Opinion: Detroit needs to preserve public spaces for assembly and free speech

For nearly half a century, Detroiters marched down Woodward Avenue and rallied in a public space known as Kennedy Square. It was Cadillac Square when then-candidate John F. Kennedy made his case on Labor Day, 1960.
Over the decades, anti-Vietnam war demonstrators, motorcyclists opposing the now-stricken mandatory helmet law, gay rights activists, organized labor, advocates for social causes, sports fans, and even neo-Nazi groups gravitated to that space to exercise their constitutional right to assemble.
In 2004, Detroit dedicated a new "gathering place," Campus Martius Park, adjacent to old Kennedy Square. In a sense, the park is hallowed ground, where the "point of origin" can be found, a buried surveyor's monument used to plot Woodward and the other avenues that radiate outward through the metropolis. Across from Campus Martius, an office tower built in 2006 now covers most of the former Kennedy Square space and underground parking structure.
Indeed, Detroiters have gathered formally in the new space for events such as the Christmas tree and Hanukkah menorah lightings to the Detroit Jazz Festival. In winter they skate and in summer they hang out in the sandbox or on the grass listening to live bands or watching movies. People are allowed to enjoy the space…so long as they don't get too political.
That's something the ACLU is challenging in a court case citing two groups, Moratorium Now and Women in Black – Detroit, that feel they were wrongly denied the opportunity to assemble in the park – a public space managed by a private entity. As ACLU attorney Brooke Tucker said, "Campus Martius belongs to the City of Detroit and its people. Regardless of who manages our public assets, no private organization's rules will ever trump the freedoms enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. And with a growing number of city assets being overseen through public-private partnerships, citizens cannot allow public spaces to be converted into Constitution-free zones. Public parks are forums for free expression, not staging areas for assaults on our rights."
There wasn't much said at the time that Kennedy Square was being dismantled about the need to preserve places for assembly and free speech. It had fallen into disrepair and Hart Plaza served as a new congregational space on the waterfront as the community was anticipating the completion of its Detroit 300 centerpiece.
There hasn't been much of a formal challenge to the private management of Campus Martius until now, more than a decade after it was established. But there hasn't been much activity on the protest front either, on either side of the political fence. Has political expression migrated into the virtual world?
Protesters around the world – the Arab Spring protests in North Africa and the Chinese protests in Tiananmen Square – suggest that if anything, social media have helped organize and motivate people in real time and space. Stateside, the Occupy movement was a momentary burst of energy, and protests over the Detroit's water shut-off policy brought thousands to Hart Plaza. Most recently, protesters gathered at various public places around Detroit to call attention to the death of black men at the hands of the police, organizing around the hashtag #blacklivesmatter.
Geoffrey Pleyers, in "From Facebook Movements to City Square Movements," writes that the "use of the internet has not led to a predominance of virtual actions and movements over mobilizations in 'physical space'. On the contrary, since 2011 the occupation of urban public spaces – and more particularly symbolic spaces – has been a major feature of these movements."
People want to be seen and heard in the center of things, not on the periphery. As wonderfully European and as great of a gathering space as Hart Plaza is, it isn't the center. Campus Martius is, however, at the center, and it's where people want to gather, be seen, and be heard.
As the ACLU lawyer inferred, this is about more than whether Moratorium Now and Women in Black - Detroit should have been allowed to assemble at Campus Martius. It's about the impact of privatization of public services, and in this case how it impacts the right of free speech.
The marketing team that created Campus Martius may be regretting its slogan: "Detroit's Gathering Place." But they're right. It's where folks want to gather. And Detroit, post-bankruptcy, may be experiencing its own political spring.
Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Galbraith. Follow him on Twitter @AndyGalbraith.
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Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.