The Long Black Friday made sense a week ago in Ferguson, not just to young people but, surprisingly, to an older coalition of justice workers and Christians ministers who called for the cessation of shopping throughout the long Thanksgiving weekend. This is scandalous to the corporations. “Black Friday” is this weekend that establishes the retail profits for the year, as in, the company “Goes into the black.” But politically this is a savvy and long overdue move. The proposal confronts a decades-long drift toward a trading in of shopping for freedom.
Now we see die-ins in Macy’s in New York after the Eric Garner grand jury decision. Disruptions of the hypnotized state of holiday browsing continue in Walmarts and Targets throughout the country. These decisions to concentrate on big retail happen instinctively. They are crowd-sourced. People know that the privatizing of our commons is a key to what has gone wrong in our country. Congress is a corrupted commons. Shopping over-runs our local park.
Our nation was founded with surging anger that filled the streets and squares, the places that are owned by all of us. The project of neo-liberalism in recent decades pulls funds from the government agencies that maintenance such places and then turns these stages for celebration and sorrow, volunteered entertainment, mixing of strangers in the urban tradition – over to the control of local businesses, socialite ladies, wealthy “conservancies.”
Gradually the old sites for gatherings of freedom-fighters, like Union Square in New York, have been smothered with police and big retail. Union Square, the most important 1stAmendment site for a series of social movements that have shaped American life – from the first Labor Day parade to the huge peace marches after 9/11 – is shut-down as a public space. It is run now by a group of 50 rich and super-rich in a glorified “Business Improvement District” or BID, with a private police force that I have seen boss around the real police.
The commons was destroyed and we were steered into the money-making environments of malls and chain stores. In many cities, corporate retail is the only place where people can meet. It is the “center of town.” Once there, we are bombarded with the concentrated fire-power of corporate marketing. Instead of trees and wrought iron and the sculpted stone of old buildings - we suffer the seductions of super-models 50 feet tall sporting jewelry and underwear.
The police and courts went along with this shift to private property. Shopping rose to a religio-economic status above all else. Our prosperity and freedom depended on it, according to a series of presidents from Ronald Reagon to Bill Clinton and finally to George Bush’s famous statement after 9/11: “If you love your country you go out shopping.”
Expressive politics has become impossible. Either we are burdened with endless permits for gathering and amplified sound or we proceed in the fear that to exercise our basic freedoms puts us at risk of arrest. In most cities it has become routine that large numbers of police rush to any gathering of citizens of any kind. Respect for the police has fallen off in parallel to the disgust we have for politicians, as both professions seem to work for the rich and the corporations. The United States Constitution does not seem to be their script. The public’s freedom is no longer the goal. The public is something to manage, to push into de-politicized consumption.
The vacuum in public space has left police without any countervailing force. The rough democracy of speeches and music, the speaker’s corners, were always important for civic pride. There needs to be a balance of power with the police, or they will rule the streets absolutely. Unaware of the rights or feelings of their constituents, police and courts now have the power to decree a citizen’s death, because of what can only be described as their cultural isolation from the lives of the people that they swear to protect.
It makes sense to take the corporations up on their pretend public space. Force them to take the public role they are incapable of. Then re-open again our own commons, which waits with its 1st Amendment protections. Public space must be public again. The police who walk that beat must work for all the people.