The Public Square


By Jen

While traveling in Latin America I discovered an incredible tool for community building. A place where people of all ages come to hang out, share ideas, play chess and soccer, drink beer, boom music, tell jokes, run and flirt and dance and sing and sit quietly and let time pass. Where no one has to buy anything, there’s no bouncer, no opening time or closing time, and no dress code. Where nothing is provided for other than space. And in this space, life happens.

To me, this was a phenomenon. Growing up in a country where loitering, in many places, is illegal, I struggled as a teenager to find places where I was allowed to hang out with friends and not spend money that I didn’t have. There was the beach, but even this brought its own sense of bikini-clad body attention and physical prowess competitions of volleyball and body surfing. The park closed at dark and, at some point, started charging a fee to enter. Because of this, I spent the majority of my time in private spaces, with people who were like me; people of a similar class, race, and age. As such, rather than my views of the world expanding, the company that I kept continued to reinforce my viewpoints. It is easy to be dismissive and say “well, that’s just how things are.” A truly liberation education, however, seeks to be inclusive. Rather than narrowing lenses through which to see the world, and narrowing experiences through which to understand it, a liberating education (and by education I am referring to the education we all receive daily through our millions of interactions with the world

around us) is one which expands our experiences and offers new possibilities with which to understand the world. It’s not something that comes easy, but one which must be sought after, created, and actualized. One in which we seek people that are different from us, where we step out of our habits and patterns, consider other ways of being and doing, and expand our definition of “we.”

To be effective in this world, to be vibrant and alive, is to allow the world in and to interact with it. This, however, requires interactions that challenge us, that offer new ideas, that help us to see our common humanity, that offer different views of our own convictions and interpretations. If we look throughout history, we will see that every innovation, every movement or action that is oriented towards justice and towards true community, involved bringing people together, across lines of disconnect and difference. I do not mean to imply that we should never take individual stands, but rather that in the positions to which we hold true, we must consistently be willing to adjust and revise our ideas and ideals based on a constant stream of incoming information. Otherwise we become fossils, relics of previous thoughts, prepared to be memorialized in museums of history.

The realm of public space in this country is diminishing rapidly and with it is a potential collaboration hub for brewing ideas on how to be Subjects upon the world, rather than Objects that the world works upon. This slow encroachment of control over public spaces seems almost inconsequential; we all have places to be, whether it is in playgrounds or theaters, grocery stores or our own backyards. But where are the places where we can just be, without paying a fee, engaging in a preplanned activity, or getting kicked out at closing time? I was exhilarated when I first discovered the allure of the public square but it wasn’t until the Occupy movement began that I discovered its power.

If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed” –Paulo Freire

Whatever you’ve heard in the news or media about Occupy Wall Street might be true. It attracted the fringes of society. There was violence and apathy. There was disorganization. People were dirty and unkempt. There were drugs and disagreements, infighting and a lack of clear direction.

There was also, however, mainstream moms, teachers, lawyers, theater directors, students, tourists, shopkeepers, tech geeks, artists, and custodians. They were interacting, having conversations, learning about one another, and breaking bread. There was healing and medicine, therapeutics circles, meditation sits, yoga classes, chess games, lively debates, theater games, art stations, and public radio broadcasts. There were people trying out new (and old) systems of organizations, and as the crowds grew, those systems were fine-tuned until, I witnessed, crowds of over a thousand were making unanimous decisions with talking space available for everyone. Unanimous decisions. With space for everyone, if they chose to speak, to be heard. And for those that preferred not to speak in front of a crowd, there were small committee meetings and spokes-councils where spokespersons were chosen to represent those present at the small group meetings to the larger group. Networks were organized and maps were written, where people could find indoor places to sleep and bathe. And as much as there were drugs and disagreements, infighting and a lack of clear direction, there was an overwhelming majority of sober, lively and inspired interactions, people who might never have met coming to find common ground on their disparate interests and endeavors. Most strikingly, the more people talked and interacted, ate together and prayed together, argued and listened to each other, made music and art, sang songs, and just spent time together, they closer they came to developing common understandings, clear goals, and effective action strategies.

In this day and age where we are all looking for the next quick fix, when we want our desires satiated and our national issues simplified into quick and witty internet memes, it’s no wonder that the act of being, without intentionally doing, might seem wasteful and useless. But it is precisely this act that is truly revolutionary.

The strategy of divide and conquer is an age-old effective tool that continues to work upon us today across every sector of our lives. From the separation of ages in public schools to the history of racialized housing in this country, from demonizing people based on their religious or political affiliations to gender discrimination and objectification, the media attempts to bombards us with divide and conquer rhetoric until we are either left defending oppressive actions, or feeling too disconnected from our fellow human beings to act. It is in this vein that rape victims are questioned about their instigation of the crimes rendered against them and black youths are suspects because of the clothes that they wear. It is this tool that was used to attempt to disassemble and destroy the workers rights movement, the civil rights movement, and every social movement in modern history.

Because love is an act of courage, not of fear, love is a commitment to others.” –Paolo Freire

The Public Square is a weapon and a tool to fight the divide-and-conquer strategy and create sustainable, equitable community. It’s simple. The more we know each other, the less we fear each other. The less we fear each other, the more we interact with each other. The more we interact, the more we understand each other. The more we understand each other, listen to each other, make music together, and watch our children play together, the more we begin to care for each other. And in caring for each other, we see that each of our struggles and triumphs are connected. So that when the kid down the street gets harassed, that’s our kid, and when an elderly couple loses their electricity, we see them as our parents, our grandparents. Truly revolutionary action must be built on this foundation, a foundation where we see that we are all in this together. Because we are all in this together.

This, my dear fellow loving, striving, struggling, understanding friends is the key. In order to care for each other we must get to know each other. There must be a space for this. Where all people are welcome, regardless of their income or social status. Where all people feel welcome, regardless of their age, race, ability, or gender. A truly public square.

Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion.” -Paolo Freire

This is my question and my inspiration. How do we create these spaces, in our day-to-day lives as well as on a larger scale? How can we reach beyond our habits and routines to include more of the world into our lives, our minds, and our hearts?