One issue which the various Occupy movements have brought to light is the vanishing commons, and what that means for our democracy. It all comes down to who owns what: protestors have a right to assemble on public property (as Gov. Bill Haslam and the Tennessee Highway Patrol found out last month). But private property is another matter entirely: your constitutional right to free speech (and 2nd Amendment rights and everything else) are at the pleasure of the property owner. We learned this in Nashville when anti-war protesters were arrested at then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s office here. Although Frist was a public official, his office was on private property. The landlord called the cops.
Zuccotti Park is a hybrid: a privately-owned public space, or POPS. We have these in Nashville, too, or something pretty much like them.
See if you can tell which of these pictures shows a public street, i.e. public property, and which one is private property (no cheating if you live in Nashville!):
I call them ersatz public spaces; most people don’t even know they’ve stepped onto private property when they’re walking on what looks like any other sidewalk, or slipping a quarter in what looks like any other parking meter (but look closely: that silver meter isn’t for parking, it’s to make a donation to the YMCA). Most of the time it doesn’t even matter … until it does. And when the time comes that it does matter, as the protestors at Zuccotti Park have discovered, it’s already too late.
Far smarter people than I have written about this. But I bring it up now because I don’t think the message has sunk in with the public at large. To me, this is all yet another sign of what we’ve lost — no, scratch that, what we’ve given away over the past 30 years. Like the song says, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. Public streets, public sidewalks, public parks: doesn’t seem like such a big deal, until suddenly it’s all gone and you have no place to peaceably assemble or petition the government for redress of grievances. You have no place to protest a corporation’s misdeeds, because that corporation is located on a private street that looks just like a public one. The media could be prohibited from reporting on activities happening on these fake public places. You could be prevented from circulating a petition against something the property owner might disagree with. You cannot hold a voter registration drive without the property owners’ permission. In short: your constitutional rights stop at some invisible line.
You Libertoonians blithely hammering your Ron Paul signs on every utility pole and street lamp: do you know who owns that street light? Are you so sure you have a right to hammer that sign to that utility pole? Your ideology which worships free enterprise, you phony radicals who support the interests of the power elites and ownership class: this message hasn’t applied to you yet. Why would it? But someday it will. As surely as the sun rises in the east, the day will come when your message is suddenly at odds with what the Koch Brothers and U.S. Chamber of Commerce want to hear. And when that happens, and you suddenly find yourself with nowhere to use your right to free speech because years ago you thoroughly vilified the idea of public anything .. what will you do then? Go buy a park?