionof the room. Toward theconclusion of the meeting,students––joined in unisonby 20 or so supportersoutside the room––mic-checked the board: “Nocuts, no fees; educationshould be free.”Forrester suspects thatmost administrators “know in their hearts [OUMB]is right,” yet “have theirhands tied in a culture of bureaucratic indifference.”It’s tricky, he suggests,as the aggression doesn’tmanifest on the personallevel––where policy decidersbehave politely––but ratherin “the policies they enact.” Join Us!Though admittedly few in number, a core group of OUMB students has never-theless committed itself toempowering newcomersto share their voice.“Democracy is about you!”occupiers say. And thoughthey remain mindful thatstudents have busy classschedules, jobs, and liveson the side, still they believethat volunteering in small ways to reach out, listen to,and connect with each other will pay off somewherealong the road.
Occupy UMass Boston’s General Assemblies are scheduled for Mondays,Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm
Several o the Protest Chaplains pose with their ellow Occupy Wall Streetsupporters on September 17th, 2011. (Photo: ProtestChaplains, via ickr)