Expanding the Public Square

The airport protests that took place last month were a striking development for a number of reasons. For starters, it was a very welcome sign of genuine resistance at a moment when the full weight of the implications of a Trump administration was crashing down on the American psyche. No longer were circumstances merely too strange to comprehend; the urgency of the situation required deliberate, focused, and immediate action.

But from the perspective of an urban planner, there was something else that was striking about the protests. In the span of a single day, the social space of the airport was fundamentally altered.

Photo credit: Justin Lane – Source

Large airports typically are not inviting places to spend time in. They’re even less inviting places to gather in, particularly congested airports such as JFK, LAX, or O’Hare. Airports such as these are designed to shuffle you through the space as quickly as possible, save for where you are forced to wait in lines: at the ticket counter, in security, at the coffee shop, at the gate, etc. Despite their heavy traffic, almost everything about these spaces is designed to instruct you to just keep moving if humanely possible.

Except that people did gather in these spaces. In the tightly restricted realm of a space that is regulated by both social norms and overt police presence, protesters congregated. I’ve been to many of these airports, including the three I listed above, and I had never really considered the possibility that these spaces designed strictly for the movement of people could actually hold stationary crowds. And yet, here we were.

Photo credit: Ryan Kang – Source

Since 9/11, we’ve been conditioned to think of airport terminals–our airport terminals–as fortified spaces, clearly delineated between those on the outside and those of us who are privileged enough to be granted passage. There’s a “landside” and an “airside”. Rather than being merely a building designed to park planes next to and handle passengers, the modern airport terminal functions like a Medieval city: a small, walled-off realm which one must occasionally enter in order to conduct commerce.

For me, what made the protests so striking was that not only did it pose a direct challenge to the functioning of that walled-off realm, it also plainly illustrated the fortified nature of the airport in a way we haven’t seen before. Even some of the chants from the protesters–“Let them in! Let them in!”–brought to mind the image of revolutionaries storming the Bastille, demanding the release of the political prisoners trapped within.

So shaken were airport authorities that some even considered shutting down access to their airport–a place that literally exists for the sole purpose of providing broader access to the world. The Port Authority of New York shut down the JFK AirTrain, effectively stranding people at the airport in order to keep out more protesters, and it was only at the insistence of Governor Cuomo that it was reopened. In Seattle, light rail access to SeaTac was briefly suspended. Not only did these actions make it more difficult for protesters to assemble in a public space, they ran counter to the very purpose of an airport in the name of maintaining order.

Photo credit: Justin Lane – Source

While access to the terminals was hindered outside, within the terminals themselves the social order was altered as protesters pressed in. Lobbies and atriums swelled with crowds. The exits from airside–normally just passageways to deposit arriving travelers into the landside of the terminal–became rallying points to welcome those released by customs officials, with every new arrival becoming a new reason for protesters to celebrate. And wherever they could find room, lawyers congregated–oftentimes in circles on the floor, hunched over laptops–to find out who was still detained within the airport. As protesters visually confronted the machinations of the fortified space, lawyers sent messages of aid to those trapped within customs facilities while also keeping in touch with their peers across the nation.

There’s a reason why Republican lawmakers in several states across the country are looking to introduce severe penalties for protesters who block roadways. The most effective protests tend to be those that disrupt the normal social order, and the airport protests were a perfect example. The nature of airports as crucial choke-points in the flow of global commerce inadvertently made them vulnerable to the presence of a mass protest. As commentator Amber A’Lee Frost noted, referring to the striking taxi drivers who joined the JFK protests:

There’s this idea that power cannot ignore masses in the street. Yeah they can, they do all the time. There are huge demonstrations that accomplish absolutely nothing all the time, through no fault of the crowd or whatever. But what they cannot ignore is labor refusing to work and shutting everything into chaos.

Many urban planners have spoken of the importance of providing public spaces where the people may assemble. And indeed, people need places to gather. But in unfriendly times, it is not enough to protest within the spaces designated for free speech by those in power, nor can we wait for someone to provide us with a space to protest without inconveniencing anyone. If the people are really to push back, they must be willing to expand the reach of the public square into realms where it does not presently exist–and where it will not be welcome.

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