Public Spaces and the Freedom to Assemble
Updated: Apr 29, 2022
By Charlie McCabe
The New York Times Magazine published a long report on Sunday, 4/3/22, about a protest movement in Minsk, Belarus that started with two DJs playing a song at a playground. The song, associated with protests in Eastern Europe back in the early 1990s, inspired a protest movement that, like other attempts in Belarus, was ultimately crushed by the country's repressive government. A mural soon appeared, showing an image of the DJs raising their arms in protest as the song played. This mural was removed and replaced numerous times, and the image remains a haunting reminder that the ability to organize, protest, and gather is not universally accessible.
The importance of public space for organizing, protest, and assembly is ingrained in the United States and many other countries. With the rise of many autocratic governments, often initially democratically elected, this right to peaceably assemble is under threat. The lingering Covid-19 pandemic has seen protests continue, despite a number of restrictions, worldwide. In the United States, we've seen a rise in public gatherings, protests, and demonstrations in parks, plazas, and city streets since 2016. While you may not agree with the protestors or their points of view, the freedom to peacefully gather and speak out is protected under the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
My interest in the Belarus story grew as I read about efforts by noted greenway planner Chuck Flink is his recent book, The Greenway Imperative, to help build a system of greenways throughout Belarus, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy there in 2010. Given the strong ties between Russia and Belarus, and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, just south of Belarus, I want to understand more about the history and relationships in this part of Europe. The NYT Magazine gives a good overview of how a fixed presidential election led to the Minsk protests, as well as the challenges of living in a country where the ability to protest, speak freely, and organize isn't guaranteed.
Parks serve a wide variety of purposes, and I'm grateful to have so many options, including state parks, greenways, neighborhood parks, and bigger destination parks within walking, biking, and transit distance from my home. The ability to engage with nature, exercise, breathe fresh air, and meet with friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens is not a privilege I take lightly. As spring returns to the Northeast, I look forward to seeing parks being used for a wide variety of purposes, and I hope that people will use them as a way to re-engage with each other and appreciate that we live in a democracy that offers us so many opportunities to express ourselves. I'm committed to working and volunteering to help protect, support, and maintain these public parks and open spaces for everyone to use, enjoy, and yes, protest. I hope you will too.
All posts in my public parks series.
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