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Sunday, May 31, 2020

Claim to the Sidewalk

Last night, the @placardabuse Twitter account posted an observation that a burning police van was parked on the sidewalk. It got me thinking. Streets are famously the contested spaces of protest and revolution, so it may be worth looking more closely at how those struggles are being fought within our public right-of-way. In the conflict over who controls our public space, there is a hierarchy within the streetscape driven by tactical considerations as well as the issue of who occupies the image of the street.

The first thing the NYPD seems to do when trying to "control" a protest is to keep the protesters out of the roadbeds. This has strategic aspects, as well as the potential for abuse.

Often this appeals to a traffic management justification. The transportation rationale implicitly prioritizes the movement of people cutting through the area in cars over anybody using the sidewalk, who becomes trapped on the overcrowded sidewalks. It sets the privileged minority who own cars in New York City above the majority who live car-free. It does also keep the roadways open for emergency vehicles to get through quickly.

Rapid responses may be critical to provide medical assistance for anybody who may be injured by a confrontation or stampeding from the crowd.  It also allows the police to mobilize their own resources, enabling them to respond with overwhelming force, both in terms of bodies and weaponry.
Former Mayor Giuliani once expressed this rather concisely:
I have a zero tolerance for riots. I, you know, took over a city that had two riots in four years and I had none. And they knew they couldn’t riot on me. And when I saw the people on the street in New York City, I said to myself, you’re breaking Giuliani’s rules. You don’t take my streets. You can have my sidewalks, but you don’t take my streets, because ambulances have to get through there, fire trucks have to get through there. People die when you crowd the streets of New York City with protesters. You can do plenty of protesting on the sidewalk.
As the statement by Giuliani shows, there is a hierarchy here between the "streets" and the "sidewalks." There is also a power of ownership ("my streets") at work here, and the protesters are merely allowed use of the lower status portion of the public space by those in power.

The citizens exercising their right to free speech are confined on the sidewalks, which are often far too narrow.  If they dare to step "into the street," the NYPD often uses it as justification for an arrest or violence. There is no traffic rule against stepping into the street in New York City as long as the person is not obstructing traffic, but the NYPD can issue orders to maintain public safety. Failure to comply with their orders is grounds for arrest.
This broad discretion allows for abuse, and the NYPD is often accused of weaponizing the streetscape by using their orders to pin protesters into uncomfortable or unsafe crowded areas. Yesterday's policing of the protest in Brooklyn followed this same pattern. When protesters did not comply quickly enough, the officers started using force.
Sometimes they jumped immediately to the use of violence against people in the roadway, while in other instances they issued orders to keep moving people back, which can easily instigate a response when people feel threatened and trapped. If overly aggressive police officers can get somebody to respond, they have an excuse to surge forward with an escalation of violence.

But as Giuliani's comments indicated, forcing protesters onto the sidewalks is also symbolic. The police maintain the image of owning the middle of the street, forcing all others aside. This excludes them from the primary space and leaves them as onlookers. This may start to sound familiar: it is essentially the same model as a parade, where the privileged take ownership of the middle of the street while the undistinguished spectators crowd on both sides to provide the necessary contrast.

The fact that police violence occupies the center of the street, while the powerless look on from the sides, is at the heart of the current protests. The event that brought us all here was a public execution that took place in the street while the community was forced to watch from the sidewalk.

Showcasing the violent abuse of power in the public street is, in fact, a cornerstone of Donald Trump's reign of terror. As he bragged, he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody.

Perhaps then, on some level, protesters fighting the police may feel drawn to target the police vehicles that violate the sidewalk. Parking on the sidewalk is illegal, making these vehicles symbols of the illegitimate use of power by the police. They also intrude on the small space that has been left to the protesters; if they cannot hold the sidewalks, they have no space at all.

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