A Plaza for All? Looking for Chapel Hill’s Public Commons

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Last night I made a few remarks to Council before they codified a series of restrictions on the use of Peace and Justice Plaza Downtown by organized and disorganized activist.

We renamed the small patch of ground outside the Downtown post office to Peace and Justice Plaza to honor its central place in Chapel Hill’s progressive history. Before the Town acquired the property in the 70’s, its unique status as a slice of Federal land front-n-center in our community made it an invaluable refuge for local civil rights activist who wanted folks to see what others didn’t want to be seen – that even educated Chapel Hill bore the stain of racial inequality.

Why did Council slide these changes altering a historical dynamic through, undermining the meaning of Peace & Justice, without reaching out to the community? Why the desperate speed?

It appears because the Town couldn’t figure out how to evict one remaining protester who by most descriptions was a homeless man using the Occupy movement as an excuse for staying. Rather than address that specific issue, Council chose to hastily adopt a potentially very chilling approach.

Until we see specific guidelines, drafted out of sight of the community – chiefly by the Town Manager – we will not know.

For at least 50 years, a small patch of ground outside Downtown’s Post Office has served as our Town commons. This historical precedent was set by local civil rights activists who sought to circumvent Town and State attempts to shutter the voices raised against racial inequality.

They sought refuge on that small piece of Federal land because efforts to evict would become – literally- a “Federal case”. Sadly, they expected Federal courts would be more sympathetic in supporting their Constitutional right to assemble, to speak, to petition and to ask for redress of grievances than our local community.

Over time, protection of those fundamental rights has shifted towards local governments. Chapel Hill citizens, some at great costs, have stood up and fought to maintain and expand key civic values including equality in their recognition of same-sex partners.

I was reminded of how unique our community is during a 2003 anti-war protest in Raleigh.
While his supporters got a front-row seat, protesters were herded into a chain link enclosure well away from President Bush’s cavalcade. Out of sight, out of mind. By then, the Federal courts had decided that a bureaucratically proscribed “designated free speech zone” was acceptable.

Tonight you are being asked to make what appears to be a few “minor” changes to Town ordinances. That is not the case.

The suggested changes allow the Manager to dictate what neatly fits into a particular idea of reasonable discourse. Times, locations and extent of exercise of Rights will be determined by the somewhat vague guidelines he as his staff deem necessary.

I’m disappointed that the recent occupation of the one place in our community reserved and cherished for free assembly didn’t serve as a lesson in how to preserve and even promote more civic discourse. Rather it seems to have served as a call to arms to cordon off what makes some folks uncomfortable.

In a free and democratic society we must err on the side of openness and access to the public commons. We must tolerate a process that can be a bit unsettling and untidy.

There are vanishingly few public spaces left for assembly of citizens. If not Peace & Justice, where?

During the Chapel Hill 2020 process Downtown has been touted as the place for the community to come to meet with many proposals for an enhanced public square.

Now is the time to ask – “How public?”

Please put off further amendments constraining our public commons until our community has fully weighed in.

I got into a bit of a discussion with Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt about a loaded equivalence described in the Town legal brief.

The memo describes a scenario where two groups at polar extremes want to occupy the plaza. The examples used: Nazis and Jewish community, KKK and NAACP members, Anarchist and peace officers.

Of course, the hatred expressed by the Nazi and KKK members against the Jewish and African-American communities is well-documented and exemplified by horrendous acts.

I learned a little about Anarchism in university 30+ years ago and have since endeavored to learn more after the recent Yate’s Motor occupation and police raid. From what I’ve read and learned from some of the local adherents, Anarchism is not a political movement but, rather, a political philosophy with many avenues of expression.

There is nothing intrinsic to that political philosophy requiring vilification, especially at the level suggested by using the KKK and Nazis, of the police.

It was inappropriate of staff, and surprising of the majority of Council, to endorse such an equivalence.

Yearly Constitutional

Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

Fred reminds us that tomorrow, Sept. 17th, 2008, is Constitution Day. 221 years ago our Founders ratified a vision which carried this Nation to greatness. Over the last 10 years, much of our national leadership, motivated by partisan zeal and political gamesmanship, have done their best to besmirch and diminish that awesome achievement. As long as folks remember, though, there is hope we will restore our lost civil liberties and re-infuse this Nation with the same spirit upon which it was founded.

Fred has gathered a fantastic set of links, including the Library of Congress’ historical retrospective.

Democrats No Longer

Wednesday, May 30th, 2007

I’m a registered Independent.

OK, OK. I know there is no such thing as an Independent designation, just unaffiliated.

Unaffiliated. Indecisive. Indifferent. Uncommitted. Uninvolved. Fence-sitter. Don’t care.

A truly perverse bit of political framing.

I hope my occasional contributions to the local debate (CitizenWill , OrangePolitics, SqueezeThePulp, the Daily Tar Heel, the Chapel Hill News) and my willingness to take principled, though sometimes unpopular, stands on local issues demonstrates a small measure of care and commitment.

For years I’ve worked to elect Democrats. Dropped a few bucks here and there for a few of their more worthwhile national candidates. Sat polls for the local Orange County party. Contributed oodles of time to their and other affiliated organizations’ efforts to Get Out The Vote (GOTV). No plans to stop those efforts anytime soon.

But I am no Democrat (I was once). And I am no Republican (never have, never will be).

Heck, don’t try to graph my position on the one dimensional line passing through the Democrats Right to Republicans…. I, like many other local folks, exist outside these parties calculus.

I don’t know why three folks chose this week, from the many other recent weeks of Democratic disappointment, to ask me how to switch their party affiliation.

Maybe it was the recent reversal on Iraq or just the steady dissipation of last November’s promise.

Why me? I’m certainly not trying to “recruit” Independents. Sure, I haven’t been reserved in expressing my dissatisfaction with our local Democrat US Representative. They each knew of my efforts to open the local political scene to Independents via non-partisan elections and other voting reforms.

And I’ve been quite open about my status.

When, during my 2005 run for Town Council, a few local political operators counseled quiet discretion – suggesting talk of my non-affiliation would lead to a loss of stalwart Dem votes – I countered that to do so would not only be against my own tenets but promulgate the ruinous myth that folks are only capable of selecting representatives that fall along a one-dimensional political axis.

They might’ve been right. I did lose.

There is safety in numbers. Yet change springs from the outliers. And in today’s United States, it isn’t too far from “united we stand, divided we fall” to “deru kugi wa utareru”.

If you would like to lose your affiliation, either Republican or Democrat, or register to vote under any flag, the procedure is easy:

  • Review the instructions here.

    If you wish to change your party affiliation, you must complete either a Voter Registration Application Form (downloaded from address above) or complete the reverse side of a Voter Registration Card that has been mailed to you and return to the Board of Elections. All changes must be either postmarked or received in the Board of Election’s office at least 25 days before the election.

  • Download the registration form here [PDF].
  • Emancipate yourself from either of the two currently recognized parties.

Scared? You don’t have to go totally “cold turkey”. You will still be able to play some of the old game, for instance voting in either party’s primary. Initially, in many ways both large and small, you’ll feel stuck on the sidelines – constrained to vote for choices you wouldn’t have made, for flavors as close as Pepsi to Coke.

At first you might feel a little light-headed drifting above our current political Flatland. Navigating the multi-dimensional political reality we all currently occupy, whether we appreciate it or not, without the constant tether of partisan loyalty is heady stuff. Don’t panic! After a while, the relief of free agency sets in.

Still, though shorn of your party’s old baggage, paralyzed by its intransigence no longer, you leave one burden for another.

Sorry. Independence doesn’t mean “indecisive”. It doesn’t mean “uncommitted” And it certainly doesn’t mean “don’t care”.

“The List” Part 2: From Whole Cloth

Wednesday, July 26th, 2006

Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.

“The Trial”, Kafka

Stumbled upon this troubling account from Denver’s ABC 7:

You could be on a secret government database or watch list for simply taking a picture on an airplane. Some federal air marshals say they’re reporting your actions to meet a quota, even though some top officials deny it.

San Jose Costa Rica
Outskirts of San Jose, Costa Rica

“Innocent passengers are being entered into an international intelligence database as suspicious persons, acting in a suspicious manner on an aircraft … and they did nothing wrong,” said one federal air marshal.

(more…)

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