Public space is supposed to be a forum for free speech and assembly. Often playing host to difficult conversations, public space fulfils its silent role as an impartial facilitator to meaningful dialogue. But what happens when intimidation replaces conversation?
This weekend, Charlottesville, Virginia was the unwilling host to an “alt-right” and white supremacist rally called “Unite the Right.” After seeing the rally’s initial permit revoked by the city, organizer Jason Kessler filed an injunction on the decision with the help of the Virginia ACLU and other local organizations. In the spirit of upholding free speech under the First Amendment, the injunction was granted, and in a controversial decision, the rally was allowed to move forward around the statue in Emancipation Park. In that moment, Charlottesville became a powerful political symbol of the role of public space in free speech, worldwide.
It’s not that Emancipation Park was not a politically charged space before these events; in fact, just the opposite. Months prior to the rally, a decision was made to give the park its new name, replacing its previous designation as Lee Park, and to remove the statue of its original namesake. This raised a firestorm of public debate in Charlottesville, balancing questions of preserving historic monuments with the ability of everyone to enjoy the park without the figure of Robert E. Lee looming overhead as a reminder of racism and discrimination in the region. The decision to re-imagine the park as a place without Confederate symbolism did not sit well with the eventual organizers of the “Unite the Right” rally.
Even before neo-Nazi groups, members of the Ku Klux Klan, and “alt-right” figures arrived for the rally, militias marched into town. Armed with assault rifles, the militia members made their presence known throughout Charlottesville, paving the way for the rally. Historically Nazi-affiliated slogans and the smoke of tiki torches soon filled the air as rally participants descended on the park and the nearby University of Virginia campus. But the march was met with resistance; the presence of a contingent of counter-protesters signaled widespread disapproval. Eventually, the event collapsed into violence, as one young counter-protester, Heather Heyer, was killed by a supporter of the rally, and 19 others were injured.
Public spaces must, above all, remain safe and accessible to everyone. But does that privilege extend to militarized hate groups? Beyond being a physical space, public gathering places represent the soul of a community. Cities are coming face to face with the conflict between free speech like that exercised in “Unite the Right,” and the maintenance of openness and civility. The question has gone far beyond Charlottesville: Boston’s mayor, Marty Walsh, has spoken out against a rally planned for Boston Common this coming weekend. However, the conversation has already begun; the space has already housed counter-protests, decrying the actions of neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups in Charlottesville.
Public space is, by nature, political. It welcomes hard conversations. Fulfilling the intended democratic uses of public space, parks and campuses are frequently home to spirited debate. Free speech and peaceful ideological exchange in public space is worth protecting. Violence and hatred is not.