As Mayor Bloomberg's forces swooped down on Occupy Wall Street, news reports described the "hundreds of police and private security guards" who had re-taken Zuccotti Park. Those private guards were used against public citizens who had been exercising their civil liberties in a public area.
That's not just wrong. It's un-American.
This incident holds an important lesson for anyone who loves our freedoms: when something public is made private, our liberties are privatized, too. And privatized liberty isn't liberty at all.
Zuccotti Park. New Yorkers knew it as Liberty Plaza Park for nearly half a century. Like other sites in New York, the plaza was created through an agreement between the city and a private company, United States Steel, that wanted to erect a building that exceeded the city's height limits. So the city made them a deal: you can take up more than your share of the public skyline, but in return you have to give the city some open space at ground level.
This wasn't a gift. It was a fair exchange between two parties, a private corporation and the people of New York. The people gave up a chunk of their skyline, and the owner agreed to provide an open -- and, by agreement, fully public -- space in return. New York City makes these deals fairly often. The plazas created by these agreements are called "privately owned public spaces," or "POPS," and the city has lots of them.
The Mayor may want to read that phrase again: it doesn't say "privately owned private spaces." Both the owner and the city are obligated to keep them for public use, in the public sphere, with all the laws and freedoms that apply to public space.
The park's current owner, Brookfield Properties, rebuilt the park with private donations after it was damaged in the 9/11 attacks. With Mayor Bloomberg's permission, they also overstepped tradition and the bounds of propriety by renaming the park -- not for the thousands of innocent people who died that day, but for their own chairman.
The symbolism is perfect: they replaced a treasured word for freedom with the name of a rich guy who'd done nothing to create the park. With the Mayor's blessing, they literally privatized the word "liberty."
Like I said, perfect. Tragic, but perfect.
Brookfield overstepped its bounds when its CEO sent the mayor a letter saying that the Occupation "violates the law, violates the rules of the Park, deprives the community of its rights of quiet enjoyment to the Park, and creates health and public safety issues." Those aren't decisions a private company, even an owner, should make about a public space. They are judgments an elected official makes on behalf of a free citizenry.
This week Bloomberg and Brookfield have used the park's semi-private status as an excuse to invade a public space with a private security force. Whoever these guys were -- besides rude and uncivil -- they served as a kind of Blackwater militia, but targeting New Yorkers instead of Iraqis. (At least Brookfield says it fired the guard who called a citizen a "f*ggot.")
When it comes to privatization, it seems the Mayor has boundary issues. He has repeatedly used the park's private ownership status to claim that the public has fewer rights there than it does in other public spaces. That's false. But then, that's the problem with "public/private partnerships.... The "public" partner always gets rolled by the private one.
But then, that's how these people are. Give 'em an inch and they'll take a mile. The lesson of Zuccotti Park is: never give them an inch.
Thin Blue Line, Thick Green Wallets