T-shirt activism and the decline of public space
Certainly there was no shortage of New England–based candidates for the Muzzle Awards this year. There never is. But what happened to Stephen Downs at the Crossgates Mall, in the Albany, New York, suburb of Guilderland, is just too incredible to leave out. And hey, it’s only a 40-minute drive from the Massachusetts line.
On the evening of March 3, a Monday, Downs, 60, and his son Roger, 31, drove to the mall to pick up some custom-made T-shirts they’d ordered. Stephen’s shirt said PEACE ON EARTH on the front and GIVE PEACE A CHANCE on the back. Roger’s said NO WAR WITH IRAQ and LET INSPECTIONS WORK. They reportedly pulled their shirts on over their turtlenecks and headed for the food court.
What happened next was reported by newspapers ranging from the New York Times to the Times of London and the Courier Mail of Queensland, Australia. The Downses were approached by two security guards who told them to take off their T-shirts or leave the mall. Roger complied. But when the elder Downs, a lawyer, refused, the guards called in a police officer, who arrested him and charged him with trespassing.
As if that weren’t offensive enough, mall managers took their time before realizing what an embarrassing mistake had been made. In a written statement, Tim Kelley, director of operations for the company that owns the mall, said: "The individuals were approached by security because of their actions and interference with other shoppers. Their behavior, coupled with their clothing, to express to others their personal views on world affairs were disruptive of customers."
Disruptive of customers. The phrase gets to the heart of what is so disturbing, yet intriguing, about this case. The mall declined to press charges, which is no surprise. What lingers is the likelihood that the guards actually did have the right to tell the Downses that they couldn’t display anti-war messages inside the mall. It is private property, after all. The mall also reportedly had signs up that banned the "wearing of apparel likely to provoke disturbances."
Thus the issue is not just free speech but also the privatization of the public sphere. Before the rise of malls and shopping centers, people went about their business downtown, in the city or in the village square, which by its very nature is public, common ground. Today such activities have been moved to private property. The property owner can decide what clothing and what messages are appropriate — that is to say, are most conducive to commerce. We are not citizens, we are customers, and we are not to be disrupted by mood-dampening messages about war and peace as we go about buying things and stuffing them into the backs of our SUVs.
As Albany Law School professor Stephen Gottlieb, president of the local ACLU chapter, told the Albany Times Union, "If you are going to express free speech, where else are you going to do it?"
The story has a feel-good ending. Several weeks ago the Times Union reported that Downs had donated his shirt to the State Museum. "As a free-speech object, it’s the T-shirt heard ’round the world," the museum’s senior historian, Christine Kleinegger, was quoted as saying.
But the troubling issues raised by Downs’s arrest are a long way from resolution.
‘Keep out’ message to Somalis inflamed racists
It’s difficult to imagine a more egregious violation of someone’s civil liberties than being told that members of his or her ethnic group are no longer welcome inside the city limits.
Believe it or not, Laurier Raymond — the mayor of Lewiston, Maine — appears to have been well-intentioned when he issued a public call last October asking that leaders of the local Somali community slow down the influx of immigrants from that country. But he handled it about as badly as can be imagined, inflaming racist elements and failing to take the one healing measure that might have meant something.
As recounted by the Washington Post, the New York Times, USA Today, the Boston Globe, and a host of other national and local news organizations, Lewiston has indeed been deluged. Two years ago, virtually no Somalis lived there. By last fall, about 1500 Somalis had moved into the city, whose total population is only about 35,000. The city’s budget and services had been stretched to the limit. So Raymond wrote a public letter that said, in part:
"This large number of new arrivals cannot continue without negative results for all. I am well aware of the legal right of a US citizen to move anywhere ... but it is time for the Somali community to exercise discipline." Raymond added: "Please pass the word. We have been overwhelmed ... our city is maxed out financially, physically and emotionally."
Now, maybe there was no good way of doing what Raymond had hoped to accomplish. Maybe he should have done his best to keep welcoming Lewiston’s newest residents, and to keep any thoughts he had about cost and culture shock to himself. But if he just couldn’t stop himself from saying something, it would have made a lot more sense if he’d dealt with leaders of the Somali community quietly, behind the scenes — as he himself admitted later. As it turned out, the outcome of his very public statement was depressingly predictable.
Matthew Hale, the head of a white-supremacist organization called the World Church of the Creator, announced that he intended to lead a pro-white march in Lewiston. Hale never made it: he was arrested in Chicago before he could head for Maine and charged with seeking the murder of a federal judge, which kind of goes with the territory when you’re in the white-supremacist racket. Still, according to an account in the Portland Phoenix, about 45 haters gathered in front of the National Guard armory to denounce Somalis and Jews.
But what was heartening — and what clinches Mayor Raymond’s Muzzle — was taking place elsewhere in the city. An estimated 4500 people rallied against racism, according to an account in the Globe, including Governor John Baldacci and Maine’s two US senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. Where was Raymond? Apparently in Florida, on a scheduled vacation.
In May came the unsurprising news that Raymond has decided to leave office when his term expires this December.
After Station fire, keeps tight lid on public records
The stonewalling began even before most of us had absorbed the enormity of what had happened. On February 20, a tragically ill-conceived decision to set off pyrotechnics during a Great White concert at the Station, a nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, led to an inferno. Ultimately 100 people died, and many others suffered horrible injuries from which they will never fully recover.
Less than a week later, the Boston Globe was reporting that news organizations were having trouble getting the town to turn over public records. Town officials said they would require the news media to file Freedom of Information Act requests for records such as fire-safety-inspection reports, the sort of documents that reporters can ordinarily look at just by walking into town hall and asking.
In West Warwick, it would appear, records are public only so long as no one really wants to look at them.
There is more than enough blame to go around. But the coveted Muzzle goes to Timothy Williamson, a Coventry Democrat who is an elected member of the General Assembly, representing Coventry and West Warwick, and is also the appointed town solicitor in West Warwick.
Williamson might have thought that the interests of his constituents would never conflict with those of his clients. But that’s exactly what has happened following the Station fire. His constituents — that is, the people who live in his district, and in the state as a whole — would best be served by making public as much information as possible in order to reduce the chances that such a calamity will ever happen again. But his paying clients — West Warwick’s selectmen and other town officials — have an interest in not getting sued, and thus of not making available documents that might cast their past enforcement record in a bad light. Even if those documents are clearly the property of the public.
Consider what happened when the Providence Journal sought fire-inspection records for the site of a benefit rock concert for the victims’ families. First, the town stalled, replying that it would take 10 business days to comply even though the concert would take place before that. Then, after the Journal took the town to court, the two sides hammered out an agreement — until Williamson insisted on withholding 13 pages of notes and drawings. Superior-court judge Mark Pfeiffer ordered that those pages be turned over, too, ruling, "It’s clear to me that these documents should not be immune from disclosure."
University of Rhode Island journalism professor Linda Lotridge Levin, who monitors compliance with the state’s open-access laws for the Society of Professional Journalists, told the Phoenix last week that the stonewalling continues. "The stench of fear is strong in that town," she says. "If nobody releases the records, then nobody will know what they were or weren’t doing."
Her prediction: this will continue as "the biggest access issue in the state for some years to come."