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Introduction: A Perfect Storm of People
On a bleak February day in 2003, a "perfect storm of people" made their way to the largest public rally ever held in London, to protest the war in Iraq. The sea of humans was unprecedented, a panoply of socialists and nuns, barristers and housewives, pensioners and children, some on their first-ever march. From Bloomsbury and the Embankment about a million marchers wound past Trafalgar Square on their way into the vastness of Hyde Park. On a Saturday, the biggest shopping day of the week, the marchers cut off London’s main thoroughfares.
Just a few weeks earlier, British Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell had supported the Royal Parks’ ban on the Hyde Park meeting, which was issued to prevent damage to the grass and because the muddy turf would cause people to slip. A fortnight before the event, she changed her mind, admitting that there was no other place for such an enormous demonstration. Trafalgar Square, the usual site of such rallies, would be too small for the anticipated 100,000 to 500,000 demonstrators. "The right of protestors to organize and take part in peaceful marches and rallies has never been questioned," she asserted.
London had a long history of public protest, particularly in the nineteenth century, when large-scale demonstrations were commonly held over issues as intrinsic as voting and as necessary as Sunday shopping. In the late twentieth century, nonpolitical public-street assemblages still drew huge crowds: a million for the Queen’s Jubilee in 2002, hundreds of thousands for Princess Diana’s funeral, and more than a million at the annual Notting Hill carnival, held every August. The February 2003 demonstration was important to show that "the scepticism of British public opinion will be made vivid in Hyde Park." In 2002, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told protestors outside Downing Street: "I may not like what they call me, but I thank God they can. That’s called freedom."
Across the Atlantic, in August 2004, hundreds of thousands of protestors braved sweltering heat for a "tense, shrill, largely choreographed trek from Chelsea to Midtown and back to Union Square . . . without a rally." Their intended audience was the Republican Convention meeting in Madison Square Garden, but that Sunday the venue was empty. For four hours, protesters wended their way on a two-mile route up Seventh Avenue, across Thirty-fourth Street, south on Fifth Avenue and Broadway to Union Square, boomeranging their way back to where they started. With no central place to convene, protestors could do little but disperse after marching. Some breakout protests went to Times Square, but for the most part, the crowds simply melted away. As in London, they consisted of young and old, students, professionals, religious figures, and a myriad of groups representing all sorts of political, cultural, and social spectrums.
Gotham’s authorities did everything they could to prevent this "festival of democracy," as one demonstrator called it, from happening. The protest organization United for Peace and Justice, along with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, had negotiated for months for a permit to hold the rally in Central Park. In May, the Parks Department, under pressure from the Central Park Conservancy, an organization of park lovers that included New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, turned down the request. The protestors appealed to the U.S. federal court, which denied the request, citing considerations of time, place, and manner, the modern standard for granting permits for any public meeting of twenty or more persons. "We are not going to permit another en masse march to the park—you can’t take over the streets without a permit," said a spokesman for the police department.
Anticipating trouble, Mayor Michael Bloomberg assured Republican convention workers that protestors would be "reasonable," but "if we start to abuse our privileges, then we lose them." He may have been thinking about the free-for-all that had occurred in Boston a month earlier during the Democratic convention, when an attempt to establish a "free-speech zone," a post-9/11 device, had been ignored. Previously, many huge cultural and social events had been held in Manhattan and in Central Park with little objection. On September 21, 2001, for example, a Dalai Lama gathering drew sixty-five thousand people; in 1999, one had drawn forty thousand. A Paul Simon concert in 1991 attracted at least 750,000 people to the Great Lawn. And, of course, New York regularly allowed ethnic and holiday parades. The Puerto Rican Day and Thanksgiving Day parades annually draw millions of spectators and shut down miles of streets. Yet Gotham’s officials refused a protest in Central Park out of concern for the welfare of the grass.
No doubt, such easy dismissal of basic political freedoms, the right of assembly guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, was affected by the world situation. The 2003 war in Iraq had crystallized quickly as an unpopular cause. Just two years earlier, the United States had experienced its worst terrorist attack ever, the destruction of the World Trade Towers in downtown Manhattan on September 11, which killed several thousand people. A nervous nation scurried to create new policies and agencies to protect the "homeland." The 2001 Patriot Act, renewed in 2006, allows abridgement of civil liberties to a degree unknown since the 1950s: telephone, e-mail, and other forms of electronic communication could be monitored, people who displayed behavior even mildly critical of government could be held or arrested, and the right of habeas corpus was being circumvented, leading some to conclude there was an "assault on civil liberties." Public protests were monitored, videotaped, and attended by plainclothes law enforcement officials. In Iowa, anti–Iraq War protestors had been the focus of a grand jury investigation before federal prosecutors dropped the case under public pressure; in St. Louis, the Flying Rutabaga Bicycle Circus was not allowed to protest the biotech industry. Although officials denied that free speech was an issue, the public became suspicious. As a New York Times columnist wrote, "So it has come down to this: You are at liberty to exercise your First Amendment right to assemble and to protest, so long as you do so from behind chain-link fences and razor wire, or miles from the audience you seek to address."
In Great Britain, a terrorist attack in 2005 increased unhappiness over that country’s involvement in the war. Public protests grew in strength and number, leading up to the 2003 monster demonstration in London. Such large-scale protests demonstrated that public opinion could be ignored only at the peril of jeopardizing constitutional legitimacy. Just after the war started, Brian Haw camped down in Parliament Square, intent on staying there until Great Britain withdrew its forces from Iraq. Parliament passed the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act in 2005, with a provision aimed specifically at blocking Haw from Parliament Square and limiting public assembly and speech.
Free speech took different turns during the 2003 London and 2004 New York marches. If Tony Blair asserted it was the backbone of freedom, he did so not in a theoretical sense but in a pragmatic one. If Mayor Bloomberg asserted free speech was a privilege, he transformed freedom into a relative and theoretical concept that eludes pragmatic application. Freedom was public ground under the feet of these millions of protestors, and these two massive demonstrations brought to the forefront the tension between government authorities and private citizens over the right to use public spaces, a defining aspect of democracy.
Over the course of several centuries, Great Britain and the United States had established constitutional and democratic systems in which freedom was the conceptual underpinning. These two demonstrations in London and New York could not have been more different—or predictable. They reflect an historical dynamic dating back 150 years, a dynamic that laid the foundation for establishing the way such events would be handled for generations and that provided a new layer of complexity for the idea of freedom. Where there is democracy, there is dissent and disorder, necessary byproducts of this extraordinary system of government. Only democracies tolerate criticism of its processes.
Freedom is difficult to define. Eric Foner asserts it "lies at the heart of our sense of ourselves as individuals and as a nation." Sir Isaiah Berlin said "liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience." Musician and pop icon Janis Joplin told a cynical generation that "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose." Freedom can be defined in political, economic, social, racial, legal, religious, linguistic, artistic, civil, cultural, sexual, and personal contexts, and its meaning changes depending upon the circumstances.
The words "freedom" and "liberty" in the early twenty-first century tend to be used interchangeably, although "liberty" has a longer historical pedigree, as it was in broad use in English since Roman times. While the Latin word libertas and the ancient Greek word eleutheria are closest to the modern ones, in both cultures there were numerous words used that varied according to the specific concept being applied, a mirror of our own many applications. In particular, both words carried a particular meaning of individual independence. Because slavery was such a defining institution for thousands of years, and only ceased to be one in the West in the past two centuries, freedom/liberty has been understood as much in relation to the individual as to society in general.
For most people today, freedom/liberty tends to be personal. Americans regard themselves as the freest people in the world because they can carry concealed weapons, travel without official identification cards, live where they please, select from hundreds of television channels, and eat and sleep at any hour of the day or night. Despite the word’s political connotations, it is now linked strongly to economic issues. The freedom to emigrate has deep political and religious roots, but its economic causation is preeminent. The husband of a murdered Chinese woman in New York in 2006 was asked why his family had come to America, where they worked grueling hours to make a living. Mired in grief over his wife’s violent death, he "looked surprised" at the question and answered, "Freedom."
This is not a word that would have resonated across the ages. In most Western societies, people’s lives were defined not so much by what they could do as by what they couldn’t. For example, in most of Europe since the Middle Ages, only the privileged could carry weapons. Passage in and out of villages and cities was limited and taxed (and even today most Europeans must carry identification cards). Sumptuary laws limited to certain social and economic classes the right to eat or dress as one desired. There were strict and codified rules, religious and civil, regulating gender and who and when one could marry. From fifth-century Athenian law to the eighteenth-century Frederician Code, even marital relations could be mandated.
While freedom remains a broad and multifaceted concept, its abridgement is acknowledged within the Western tradition. We may have a hard time defining it, but we know that its absence can have disastrous results, such as slavery, poverty, or muted speech. As Foner has warned, "Efforts to delimit freedom along one or another axis of social existence have been a persistent feature of our history," and John Tchen has added that capitalism and equality don’t always go hand in hand, creating a "precarious balance."
Notwithstanding the philosophical debate over whether liberty is a natural state, ensuring or restoring it has produced tensions. Freedom is in constant conflict with authority. It is the foundational Western societal conflict, as John Stuart Mill asserted in the nineteenth century: "The struggle between Liberty and Authority is the most conspicuous feature in the portions of history with which we are earliest familiar, particularly in that of Greece, Rome, and England."
Regulating the balance between authority and liberty then becomes society’s clockwork. Mill called it "the practical question, where to place the limit—how to make the fitting adjustments between individual independence and social control." Well schooled in utilitarian principles, Mill realized that liberty could only triumph if its principles were applied in a workable way. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer echoed this a century and a half later: "in the real world, institutions and methods of interpretation must be designed in a way such that this form of liberty is both sustainable over time and capable of translating the people’s will into sound policies." How we live out our freedom depends upon how we construct our order.
This book addresses the dynamic between freedom and order in New York and London, the world’s two dominant cities since about 1850. It examines how they defined modes of public behavior, created public policies regarding order, and established the machinery for enforcing it. It looks at how democratic processes emerged in the form of public expression and popular protest, barometers of freedom’s health. It investigates disorder, including violence, challenges to state authority, and the polarization of urban communities. It explores how urban authorities both accepted and limited dissent and the right to use public spaces for the free expression of popular will. And it measures the degree to which nascent police forces succeeded, government sensitivity emerged, and the public demanded accountability from both.
The advent of coherent and organized urban public order arose in the nineteenth century in response to increased population density, newly energized democratic political systems, class and race friction, administrative bureaucratic growth, and physical stress on the city. As these dynamics produced an increase in demonstrations and parades as well as in violence and crime, challenges to civil liberties grew. If modern democracy requires the cultivation of an ear sensitive to the noises of the streets, the nineteenth century became the time of testing for democratic institutions.
The Victorian era was marked by a sense of optimism, progress, and anxiety. In Great Britain, the "long" nineteenth century began with the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and ended with the bloodletting of World War I; in that same time period, the population grew from nine million to more than thirty-two million. In America, the century began with a republic of four million and ended with seventy-six million in the Gilded Age, over which time phenomenal industrial and technological development made the United States the world’s richest and most powerful nation by 1920. Politically, both countries shifted between 1815 and 1920 away from their conservative roots to a wide democratic base.
Economic expansion brought pressure: nothing typified the century better than mid-Victorian Samuel Smiles’s notion of self-help: "Heaven helps those who help themselves." The changing social structure was confusing, as money became more important than class. Utilitarianism, socialism, Marxism, anarchism, and evolution coincided with individualism, rising literacy, women’s rights, and a dazzling array of technological advances ranging from the railroad to the icebox. Even time and space became transformed as the steam engine shrank distances and turned night into day. Anxiety brought fear, which in turn brought a desire for solace, solidity, stability, and order.
This book considers five topics: the cities, the police and the militia, the public, free speech and assembly, and the law. As crucibles of democracy, London and New York represented the field for the battle between personal needs and societal demands. This civic discourse, which could be constructive or contentious, took place in the streets, squares, and parks, much as it had in the original, classical democracies. Cities provided "a variety of sites [that] could function as new areas of public discourse" in an era that demanded visible and accessible popular expression.
Places such as Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square in London and Tompkins Square and Central Park in New York became the settings for how public spaces would or would not be used for civic purposes. Such defined areas had not existed since ancient times. For the first time in the modern era, citizenry and government tested legal boundaries regarding personal liberties and public space. In London, Hyde Park emerged as the paradigm of a people’s park, Trafalgar Square as that of the public square. In New York, the city administration refused to accept Tompkins Square and Central Park as permissible places for civic engagement. Instead, its "concern for maintaining social order" made them officially off limits. While Union Square was used for many demonstrations, it never became the city’s central meeting place, for many reasons. But the issue was always in dispute, and these places were frequently the scene of popular protest and unrest.
The establishment and utilization of police forces in both cities represented one of the most radical shifts in the modern era. This new force, first in London and soon after in New York, was fluid in the empirical application of its duties. The nineteenth century was critical in establishing police identity and clarifying responsibilities, laying the foundation for future actions. The idea of a civil force to control public order was novel and met with resistance. Indeed, policing remains contentious in our time. And lurking in the background in both cultures was the military, which acted as an auxiliary or backup force during times of civil disorder. In both cases, the mandate to maintain civil order generally trumped the right of assembly.
Civil disorder was hardly new. But the modern city’s great size and pluralism made for a potent brew of problems. The legitimacy of broad public participation in society has undergone revision over the centuries. In ancient Athens, such participation was unquestioned; in ancient Rome, the "mob" was acknowledged as a negative force; in the post-1500 era, crowds played key roles in symbolic and economic popular protest within autocratic societies; in the nineteenth century, such groups took on new political meaning as Western governments became democracies; and the contemporary interpretation of "associational life" defines the modern polity and civic engagement of the public. Over time, class and violence became defining characteristics of whether any particular group coming together in public was "legitimate" or not.
The notion of the legitimacy of public expression was born in the nineteenth century. Only then did democracy take center stage, coming to full realization as it was tested, in Britain by its initial modern emergence and in the United States by its application to all groups within society. Free speech and assembly were the conduits for public expression, but not everyone liked the idea that one could say anything one wanted. Free speech and assembly were messy, difficult to apply, and subject to interpretation. In Britain, free speech and assembly were latent concepts within the common law, while in the United States they were ensconced in the Constitution. In both countries, the nineteenth century brought a new consciousness of the role of such rights and a new conviction that "when we are wronged there must be remedies, that patterns of illegitimate authority can be challenged, that public power must contain institutional mechanisms capable of undoing injustice." Free speech and assembly emerged as foundational elements of freedom. As it turned out, they were on the one hand sacred and on the other hand expendable.
The law is traditionally held to be the guarantor of these rights, but for most of the nineteenth century, the law was either secondary or a passive participant in terms of rights. The application of law was an interpretative process, so one must turn to the agencies that enforced them in order to see how law was interpreted and how policies that helped shape laws were created. Civil liberty, a concept that contemporary Britons and Americans hold dear, has been legally endorsed for less than a century. Not surprisingly, form followed function: codification and enforcement of laws regarding free speech and assembly in the twentieth century occurred after testing these rights in the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century was also the time in which the framework for public-order law was constructed, with virtually every aspect of daily life subject to state regulation. By 1900, public order existed not as a concept but as a mandated way of life.
The evolution of public order in London can be illustrated by four major studies: the Chartist disturbances of the 1830s and 1840s, the 1855 Sunday Trading Bill riots, and the Black Monday and Bloody Sunday riots and their aftermath. Each provides singular insight into the "order versus freedom" debate. The Chartist disturbances, almost fifteen years of political protests throughout London, underscored how persistent public protest could be, how policing expanded, and how spying and surveillance emerged as tools of public order. The Sunday Trading Bill riots illustrated how freedom of speech and assembly were shaped by social and economic class, whether public parks would be places of leisure or protest, and how economic issues could produce public dissent. Black Monday and Bloody Sunday were lessons of how police authority could be abused, how principles of free speech and assembly ultimately triumphed, and how public space became the centerpiece for fierce debate. All these events show the degree to which usage of streets was endorsed by public demand and sustained by government.
New York similarly fits into the public-order model through four major studies: the period leading up to the Draft Riots of 1863, the crisis over Tompkins Square in the 1870s, the controversy over armories and the National Guard in the 1870s and 1880s, and the challenges of creating ordered public streets in the last quarter of the century. The disorder leading up to the Draft Riots of 1863 produced a rethinking of what public order was, why it was needed, and what rules were necessary to enforce it. What emerged was zero tolerance for disorder. The Tompkins Square case underscores the difficulty public authorities had in formulating policies regarding public space and the triumph of leisure over free speech and assembly. The debate over building armories amid labor strife in the 1870s demonstrates that while order was an accepted priority, the city was confident in local policing ability and loathe to spend money unwisely. At the same time, the 1877 national railroad strikes cast a long shadow over the city, and anxieties over organized labor, pluralism, and class stratification issues crystallized fears of disorder and heightened xenophobia and intolerance. Finally, street regulations made possible the development of intricate controls on daily life.
These case studies underscore several important points. In both London and New York, authorities would not tolerate disorder. They would infringe on freedom in exchange for security. Yet there was also a fervid public challenge to the more draconian measures, showing the tensile strength of public beliefs. To stem disorder, these cities tried to take measures to prevent it and to deploy the police when it was anticipated. Public order entailed implementing mechanisms to ensure the security of the personal, everyday world and vanquish disorder, in a city landscaped by new extremes of poverty, striations of class, and racial, ethnic, and gender prejudices.
By the time the nineteenth century ended, the dance between freedom and order was well choreographed: a public-order mentality had been constructed that remains with us today. The framework for how, where, and when we express our liberty was in place by 1900. Mill’s warning about the tyranny of the majority came true, as order exacted a heavy price. His mandate that society must allow absolute freedom of opinion, absolute freedom of choice by the individual, and freedom to unite (subject to public-safety concerns) proved to be difficult to fulfill. In the strictest interpretation, that would have meant the failure of liberty to Mill: "No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free." Yet Mill tempered his argument with the consideration that individual rights are always subject to the idea of doing no harm to the community.
Three main arguments emerge from this discussion. First, London and New York were able to strike a balance between freedom and order that helped them in their rise to world leadership. In their quest for commercial success, these cities experimented to see how much order was needed and how much freedom could be relinquished. This balance was achieved with the full cognizance of both government and public, which created what could be called a de facto public-order contract much in the mode of John Locke’s social contract. Each side tolerated certain types of public behavior and official limitations that were respected by the other side. But when these boundaries were overstepped, the agreement was broken. The result was either civil disturbance or overbearing civil authority. Both cities were beset by tensions and conflicts, in the context of an increasingly fractious public discourse. While the need for free speech and assembly was acknowledged, both cities enacted curbs on them. They created police forces to ensure order and prevent disorder. That meant not just intervening when a problem arose but preventing the problem from arising in the first place.
Second, despite strong ideological similarities, London preserved the substance of freedom better than New York, endorsing wholly the notion of "inalienable rights." London was more dominated by "moral conscience." By the end of the nineteenth century, its policies were more tolerant concerning free speech and assembly, and despite challenges, the city allowed almost unlimited meeting rights. There was more official toleration of street activities in London, with regulation coming later. In the "Empire City," by contrast, liberty took a back seat to the pragmatic concerns of daily life. Quietly, New York regulated the use of public places, deciding when and how they could be used; there, streets met with extensive if unevenly applied regulation. In Britain, early recognition of the juncture of public space and civil liberties led to greater sensitivity and the formation of prototype organizations specifically aimed at addressing these concerns. Britain’s liberal position was aided by its common-law traditions, which endorsed free speech and assembly. American statute law provided less protection and more confusion; combined with the new regulatory local governance, New York lost spaces devoted to public speech. The British also developed a better process for accountability of the actions of both police and public, along with a greater abhorrence of violence and death as consequences of public action.
Third, the nineteenth century yielded an important long-term legacy. By the start of the twenty-first century, freedom declined and civil order prevailed in both cities. This was not linear—there were several points in the twentieth century in which freedom was clearly triumphant. But what was eroded was the belief that these two things could coexist. As material and consumer demands increased along with national pressure for economic expansion, the two world cities became pragmatic in their actions, adjusting any intellectual and moral precepts. The twentieth century brought new threats of destruction and tore at the fragile fabric of democracy, with free speech an early victim. In the twenty-first century, the ascendancy of terrorism further bifurcated the worlds of order and freedom. The de facto public-order contract has been challenged increasingly, despite its workability and usefulness as a foundation in cities. Pragmatic concerns now challenge freedom more than ever and underscore its fragility as a concept. To this observer, the current trajectory is not promising.
A century ago, both London and New York had acknowledged through laws, policies, and public dialogue that order was necessary for the city to exist. But the degree to which order would trump freedom was unexpected. The nineteenth century’s democratizing energies and pluralistic tone resulted in the broadest inclusion ever in the public dialogue. That public discussion evolved from the classical idea that the public could speak its mind; in almost every city, the town center functioned as a public forum where people went en masse to speak their minds, in protest or in support of those who governed. The idea of the public forum has dramatically faded in the twenty-first century, and non-celebratory public gatherings have declined. Public space has been replaced by cyberspace, where anonymity and disjointed communication rule. To offset this, it has even been suggested we return to our roots and reinstate old-style national political meetings, called "Deliberation Day," so that voters, subsidized by the government, can gather in groups of up to several hundred to discuss issues. Numerous initiatives have been proposed to decrease voter apathy and return to practices that favor direct citizen participation.
Recent changes that are part of the nineteenth-century legacy underscore the fragility of freedom and are examined in the last chapter of this book. In the United Kingdom, the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act of 2005 (SOCPA) promises to limit public assembly and speech. The Data Protection Act of 1998 presents potential barriers to access information that could affect freedom. In the United States, the Patriot Act may have the same chilling effect on civil liberties. Attempts to limit public demonstrations in both cities have started as public spaces are declared not suitable for demonstrations. And London has become the most watched city in the world, with the largest number of closed-circuit cameras in public places anywhere; in New York, authorities are increasing the use of public surveillance methods with all possible speed.
The anti–Iraq War protests of the twenty-first century are a foreboding example of the erosion of access to public space and the clash between the state and the public regarding free expression. This reflects the view that the city’s triumph is pegged to economic success, that policing forces have new mandates to control order, that popular protest is a nuisance to be limited, and that free speech and assembly are relative, not absolute, rights. This book is about how we got to this point.
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