Reclaiming the Right of Public Assembly

A Fight To Redistribute  Space & Create Community In The Digital Age

The “Deport Trump” Facebook status isn’t exactly an original, but it gets liked, loved, and validated by more than a hundred different users before receiving divisive comments. Aunt Debra is also up at 12 AM, but she doesn’t have much time to make her case before the status changes. “EDIT: If you want to spread hate, do it elsewhere. Not accepting comments from Trump supporters. You will be unfriended.”

Curating peace of mind with the press of a button. It might not be what the founding fathers had in mind when together, in one room, they penned the words ‘freedom of assembly’ into our constitution but, then again, how could they? It was a different time; a different country. Their minds were saturated with other problems, like saddling horses and laying the foundational narratives for white male entitlement for centuries to come. Though they might not have been able to imagine the quantity or diversity of individuals they were fighting for, I don’t believe it can be understated how integral the idea of freedom of assembly is for democracy both then and now. So what does the future of public assembly look like in the digital age? Does it live online?

Today, more than 77% of Americans have access to a broadband internet subscription, up from less than 20% just two decades ago, which means it has never been easier to occupy digital space. The barrier of entry for most platforms is as simple as clicking accept on the terms and conditions (which nobody reads anyway). Simultaneously, the cost of occupying physical space has never been more expensive. Especially in metropolises like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—the barrier of entry is harrowing.

The benefits of digital are seemingly endless. Social media and tech platforms have helped achieve, if not greater equity, then at least the illusion of it for every American. They afford us a voice and access to an ever-present audience. They’ve given rise to some of the most important political and social movements in modern history. They’ve made politicians, celebrities, law enforcement, businesses, and major corporations more accessible to their constituents while also holding them accountable. They’ve created new markets, changed the face of commerce, revolutionized how we work, and offered life-saving connections to communities for individuals unable to find their own identities reflected where they live.

Those truths can be held to be self-evident even as filter bubbles, self-curation, censorship, and algorithms simultaneously disrupt our democracy and fuel the flames of partisanship (just ask my newsfeed). Of course, we also know (at least from the seat in my echo chamber) that social platforms are neither free nor public. We pay for them by horse-trading our own identities—our personal data—which is now more valuable than gold. In 2017, in fact, data overtook oil as the most valuable asset on earth. That data can then effectively be used to strip Americans of our right of choice and influence public opinion on a scale that is bone-chilling. And we all know (as readers of this media outlet) that the rise of shut-down culture and “slacktivism” is inhibiting our ability to create discourse centered around empathy and understanding. Not to mention the effect that constant digital connection has on our mental health—which, albeit widely debated and largely anecdotal—has become a constant source of worry for many Americans. Anxiety begetting anxiety. (I’d also add to this list of negatives the latest incarnation of the American Dream fantasy, the influencer, but I have no way to substantiate that belief.) In summation, we all agree (because I wrote as much) that we don’t have the means to effectively assemble in digital spaces yet. 

At this moment in history, as much as we cannot afford to get in a space together and assemble—we cannot afford not to. The very institutions that are making physical space too expensive to occupy are some of the same institutions who own the digital space and are incentivized by their own ambitions to keep us screaming into a two-dimensional void. It’s not all a dystopian sci-fi novel, though. There are steps you can take to protect your data and avoid filter bubbles. There are incredible organizations who are working tirelessly every day to fight for American civil liberties, like The American Civil Liberties Union, The Federal Trade Commission, and the American Press Institute. Almost every Democratic candidate in the primary field for the 2020 election has stated a vested interest in reforming Trump’s 2017 tax reform legislation. Some of which, most notably Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are centering their campaigns on the idea of redistribution of wealth in America. But promises and ideas can’t do anything for us right now and, in an election that will be hard-pressed to win, we cannot count on them ever coming to fruition. So, at a time where America is so disillusioned in our government’s ability to get anything done, what can we do?

Town Stages believes that it’s taking local action into its own hands to reclaim space for New Yorkers. In a city where more than 20% of storefronts lay empty (30% in Manhattan), the 10,000 square foot event space in Tribeca, with a storefront at 221 West Broadway, is implementing a business plan that they believe is a concrete way to affect change. “We’re reimagining equity and access,” says Executive Director and Founder Robin Sokoloff. Owned and operated by a nonprofit, also founded by Sokoloff, called Sokoloff Arts, Town Stages uses a for-profit business model to subsidize their nonprofit mission. Now, I want to make it very clear: I work for Town Stages. Robin is my boss. I also want to make it clear that I chose to work for Robin because I believe in what she’s doing. I think that she’s onto something. 

“The large events that are held in our space fund everything else we do here, which is to provide space for communities to gather—for artists, change-makers, nonprofits, politicians, without access to the physical space they need to come together, commune, collaborate, discuss, and grow the future.” In my mind, the business model of Town Stages is reminiscent of the very wealth taxes being pitched by the likes of Sanders and Warren. Robin won’t go that far. “I don’t know. The idea of a tax might imply that our space and our services are coming at an additional cost, but that’s not the case. I’d say we charge less than our competitors. Like anyone, we’ve got bills to pay—but where we differ is how we share our resources. Our biggest resource is space and we choose to invest in New Yorkers by giving them a platform here that might be unaffordable or unwelcoming elsewhere.”

So, did it get too easy not to show up or did it get too expensive to try? Plenty of spaces are considered public assembly spaces, including bars, nightclubs, museums, theaters, auditoriums, churches, and sports arenas, but, with rising rents, the $70 meal or the $500 theatre ticket required to keep them alive, means many of them aren’t exactly accessible. “It may surprise you, but if we book out our space 50% of the year to events—the rest of the year can, effectively, be used by the public for little or no cost. That’s how we can make room for a movement—to make space to  develop art, grow an audience, start a business, or just share joy or grief.”

Robin believes in the power of assembly beyond its ability to engage in democracy and there’s evidence to back her up. The benefits from in-person communication are real and so are the health benefits of distancing yourself from technology. Not to mention the effect in-person discourse has can have on understanding, connection and compromise and its effect on learning. “When was the last time you got in a room, an actual room, together, with strangers, to dance, to sing, hold a conversation, or serve your community?” she continues. “It’s hard when space is becoming more and more limited, not because they don’t exist, but because they have no mechanism to thrive. Greed is leaving ghost towns in its wake. You don’t have to look too far in this country to see what greed and NIMBY forces have laid bare—in every factory gone dark, every crumbling farmhouse, every empty storefront, or boarded up neighborhood block.”

As for her opinion on the way forward? She doesn’t mince words. “You can complain about inequality and injustice, but if you’re not doing something to change it,  you’re in the way. You can build a nonprofit that relies on donations from the same people who control the system you’re fighting against, or you can build a business with the skills that you possess and use its resources for good. Should we wait for our government to start exercising the type of redistributive power needed to make a change? Should we wait for the generosity of the men who put us here in the first place? It’s far more pressing than that. It needs to happen now. Real action means showing up and I’m concerned that we’ve forgotten how. Town Stages is here to try and make showing up easier; to make it common practice again. It’s here to rethink how, together, in one room or many, we can change the world.” Whether you agree with her business plan or not, she’s putting her money where her mouth is. Town Stages was built with little to no outside funding or support and the public is welcome in Town Stages every day of the workweek that there isn’t a private event. There’s even a public calendar on the website to check when you can drop by to use the WiFi, enjoy the AC and work. It’s like a WeWork without the membership fees.

In Puerto Rico, protests forced Mayor Ricardo Rossello to resign after private chats leaked containing some crude conversations. Residents in Hong Kong are currently protesting for democracy against their government’s regime. In Moscow, pro-democracy supporters are doing the same. In America, our President told female congresswomen of color to “go back to where they came from,” told a woman who accused him of rape that “she wasn’t his type,” and called Baltimore “a rodent-infested mess.” On July 28th, a man armed with a gun killed three people and injured 15 at a Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California. On July 29th,  a man armed with a gun killed 1 person and injured 11 others moments after the Old Timer’s Festival ended in Brooklyn Park. 31 people were killed in mass shootings in El Paso, TX, and Dayton, OH. My newsfeed is on fire with outrage and well-intentioned voices screaming into a void. Everyone seems to be simultaneously feeling hopeless together—no matter how far apart they are.  

As for the “Deport Trump” Facebook status—it was taken down the next day. 

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