By Kevin DeLuca
As the Occupy Wall Street protests spread across the country and now the world, one truth becomes self-evident: The First Amendment is gravely ill.
Although most references to the First Amendment focus on the freedoms of speech and religion, the third key right of the legal trinity that embodies the nation is "the right of the people peaceably to assemble."
With private shopping malls having replaced public squares and restrictive laws governing the remaining public places, the people's right to assemble has been dramatically diminished. Without the right to gather and protest, the right to free speech becomes compromised.
The Occupy protests reveal the architecture of oppression. First, the loss of public spaces leaves few places to protest. When people do gather in public places, local laws are used to violate the people's First Amendment right to assemble. Examples in Boston, Chicago and New York City are telling. At the moment, Salt Lake City is a site of hope.
In Boston, roughly 100 protesters were arrested under the cover of darkness in order to protect flowers and shrubs on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Flowers over the First Amendment? When shrubs trump freedom of assembly, democracy is incapacitated. Mayor Tom Menino was blunt: "I will not tolerate civil disobedience."
Coinciding with the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial dedication in Washington, Mayor Menino's sentiment is on the wrong side of history.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper ordered the Occupy Denver protesters out of Lincoln Park after three weeks. The police followed orders at 3:30 a.m. and forcibly cleared the public park. The governor declared, "The First Amendment and the rights it guarantees for free speech and assembly are critical to our democracy. These rights are what set the United States above all other nations. We also have rules and laws that must be followed."
Which laws invalidate the First Amendment? When did the right to assemble become an illegal activity?
Chicago is experiencing similar middle-of-the-night police raids on the right to assemble. Whenever Occupy Chicago tries to occupy iconic Grant Park, site of President Obama's election night celebration, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's police decide that the right to assemble is illegal. Their excuse for the oppression is that Grant Park closes at 11 p.m. So far, over 300 citizens have been arrested.
Of course, arbitrary public park closing times are not considered critical to America's democracy and yet they are deployed to silence people in city after city, including Oakland, Seattle, Phoenix and Atlanta. Oddly enough, although the NYC Occupy Wall Street protesters have been subject to hundreds of arrests, they have been allowed to stay in Zuccotti Park because it is private. Due to a quirk of local politics, the originally named Liberty Plaza Park is required to be open 24 hours a day.
To their credit, the Salt Lake City authorities recognize the paramount importance of the First Amendment and have allowed Occupy SLC in Pioneer Park. Still, the protesters have to ask for permits. Americans do not need to ask permission to assemble. The First Amendment is a right, not a privilege.
Even in the Internet Age, democracy and freedom depend on the right of the people to assemble and speak. The Arab Spring confirmed this truth and now the American Autumn of anti-greed protests reminds us. From Cairo's Tahrir Square to Chicago's Grant Park, places for the people to assemble and speak are at the heart of any possible democracy.
The physical and legal architecture of oppression must be dismantled in light of the right to assemble in places and protest.
Kevin DeLuca is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah and the author of the book Image Politics.