The Vanishing Public Space

Statue of Socrates at Athens Square Park.

First, let me apologize for my extended absence. The last thing I ever want to do is ignore you after all of your support. It has been a very busy and tumultuous few days on this end. Hopefully, we are back to normal here and I will let all of you know if anything else comes up. Give me a few days to catch up on replying to the thoughtful comments that have been posted here over the past week or so.

Yesterday, I attended an event in Athens Square Park in Astoria, Queens billed as an “open air meeting” centering around the issue of education reform. The park is in an area with at least 3 large “turnaround” high schools scheduled for closing, including the beautiful and modern campus at Long Island City High School. The students of the community will no doubt feel the pinch next semester when they are shuffled around and half of their teachers get fired.

I arrived to the meeting about a half hour before the the start time. It was a beautiful day and the park was filled with kids kicking around soccer balls and climbing around the jungle gyms. Nobody involved with the discussion had arrived yet.

But there were six police officers on the outskirts of the park and they must have come in the giant police van parked near the front. It was nice of them to come out in such force to oversee the the safety of all of those children.

Around the time of the meeting, it seemed as if four or so people had gathered in the middle of the park to talk. One guy was holding a stack of fliers and others were drinking coffee, so I figured they must have been teachers. I walked in their direction in hopes of working my way into the conversation.

As I got to their circle, I noticed that the attention was centered on one guy with a NYC Parks Department hat. It turns out that he, as well as the cops, had heard that there was going to be a “protest” in the park that day. He, as well as the cops, were sent by their  superiors to notify everyone that they would need a permit if there was going to be a protest with over 20 people.

There were 5 of us and 3  were drinking coffee.

There was some discussion as to whether what was happening was an actual “protest”. I understood it to be an open-air discussion. The parks guy was stuck on the word “protest”, saying that a “protest” can turn into anything and he was concerned about the safety of the children at the park.

There were 5 of us and 3 were drinking coffee.

Even if it was a protest, the police had us pretty much outnumbered as it is. If things got too hairy, like if the children started picking up signs and marching to not have their schools closed, I’m sure the police had reinforcements seconds away ready to pepper spray the whole lot of us.

The parks guy did not stick around for too long after he saw that the meeting was nothing more than a loose discussion between less than a dozen teachers, parents and concerned citizens. The police had a very easy day for themselves in the (early) spring sun.

The message was very clear: everything you say on the internet is being monitored. This event was not billed as anything more than a discussion and was advertised nowhere else that I know of aside from the internet.

Obviously, the police and the parks guy were doing what their assignments called for. There is probably an entire department of people armed with fancy computer programs somewhere scanning the internet for key words like “occupation”, “resistance” and even “open air discussion”.

Oops. I wonder how long now before I get a knock on my do0r.

While it is easy to get paranoid about situations like this, I think it is a good thing that the powers that be are paranoid about a half-dozen people with common interests gathering over coffee to engage in democratic discussion.

This is the type of stuff they do not want to see. If they don’t pepper spray and lock everyone away, they will try to clamp down on the internet (SOPA) or relegate children to a lifetime of bubble-in exams and television so people don’t have the thought capacity to engage in democratic discussion anymore.

There should be more discussions like this at every park in every city around the country. Five of six people just show up to talk and, hopefully, attract more people until these “protests” are so diffuse that it becomes impossible for the police to clear them out.

It’s all about reclaiming public space. That is what Occupy did at Zuccotti Park. They turned the place into a gigantic bulletin board and discussion forum. In an age where public property becomes more and more of a foreign term, it is more vital than ever to hold on to what public space remains.

 

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8 responses to “The Vanishing Public Space

  1. Sounds like THE COMBINE in Cuckoo’s Nest – something I tell my students is alive and well in our America today – from the school hallways, to their own homes and now even in our public parks. In Bradbury’s, Fahrenheit 451 there are no porches or stoops. They’ve all been done away with. These places where one can mingle or talk freely about “what’s up?” are too dangerous for they promote individualized thinking.

    You say that, “There should be more discussions like this at every park in every city around the country.” I agree, but I would also say that I wish there would be more discussions like this among teachers in the buildings they work in. I can understand that it may be difficult for some with families to not make it to every protest – trust me I know with two little ones aged 2 and 6, but to not seek out information at work on some down time is something that baffles me. This is what I see at my school. I cannot speak for others. Be well.

    • It’s amazing how close to reality the creepiest sci-fi and dystopian novels tend to be.

      You’re right about the teacher’s lounge. While very few people know what is going on, the rest just see it as a job. I saw things like that myself for a long time until I realized that schools are public institutions that are under attack.

      The sad thing about yesterday’s “education” discussion was the lack of educators.

  2. Anything doing with Socrates and open forum is only a step in the right direction. Too bad your assembly had more police officers then so called protesters. I guess this happens in a post 9/11 time period. Security overrides certain freedoms in this day and age. A democratic open forum only generates ideas that advance the cause of a decent education in this great nation. Too bad both sides of the issue could not meet up and bring their viewpoints to a gathering of concern parents, students, business sector, and public officials. Watching the current Republican debates on television seem more glamour and show than a real debate. Americans are geared more to a dog and pony show than a true Lincoln-Douglas style debate.

    • Yeah, it was certainly a symbolic place to be with Socrates looming over us. Although the conversation was small, the energy was great and I met a few really great people.

      Socrates is a symbol of, I believe, radicalism, which means seeing the core of a matter. His philosophy, as far as we know from Plato, was all about seeing the eternal, the essential and his end was a warning to how society reacts to radicals.

      It was a good feeling. Next time there will be more people.

      • Tess Elliott

        The end of Socrates was also that he didn’t think they would condemn him to death. We have laws coming on the books that do away with due process and the right to assembly if the police decide that day that space is “restricted.” And of course, the felony conviction means you can’t vote, either. These are scary times, not just interesting.

  3. Wonderful, insightful piece!

  4. Pingback: Teachers, You Are Being Watched | assailedteacher

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