Whose streets are they? Ending people’s rights?

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Whose streets are they? Ending people’s rights?

The ending now of people’s rights is part of a big worry about our system of political representation, writes Richard Swift.


It was difficult to believe – a line of St. Louis police was chanting ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ But that’s exactly how they showed their power in September 2017 when they cleared the streets of people protesting against police brutality.

The police were celebrating because one of their policemen was free after charges of the unjustified killing of a black motorist. Of course, no one is surprised that heavily armed police control US streets. They are often like armed militias in poor communities. But they used a chant, made famous by the Occupy movement. And that was different.

The control of public space – streets, squares, parks, and even Barcelona’s polling stations – is more and more about the state stopping political ideas they do not like.

These public spaces – for example, Tahrir Square in Cairo and Gezi Park in Istanbul – have been places for protest for a long time. The freedom to use public space is part of democracy. Stopping their use for protest is part of a policy that critics, such as the citizens’ rights advocacy group Civicus, call ‘the closing of political space’.

Civicus say that only two per cent of the world’s population now have ‘open’ political space. We can find this space in countries including Ireland, Portugal, Germany, and much of Scandinavia. For others it’s a problem. The two main political movements are rightwing populist nationalism, and neoliberalism of both centre-Right and centre-Left. They do not have much use for open political space. They speak a different language and may use different methods, but they both want to control. With Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Donald Trump in the US, and Mariano Rajoy in Spain, there is no real support for democratic rights.

This is also true in many places in the Global South. India was once ‘the world’s largest democracy’, but the space to organize is at risk from the Hindu fundamentalist government of Narendra Modi. In France, with the shock of terrorism, the right to speak freely and to have public meetings is at risk. In democratic Peru, the government is using ‘preventive charges’ against activists if it hears of any future plans of protest.

Why ‘small’ freedoms are important

Our freedoms are at risk.

By freedoms I’m thinking about all the small ones: freedom of speech, freedom to have meetings, privacy, communication, opinions, movement – freedom to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the government. I’m not thinking here of the big F ‘Freedom’ that some of those taking away our freedoms say that they are trying to protect.

This big F seems to have more to do with the freedom to control by those who run the state and the businesses that control the economy. They have little interest in the freedoms of everyday life. They often see them as annoying problems which stop growth and profit. Their right to control and our right to resist are against each other.

The big F Freedom is in the end a national sovereignty organised by centralized states to follow the national interests of the rich and powerful and make sure its ‘own’ citizens obey. A state that has all of the power is at risk of control by powerful elites. They are usually large transnational businesses and international banks.

Any protest movement – strong labour and social movements, a strong society, a democratic economy – needs political space.

Now our system of centralized representative government is in serious trouble. Large numbers of people no longer vote. Political parties have trouble finding members. Politicians see themselves as intelligent and selfless servants of the public. The public sees them as controlling liars, who only want to help themselves.

Party politics make a lot of noise but there are very few real differences in policy between the parties and they do not achieve very much. Politicians have not solved, or even taken action on problems of inequality and the death of the environment. Repression is often all they have to offer.

Many say that we need to think again about democracy. They think we need a democracy in which people take part as the best chance for a healthy post-capitalist world. We need to move to participation by people and away from representation by a few rich and powerful leaders.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/features/2017/12/01/shrinking-political-space

(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).