Sunday, October 7, 2012

Will The “Daily News” Plaza at the “Barclays” (LIBOR) Center Be A Public Space For Free Speech?: Police Issue A Directive To The Contrary

Demonstrators in "Daily News" Plaza at end of Saturday FUREE March 
A lot of the interaction between the protesters protesting the opening of the Ratner/Prokhorov Barclays (LIBOR) Center Arena, the media and those showing up for Jay-Z’s first night concert there almost didn’t happen.  That interaction almost didn’t happen because the city police didn’t want it to happen.  More specifics on this shortly.  It was important that what did happen happened in the large triangular space in front of the arena now named the “Daily News” Plaza.  It’s named that as the result of a sponsoring partnership the Daily News (owned by a fellow real estate developer) has entered into with the arena owners.

Privatization of Public Space and Forest City Ratner’s Mega-Monopoly

Given Bruce Ratner’s corporate takeover of huge swaths of Brooklyn’s most central and important areas, there is a crucial concern as to whether the spaces that his Forest City Ratner organization owns and controls will be treated as public spaces.  With government assistance, including deep preferential subsidies and the abuse of eminent domain, the Ratner organization now exercises dominion over more than 50 acres of Brooklyn that sit astride the convergences of the borough’s key subway lines.  Because Ratner is being preferentially granted the right to build at unprecedented density the effect of that mega-monopoly is multiplied several fold.

(Above a map on the governmentally-assisted Ratner mega-monopoly.  Below depiction of how that mega-monpoly overlays with the subway lines) 

Three things are important with respect to the potential for free speech in this regard: 1.) The privatization of previously public space, 2.) Monopolization of a huge amount of space in Brooklyn by Ratner (precluding pluralism), and 3.) The interconnections between Ratner and government in terms of bringing this about and then perpetuating the privatized Ratner mega-monopoly.

What kind of public space will there be for the vast number of citizens living under the Ratner sway in terms of forums for public discussion and debate?  Will the historical expectation of such forums, such public commons, be eliminated with the privatization of public space that the government assisted?   The government turned over to Ratner streets and sidewalks that were previously public, together with property that had been owned by other property owners in the neighborhood.

The issues of free speech in a world of privatized public space present fundamental questions that Noticing New York explored in an article prompted by the Bloomberg administration’s pending eviction of Occupy Wall Street protestors from Zucotti Park, once known as Liberty Plaza.  (See: Saturday, October 22, 2011, Occupy Wall Street and the Banks- Messages From Bonnie & Clyde, “They’ve Got Too Much Money”: Ownership of the Public Forum by the Wealthy?)  The John Zucotti after whom that park is now named was once a government official but at the time Liberty Plaza was renamed after him he was a powerful zoning lawyer prominent in the real estate industry.
Future of the Ratner/Prokhorov “Daily News” Plaza As A Place For Free Speech

Is it possible that the large triangular “Daily News” plaza outside the arena could be used as a central commons for public discourse?  It's well suited in several ways: It’s centrally located and, especially with the new subway station entrance, very easy to get to.   It’s broad, flat and, for much of any given day, substantially devoid of other uses.  A tradition could easily spring up for it to be used much as it was used during the four days of community protests against the arena’s opening and Atlantic Yards, as a place for groups to convene, express and call attention to their opinions.

A downside is that the plaza is very noisy.  This might be readily guessed simply by witnessing all the traffic on the multi-lane avenues that flank it, but the plaza is made even more noisy by the roar of subway trains that pass periodically underneath it.

Admittedly, it isn’t the plaza outside of City Hall; You don’t, as you do there, have the feeling that you may be addressing nearby government officials housed within the formal dignity of a building built to honor the relation of the elected and the electorate.  Instead, the huge dark cooperately logoed “Barclays” Center and its “oculus” loom over you.  Like an oversized flat screen in a sports bar, the “oculus” perpetually reformulates moving images that show hypnotically distracting advertisements from all the corporations who have deemed it beneficial to associate themselves with Ratner’s scandalous doin’s in his ruin of Brooklyn.
The insistent flashing ads in the oculus, together with the arena’s general overbearingness in the space are, it’s worth remembering, financially juiced by the arena’s nonpayment of taxes.  We, the public, pay the expenses the arena doesn't.

The plaza between Flatbush and Atlantic Avenue is not City Hall Plaza but in an era where the “Barclays” Center aptly represents a corporatizing takeover of the borough and where real estate developers like Ratner now own the politicians you can find in City Hall and Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, perhaps it represents an even more fitting space for delivering messages to the people who are now really in power.

Who Actually “Owns” This Space?

Will those in power let it the plaza space be used as public space?  That partly depends on a technical question as to who is deemed to have technical legal ownership of the plaza.  At one point a contingent of Occupy people, experienced in such newly pertinent “free speech” distinctions, arrived and asked where the property line was.  I must confess that even as a real estate property lawyer I had not thought about this in advance.  I wasn’t even sure there was a line traversing the plaza although, obviously, the public had to have some sort of rights if they were going to be able to enter and exit the new subway station entrance which the Daily News absurdly claimed that Ratner altruistically gave to New Yorkers as a “free” present.

Apparently there is some sort of formal property-dividing line somewhere between the subway entrance and the arena, probably about where the Ratner/Prokhorov owners of the arena typically set up their sign (see below) about how they want the plaza to be used.  Even with that subtraction of "Ratner/Prokhorov" space there is still ample space for public forums remaining.  But should Ratner and Prokhorov technically be thought of as having the right to control the plaza as private space?  There are all sorts of leases going back and forth so that the space could be deemed “public” to qualify for the public’s payment of its costs.  In theory the plaza space is a public benefit furnished to the public so as to help justify the Ratner takeover of everyone else’s property.
Photo above from Atlantic Yards Report post about fortification of Ratner/Prokhorov perimeters
And then there is the concept that the Ratner people have themselves promotionally advanced: That the “30,000 square foot open space plaza” should be a public meeting place comparable in ways to the very public “Grand Central clock,” a location where you can pass the time, watch the passing public pageant, and wait for your friends to join you.

As it was, the protestors congregated only on “their”, the “public” side of the line.

Police Direction That The Plaza Not Be Used For Protest

Not long before 5:00 PM police, crossed over the “line” to come over from the “Ratner/Prokhorov” area to tell all of the protesters, myself included, that they didn’t want us there.  I was there with some of the “Billionaires for Barclays” group, some of the Occupy’s Guitarmy and some other protestors.   

A white shirted officer, accompanied by surrounding group of several other officers, came over and asked who was “in charge.”  Nobody was.  We were all there for similar reasons but nobody was “in charge.”  This earned a sigh from the officer.

“You have to go have to go over to the other side of the street,” he said, pointing across Flatbush at the sidewalk beside the Bears Community Garden.

“Why?”  I am not sure who asked, or even if I did myself.

“Because I’m telling you to,” he said.

“Why?”   I think we all knew the real answer: It was because, with 5:00 PM approaching they expected press and ticket holders to be arriving soon and they wanted to accommodate Ratner and company by removing demonstrators from the picture.

“Because you are obstructing the sidewalk and blocking traffic.”

“No we aren’t,” came the response and with the not huge number of demonstrators present we certainly weren’t.

“I’m directing you to move across the street and if I direct you, you have to go where I tell you,” said the officer.

“Wait a minute,” I said, “We have to do whatever you tell us?  If you tell us to go into that building there,” I said pointing to Ratner’s Atlantic Center across the street, “then we have to go there?  And if you tell us to go into that building there,” I said pointing to Ratner’s Atlantic Mall, also across the street, “then we have to go there?”
(Above, seen in the form of a panaramic collage, a partial view of Ratner's mall properties in back of the "Daily News" Plaza.)

I must admit I was surprised to find myself talking to a police officer this way.  It’s fairly ingrained in me to defer to authority.  Still I was annoyed with what they were trying to pull and if they succeeded it would make the demonstrations less visible and less meaningful, much the way that the Bloomberg administration has previously chosen to structure the handling of protests: segregated “free speech zones”  where people can be ignored and segregated “free press zones” placed at a very safe remove from those “free speech zones.”

“I see no difference,”
I said, waving my arms to indicate the other areas of the plaza around the subway entrance “between these people here, and those people there, and those people there.”

Actually, I did see a difference: The people the officer was asking to leave were expressing an opinion that was opposed to the arena.  But in all other respects, it's true, there was no difference.  All day the newly opened plaza had attracted a fair number of the curious, some fans as well.  To the extent that the people I gestured at included some fans wearing fan-ware then they too could have been considered to have been expressing an opinion about the arena, just an opinion that Ratner was happy to have expressed on the opening night of the arena.

Of course, as could readily be expected, not very long after the officer’s direction to move, the plaza would soon be tread by Borough President Marty Markowitz, interested in drawing as large a crowd of press and fans around him as possible so that he could express his opinion that the opening of the arena was a glorious thing.

At this point something happened that I didn’t expect: The officer backed off.  “Well, just keep moving,” he said.  “Don’t block anything.”

He and his surrounding flank of officers moved off but he left me feeling nervous, like my rights to the space were diminished.

Maybe that’s why when a man in a suit stepped out of a car onto the plaza and I asked him, “do you see any difference between the people standing here and the people standing over there, or there?”   His brown suit was conservatively tailored and carefully pressed so I thought for a moment he might have been one of the black ministers who had led the Candlelight Vigil of a hundred and fifty people protesting the opening of the arena near that spot the night before.  He wasn’t: He was from the media and there was a cameraman with him.  He didn’t answer me.  He only stared off to the horizon, a faraway look in his eye.

Occupy Style Mic Check In Plaza: Oculus Sound System Revs Up

This press fellow didn’t return to our vicinity when a few minutes after the police moved off the group of protesters circled up for a “mic check,” the Occupy style of communication, amplified by crowd repetition, typically used to address a group.

As soon as we started the mic check, the “Barclays” Center oculus sound system revved up.  It’s something I have never heard before and haven’t heard since.  “Oh, no,” I thought, because Norman Oder had already speculated in Atlantic Yards Report that the potentially very loud sound system might have been intended as a crowd dispersal feature: Wednesday, September 26, 2012, Ads at the oculus and arena entrance: lots of sound (and maybe crowd dispersal capacity). . . .
. . . If that was the reason the system was being turned on, someone controlling the volume knob must have thought better of it pretty fast: Almost as fast as the volume started to come up it was turned back down again to zero.

The mic check, which I participated in, addressed such things as crony capitalism and the LIBOR scandal that the Barclays Bank has been thoroughly implicated in.  Never mind that scandal: Barclays is still getting its name implicitly celebrated back to “respectability” by having the arena and subway hubs bear its name and its former president, Bob Diamond, who had to resign in disgrace is similarly having his name implicitly celebrated back to respectability by having a building beside the admissions office at Colby College bear his name.

Caskets Arrive In Plaza Reanimating Free Speech

If the police had planned to move in again to move us out later they probably lost their chance when a short time thereafter a crowd of anti-gun violence activists showed up with two caskets to call attention to their message.  They were weren’t protesting the arena, Jay-Z or the developer’s tactics although maybe they should have, but they saw the space as public forum and opportunity.  (See: Saturday, September 29, 2012, Activists bring anti-gun violence message to sidewalk outside Barclays Center.)

Controlling Public Space For Free Speech vs. Things Under Control Of The Press

The police may have wanted to play along with Ratner’s game plan and help set the scene for the press where for the day of the opening everybody would appear to be saying that the opening of the arena was just great, as though no one is appalled.  They achieved that but it also mattered less given that the media, including the New York Times, engaged in compliant, self-censoring viewing and reporting on the opening events hoopla with blinders on.  (See: Saturday, September 29, 2012, Report: How The Times Expunged Its Own First Draft Of History On “Barclays” Center Opening To Replace It With The Pro-Ratner Narrative It Favors and Wednesday, October 3, 2012, Media and Activists: Putting The News Of The Jay-Z Concert Opening Of The “Barclays” Center In Context.)

Free Speech, Freedom of Assembly: The Intimidation And Comfort Factors

Does the “Barclays” Daily News Plaza work as place for public free speech?  That will depend partly on how it is managed.  Late that night of Jay-Z’s concert, after the Jay-Z crowd had moved inside the arena, another protestor, a less experienced one, confided in me that she felt very uncomfortable being in the plaza.  She described it as “creepy” and was eager to get away.
Lynda Robb Johnson who sees that protesting might be fun with President Ford’s daughter, Susan Ford Bales, on the Jim Roselli radio show in Chautauqua NY.
A number of weeks ago I heard Lyndon Johnson’s daughter, Lynda Johnson Robb, say that say that she thought that many of the protestors that came out to protest against her father’s perpetuation of the Vietnam War came out to have a good time.  I appreciate that the harsh criticism her father was subjected to was no doubt painful for her but I think more often the opposite is true in two respects: Being part of the group in power has its enjoyable aspects and it’s uncomfortable to protest. The times I got out to protest the Vietnam War were uncomfortable for me and I find protesting, in general, can be very uncomfortable.  I put the discomfort aside, because I believe it’s something important to do, like voting.  And I am very thankful to the people who have more stamina than I do in pursuing it.

What happens when that level of discomfort is cranked up?  I certainly felt uncomfortable when the officer directed us to remove ourselves away from the arena.  And my fellow protester the night of the Jay-Z opening concert is right: There is a lot going on around the arena that does make one feel creepy and uncomfortable.

The night of the Jay-Z concert uniformed anti-terrorist personnel guarded the arena Starbucks franchise.
The day after when the FUREE (Families United for Racial and Economic Equality) march ended at the arena a phalanx of red-jacketed arena ushers deployed to define a “do-not-cross” line that fended protestors out of the plaza’s center.
Even Monday evening, three days after Jay-Z’s opening concert and two days after the community’s four days of formal protest had concluded you could still see the police manifesting a significant presence as they planned their strategy for the day.
The overall manpower deployed is stunning.  See these yellow-jacketed pedestrian safety fellows going into action for the day.
Some, not all, of this would hardly be necessary except that the arena with its takings and with its celebration of the privileges of an elite over the rights of the common citizen has created the kind of tensions and divisions in the community that kind of abuse certainly ought to create.

Will the deployment of all this manpower stifle free speech in the plaza?  Newspapers used to represent a celebration of free speech.  Will the plaza, named “Daily News” after a newspaper provide a place for free speech?  Or will it in the end only celebrate the dominance of commercial speech?

The answer is important because, until the day comes when it is taken back, Ratner has been given an unspeakable mega-monopoly in Brooklyn.  You can no longer walk formerly public streets and sidewalks either to get to a protest or to protest on them without Ratner’s permission because those streets and sidewalks were given away to Ratner by the city.  With mega-monopolies like this being handed out in the city where will the public find places to speak?
(Above, police barricades on both sides of the Sixth Avenue behind the Ratner/Prokhorov "Barclays" arena.  Below, gates closing off Pacific Street, now owned and controld by Ratner.)

More fence going up around Ratner's superblock
Partial view of the very long fence around Ratner superblock now mostly used for parking
The Times On The Subject Of Brookfield Properties As Purveyors Of Public Space And The Eviction Of Occupy Wall Street

In the end we may lose our interconnected freedoms of free speech and public assembly, or at least the meaningfulness of those rights, not with a bang but with a simper. . . The simper of media praise for how we should be forgetfully contented with whatever mix of entertainment salves corporations chose to serve up in exchange for those displaced freedoms.

This week the Times, which in many way provided egregiously bad reporting on the free speech issues underlying Occupy Wall Street’s eviction from Zucotti Park, ran a story praising Brookfield (insert “Office”) Properties “a high-end commercial real estate operation” for its art presentations in what it refers to as “the public spaces” of the “office buildings it operates.”  Brookfield is the nominally “private” owner of Zuccotti Park without whose participation there couldn’t have an eviction.  (Purveyors of Office Space and Lively Arts, by Allan Kozinn, September 30, 2012.)

The article on Brookfield’s hosting of the art presentations broached the free speech issue in Brookfield’s control of its space.  It did so in delicate, mild, lauding terms: A composer is quoted as saying “They have been really open-minded and flexible” . . . “You can talk to them about the power of an idea, and that’s really liberating.”  But the article also communicates that because Brookfield views the space as “public space” (not despite it’s being public space), it exercises control: “they don’t want anything that’s too far away from family fare in terms of language or imagery.”   The quote, coming from John Schaefer, WNYC’s radio host of avant-garde music programs, sounds almost like an endorsement.

The article speaks in terms of all of Brookfield’s public space generally but pays a fair amount of attention to its Battery Park City Winter Garden space which in many ways is functionally very critical as public space, integrating with and connecting other carefully designed Battery Park City space.  Immediately outside it on the other side of the expanse of windows there is more public plaza along the water.  I haven’t researched to determine whether or not Brookfield is contractually obligated to publicly use the Winter Garden space.  It’s not mentioned by the Times.

Why, of all times would this be the moment that the Times runs such an article?  It hints that maybe it's because the 25th anniversary of the arts program is approaching (but not really here).  Or, is it because with the weather changing that people will remember that we are coming up on the anniversary of Brookfield’s decision (the first half of last October) to evict Occupy Wall Street?  Because the Brookfield PR department, mobilizing prophylactically, contacted the Times to work something out?  The Times article makes absolutely no reference to Brookfield’s role in the eviction of Occupy Wall Street from Zucotti Park.   

The Privatized Barclays Space And The Forceful Commercialism There

In the end the “free” public entertainments provided by Brookfield sound rather pleasant as written about by the Times.  At the “Barclays” Center, with its unremitting, illuminated ads, promotion of the commercial messages we are supposed to consume is much more in-your-face as is also the New York Times writing about it.

I’ve noted before that the New York Times has been using Jay-Z for its own promotion and, conversely has been in reciprocal fashion promoting Jay-Z.  It continues.

Friday morning, my listening to public radio station WNYC was interrupted when I thought I heard announced that the New York Times would be running a week-long lifestyle series about Jay-Z concerning his likes and tastes.  I now think that I misheard and that the New York Times isn't running a week-long lifestyle series about Jay-Z concerning his likes and tastes and that the story instead was that Jay-Z would be live-streaming his last “Barclays” concert to launch a YouTube channel and that, as part of this launch, JAY Z's new YouTube channel, “Life+Times,” (not the New York Times) will be running that week-long lifestyle series.  Per its promotion “Life+Times” is a content-rich hub that seamlessly blends the interests  of JAY Z” with practically everything else under the sun, “editorially” providing an “insider’s perspective.”

So it won't be the New York Times running such a series, but communicating with other people while still under my misapprehension that the Times would, I didn’t encounter any real surprise or an awakening of new outrage, only a dismayed resignation that this is what things have come to, that with all the other hype the Times has already run, it is absolutely to be expected that the Times would run such silly and fawning promotion of Jay-Z.  What are things coming to when our reality is that you can no longer tell the difference?  When the meaningful apsects of free speech dwindle and necessary public conversations get replaced with  . . .   You tell me!

No comments: