Driving Out Politics From Privately Owned Public Space

Battery Park City's Winter Garden (photo: Jim Naureckas)

Battery Park City’s Winter Garden (photo: Jim Naureckas)

The Winter Garden is one of New York City’s largest and most beautiful indoor public spaces. Graced by giant palm trees that would look impressive on Sunset Boulevard and a vast skylight that provides year-round balmy sunlight, this crossroads of Manhattan’s Battery Park City became a symbol of Downtown’s rebirth when it was reconstructed after being devastated in the September 11 attacks.

Yet this crucial community gathering space–which provides a much-needed public square that’s hospitable throughout the year–is actually privately owned by Brookfield Office Properties, a multinational real-estate developer that owns the World Financial Center that the Winter Garden is a part of, and has received some recent media attention as the owner of Liberty Plaza, the initial site of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement. (Brookfield in recent years has rebranded Liberty Plaza as Zuccotti Park, after the chair of Brookfield’s board, former New York City Planning Commission chair John Zuccotti. Incidentally, another of Brookfield’s directors, Diana Taylor, also serves as girlfriend to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.)

The Winter Garden is not a favor that Brookfield is doing for the citizens of New York City out of the goodness of its corporate heart, any more than Liberty Plaza is; such amenities, as they’re called, are promised by developers to the city in exchange for various exceptions and relaxations of zoning and other rules that make the developers’ projects more profitable.

So as paradoxical as it sounds, these privately owned public spaces truly do belong to the public; their corporate managers have invited us in in exchange for official concessions, and they can’t revoke that invitation on a whim–or because they object to community members using that space to express political viewpoints, as people are wont to do in a public square.

But that’s exactly what the city of New York, presumably acting on behalf of Brookfield, did on December 12, when it arrested 17 people who were either participating in or reporting on an Occupy Wall Street protest–directed against Brookfield as the landowner of Liberty Plaza and thus the beneficiary of New York City’s eviction of OWS from the park. One of those arrested was FAIR intern John Knefel, a writer, comedian and co-producer (with his sister Molly) of an Internet radio show called Radio Dispatch.

The arrestees were charged with criminal trespass and in some cases with resisting arrest, but the actual offense was attempt to engage in political life–in attempting to persuade others, or in conveying via journalism those attempts to persuade–in what the police (at the orders of Bloomberg and/or Brookfield) had arbitrarily determined to be a politics-free zone. They would be held for some 37 hours before being taken before a judge to be arraigned and released.

In an article for Salon (12/13/11), Molly Knefel described what happened when people tried to exercise First Amendment rights in the Winter Garden:

The protesters–maybe 100 or so–had gathered in the center of the floor and were dancing and chanting, “Occupy Brookfield!” A long line of police began to form in the periphery, and John and the other media people dispersed to take pictures. As the police formed an outer circle to surround the large group, the crowd began to disperse. Many of the protesters headed up the marble staircase away from the cops, and a small group bolted up a nearby escalator.

That was when everything escalated completely out of control. The escalator was stopped. Suddenly, the outer circle of cops was swarming in and violently pushing people away. John had been standing near the crowd, taking video. I was about 20 feet from him, and when I looked back in his direction, I saw his blue hood on the ground. I ran toward him and slid to the ground, leaning in between people’s knees to take pictures. John was face down on the ground being handcuffed, his glasses flung across the floor and people screaming, “Stop, stop, he didn’t do anything!”

A cop pulled me up by my shoulders and told me to step back. I said, “He’s my brother.” Several cops pushed me away as I asked, “What is he being arrested for? He was taking pictures.” A cop said, “He didn’t produce an official press pass, so that means he was resisting arrest.”

On Twitter (12/13/11), Molly noted: “There were no instructions that I heard. They only told us to ‘get out’ after the violent arrests started.” Which is patently unfair, but in a way more honest than going through the rigamarole about announcing that protesters and journalists are operating in a space where the First Amendment is suspended–the NYPD prefers the term “frozen zone.” If the government is going to drive people out of public spaces for engaging in the most crucial forms of public participation, there’s really no need to create the impression that the citizenry have any choice in the matter.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.