Protest & Public Space in Boston.

A photo essay by Thomas Coggin.

Many laws around the world guarantee the right to freedom of assembly. In the US, the first amendment forbids the US Congress from passing any laws which prohibit the right of people to peacefully assemble. The same is true of Article 11 under the African Charter on Human & Peoples' Rights - 'every individual shall have the right to assemble freely with others.'  But what does this right mean if we do not have the space to assemble? The city more generally, and public space more specifically is critical in fulfilling the right to freedom of assembly. These spaces become the site in which we collectively make a claim, political or otherwise. The visibility of these spaces, which are often symbolic in their history or geographic centrality highlight a collective conscience, one which is not easily discernible through other modes of political engagement, such as voting, for example. When designing, maintaining, and imagining/re-imagining these spaces, it is important to keep this in mind. Is there a platform for a speaker to be seen and heard? Are the materials used sufficiently durable to handle large crowds? Are there clear exit and entry points to prevent a crowd crush? Perhaps these are fairly banal questions to ask, but they can be critical in facilitating a person's right to assemble; they give the right tangible meaning and value.

Of course, my valorisation of the right to assemble should not detract from the fact that our ability to assemble is innate to our lives in the city. It's what we do fairly naturally: we assemble, we discuss, we voice, we disagree. A right 'granted' by state apparatus may seem to work against this inherent state of being; a suggestion that we can only assemble at the behest of the state's willingness to allow us to do so. But, I would argue, this is the incorrect way to look at a right. Rights should be regarded as something inherent to us all, and as a tool to be used against the state when it unduly restricts our ability to assemble.

A few weeks ago I went to a protest at Copley Square in Boston. This was against the recent travel ban implemented by US President Donald Trump, which aside from its core Islamophobic message was unconstitutional. Organized by the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, the protest took explicit notice of the fact that Copley Square is the site of a plaque commemorating the life of Kahlil Gibran, a Boston-based sculptor who was an immigrant from Lebanon. The site chosen for the protest was therefore as practical as it was symbolic, and the space became emblematic of Boston's collective "NO!" to the travel ban.

Photos of the protest follow below.