The City as Democratic Tool

The city hasn’t seemed this fragile, nor this important in awhile. When terrorists struck Parisian on November 13, they struck the public realm, spaces people cherish as essential aspects of urban life: concert halls, stadiums, outdoor cafés and restaurants. Spaces deemed safe, where people gather, exchange ideas, share the communal fabric of urban life.

The city hasn’t seemed this fragile, nor this important in awhile. When the video of a Chicago police officer shooting and killing a young black man was released November 24, it chilled a city and was expected to spark riots. The latter hasn’t happened, but many Chicagoans have taken to the streets demanding accountability. These protestors are taking advantage of social media to spread the word, but they’re also taking advantage of an old school tactic to get their message heard: publicly disruptive protest.

While the responses are dramatically different, the public realm is playing a key role and an important one. While the attacks in Paris ignited a global effort to tackle ISIS/ISIL and plunged France into a state of emergency, the peaceful protests in Chicago come as a sigh of relief for many worried about more violence. In both cities the public is back in the streets. Some to protest, others just to live their lives; the unconcerned public has been inconvenienced; unrelated protest have been silenced. Cities are tools for democratic change by virtue of their essentially shared character, their publicness, and we need to protect that quality of our urban world. How the public use cities, or are forced to use cities, in these two examples stand as lessons for how we manage them in times of crisis big and small.

In Paris, many (are rightfully) questioning the pertinence of the government’s three month long state of emergency, which significantly increases police powers and limits freedoms like collective gathering and protest. France is of course known for it’s political protests and strikes, but what made the timing of these attacks important to consider is shortly after them global leaders would be gathering for the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) to hash out an international plan to slow the impact of climate change. It’s a ripe opportunity for the city famous for its protests to strike.

While protests occurred two weeks ago in front of important monuments shutdowns occurred in Paris. A march through the city was called off. Resistant marchers formed a human chain along the intended route to protest the ban on protests as well as slow action on climate change. Another protest featured lines of empty of shoes symbolic of the people unable to protest because of the restrictions on public gatherings. Over 200 arrests were made as well by what French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve descriped as “‘small minority’ who were bent on making trouble,” according the to the Los Angeles Times.

In Chicago, protests went ahead. They’ve blocked traffic off major streets in Chicago’s downtown and on Black Friday, the most important shopping day in the USA, protestors shut down traffic and disrupted shopping on Michigan Avenue, the city’s premier retail strip. Whether people liked it or not, the message was heard loud and clear. And on Wednesday, protestors blocked traffic outside Chicago City Hall and near the state of Illinois’ Chicago offices. All of this adjacent to Chicago’s beloved Christkindlmarkt. All this came a little late though. The actual shooting took place in October 2014 and is widely believed to have been covered up by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to protect his reelection for mayor in February 2015.

This is the power of protest. They’re defiantly taking over spaces seen as sacred, such as the Place de la République in Paris, where many memorials are in place for the victims of the November attacks, because they’re still public. They’re taking advantage of the fact that the public realm can’t be closed off in a democratic society and reinforcing that understanding even in the face of security threats. They’ve forced leaders into even more precarious (and telling) positions. They’re reminding us of the power of public protest in the public realm, a feature that is thoroughly urban.

The events in Paris and the events in Chicago are reminders that we can’t forget the significance of cities in our world and the power they offer the public if we learn how to utilize and protect them as tools for democratic change. Even in the face of terror, we can’t let our cities be closed off to protest, to public gatherings, to public life, to the voices of the people. When humanity gathers together great things can happen. Cities are a testament to that as is public protest. They go hand in hand.

Cities are old, much like collective government and both are truly becoming products of the modern era. They’ve both become bigger, more influential, more nuanced, and more complex. And cities are as important tools for democracy as ever. They offer the capacity for people to meet and interact, share ideas and, organize. They can’t be closed off like malls or subdivision and private estates. They’re shared. They’re for the public and by the public (for better or for worse). They’ve become so important for government, culture, and economy that any disruption can be widely felt. This feeds the power of collective gather, protest, and civil disobedience in cities.

For many in Paris, protests at the site of memorials for the attack’s victims was “shameful”. But isn’t shutting down public protest also shameful?  “The overwhelming majority of those assembled were nonviolent and peaceful,” said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity in a telephone interview to the Los Angeles Times. “But many wanted to march rather than stand still. For them, climate change is the most urgent crisis facing the world, and for the government to ban all protests was highly problematic.”

Cities are tumultuous places, but also puissant democratic tools that facilitate public gatherings and people power. In a New York Times report from November 17, Liz Alderman describes how the Eiffel Tower, such a potent symbol of Paris, a city so representative of what cities aspire to be, “was adorned with the Latin words ‘Fluctuat nec mergitur,’ the ancient slogan of Paris, which translates to ‘it is tossed by the waves but does not sink.'” These words are meaningful to so many cities and should perhaps be taken as a slogan for the concept of ‘city’ as whole. They seem fragile, but they’re important public tools and public spaces and we musn’t allow them to be stripped of these roles.