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Written by Eleazar David Meléndez, BT Contributor   
May 2017

Open spaces play a role in protest outcomes

TPix_EleazarMelendez_5-17he protesters truly, actually, really were trying to follow the law. Unlike the angry marchers who descended on Biscayne Boulevard earlier this year, these several thousand participants in Miami’s April 22 March for Science had, by and large, zero appetite for testing the rules that the police were setting up in their efforts to keep traffic moving through downtown Miami.

This was, after all, a nerds’ protest: instead of foul-mouthed chants threatening the government, there were small children in strollers adorably saying into a loudspeaker that they “love Mommy Earth.” The people chanting wore lab coats, not Guy Fawkes masks, and they weren’t 20-somethings yelling themselves hoarse.

Even the most assertive statements were wrapped in the endearing schmaltz of self-referential chemistry puns. “Fluorine Uranium Carbon Potassium Trump,” one sign read.

Yet at the corner of NE 3rd Street and Biscayne Boulevard, the marchers faced a pedestrian problem. The construction site for (what else?) a new ultra-luxury residential condo was blocking off the sidewalk on the north side of the street. Hundreds of marchers who had assiduously self-policed and followed directives to stay on the sidewalk were suddenly stopped cold. With nowhere to go, they began to spill into the street, having no other option but to follow the scofflaw precedent of taking over traffic lanes without a permit. A Corolla at the stoplight with a Lyft sign on the windshield was suddenly stuck in the middle of the slow-moving crowd.

It wasn’t the first time, and it likely won’t be the last, that the geography of downtown Miami played a pivotal role in determining how a protest plays out. Albeit for much shorter period in 2003, downtown was significant as a gathering point for people protesting the Free Trade Area of the Americas conference, and subsequent crackdown.

And way back in 1986, the Torch of Friendship, at the northern edge of downtown’s Bayfront Park, became an ironic flash point when a clash between supporters and opponents of U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan contras drew an unexpectedly huge turnout -- and famously laid bare the political and ethnic tensions between the city’s Cuban and Anglo political elites.

Flash forward to 2017: In a city where activism is suddenly on the rise, downtown Miami is fast becoming the Instagram background for pictures of anti-Trump sign waving.

It’s hard to underestimate how much the shape and contours of the place where protests take place can affect their outcomes. Back on September 19, 2011, I participated in a small protest with some of my friends in Brooklyn, New York. Organizers had called for everyone to meet in front of the New York Stock Exchange, and our directive was to lie down on the sidewalk in sleeping bags to make a statement about the corrosive effect of money in politics.

When police cordoned off the site that would have allowed such a demonstration, the protestors instead walked around to other gathering spots nearby -- but they quickly discovered that the cops had been tipped off and had also fenced off those public greens. Hours later -- I’d long taken the subway home by then -- wanderers settled on a spartan concrete plaza just north of the American Stock Exchange.

This was the birth of Occupy Wall Street, of course, which went on to become a global movement and arguably brought the issue of income inequality into the headlines from academic obscurity to where it became the defining political issue of our time. But would the protesters have been able to capture the public imagination in the same way if, instead of being able to spread their drum circles and tent cities across a camera-friendly block-size plaza, they would have instead ended up with just several dozen sleeping bags in front of the New York Stock Exchange?

To a lesser degree than Zuccotti Plaza in New York, but still in important ways that have made the city a character in the story of #resistance, downtown public spaces have contributed to the mood and outcome of protest here in Miami. At the March for Science, participants walked to the plaza that lies behind the county’s main government center. That greatly underutilized spot worked well as a playful setting to a quirky, uplifting event. Small children frolicked in the fountain there or climbed atop the surprisingly kid-friendly modern sculptures nearby.

Earlier in the year, the Miami edition of the national Women’s March had the distinction of not being a march at all. But the relative comfort of hosting the rally at the Bayfront Park amphitheater brought out thousands of participants who eased into activism by spending a Saturday afternoon listening to speeches on a park lawn -- a much more attractive proposition to those new to activism than taking over the streets.

Indeed, one of Miami’s newest public spaces, the pop-up Omni Park just north of downtown Miami, has areas that have arguably been dedicated in the spirit of protest. A small section of the park, pushed by city Commissioner Ken Russell and executed in part by a group of entrepreneurs steeped in the city’s activist culture, is not being refurbished: it remains pointed commentary about how that blighted site had been allowed to fester in the past.

Public spaces in downtown Miami will likely never form the connection to political activism that large open spaces in national capitals have deservedly earned: think the National Mall in Washington, D.C., or the Zócalo in Mexico City.

But the gatherings downtown still raise interesting questions. In the interplay between the geography of public space and the extraordinary human expression of free public speech, if the physical space gets to affect protest, can the inverse also be true?

Will the awakened masses making their voices bounce off the condo canyons of downtown perhaps focus once again on the wealth disparity that makes those buildings and their residents stand out in contrast to the retail workers on the ground floor and the homeless outside?

Will downtown neighbors coming out to see what the racket is all about, and joining in like many did during a January action that ended up closing I-395, suddenly feel emboldened to learn that the family next door is also eager to participate in this kind of thing?

At least one issue of concern to downtowners seems to have found attention by protesters, though some with their tongues placed firmly in cheek.

At the March for Science, when one impatient motorist near the old federal courthouse beeped his horn at marchers who had stopped moving, an impromptu chant went up as a novel solution to Miami’s gridlock.

“If you don’t want the traaa-ffic,” the sing-songy line went, “Vote! Trump! Out!”

 

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