Monday, February 23, 2009

Mill Avenue Nights Addendum: February 20-21, 2009

The fracas on Saturday got me a little bit amused. I posted about the evangelical quality of this on Better Than Faith, but I’m wondering aloud now about the coming together of community and the perception of crowds.

For those who aren’t aware of what happened on Saturday. An evangelical street preacher named Jonathan decided to set up his amplification on the corner of 6th and Mill next to where the Hippie Gypsy and Bun Devils are situated. This is because the corner that houses Urban Outfitters had been taken over by Bruce, a spray-paint artist. After Jonathan set up, people began to crowd around in a manner similar to what generally happens around these forming debates.

James, the owner of Bun Devils, did not take this well—he and one of his workers saw the brimming crowd as a direct threat to his business. Together they presented a heated harassment to both Jonathan and people who came to crowd and argue back against the evangelicals and their amps. The result was a little interesting with Jonathan telling people to go buy hotdogs—but the worker from the hotdog stand, flustered, demanded that he wanted Jonathan to buy a hotdog (but Jonathan didn’t have any money.)

Tension ran a little high with James and he felt like attempting to chase them away by setting off his car alarm. For thirteen minutes. A blaring noise event that was annoying but not at all dissuading to the crowd near the evangelicals amp—it didn’t even manage to register as more than an irritation as it didn’t drown out speech, or provide anything more than, “Oh someone’s car alarm is still going off.” That ended when a trio of bike police rode up.

It took Jonathan and his crew almost an hour before they finally moved across the street to Coffee Plantation.

There is a great deal of contention about the use of public spaces between vendors, evangelicals, and the general passersby. The United States prides itself in enabling people to make their own social contracts to live by in public spaces, especially when it comes to speech and presentation. James and his workers may have felt marginalized by having a crowd on their corner, but they were incorrect in asserting that the evangelical and the crowd didn’t have a “right” to be on the corner. If the crowd didn’t have a right to be there…then neither would any customers who may have decided to buy hotdogs.

This also came up on Friday with the True Vine Baptist Church visitors. About whom I have discussed the concept of a forum in the past. Years ago when Pastor Ed was out on our Ave, he faced an angry black man selling hiphop CDs who shouted loudly at people who got in his way in order to preach at him. He managed to tie the TVB evangelicals up for several hours by shouting over them. The concept of the forum came up again, Friday, when Kazz—the leader of the Mill Ave Resistance—mentioned that the TVB are particularly hostile to anyone else setting up near them to present alternate viewpoints.

The TVB, of course, does not control the public corner—they manage to do so only because they have numbers (ten to twelve people) and hopefully unlike The Door, they would not be outright violent if people who disagreed with them chose to use the corner as the forum it is and to respond to them. With equal amplification if necessary, as the Resistance does. Kazz fears that in order to actually create a debate, or at least a reply, he will have to act against the wishes of the TVB to totally control a given corner.

A great deal of people like to pipe up and use the freedom of speech as a cudgel to beat down critics, as if invoking freedom of speech only acts in their favor. Freedom of speech is not freedom from criticism—in fact, exercising thy freedom of speech invites criticism. It is a real, necessary, and sufficient practice in response to speech is to add, develop, and produce contrary opinion.

Right now the TVB present only a saccharine claim to being reasonable, “leave us alone, please be polite, you can get your turn,” but really this is a flimsy respect. They have chosen to speak out to the street using the same rights that the street would speak back out to them and when that happens I expect that they will do the right thing and respect the law.

We’ve seen the evangelical preachers on Mill Ave repeatedly attempt to use the very law that protects them in order to censor or stifle contrary opinions. Such as David from the Way of the Master evangelicals stopping the police to ask them if they could do anything about the nay-sayers who brought out amplification just like the evangelicals did; the group also got restraining orders against other evangelicals who were handing out tracts and information “too close to them”; Jeff and John from earlier attempting to talk to the police about separating the groups by forcing one to go to another corner; The Door committing assault, calling the police, and then demanding that the police remove their detractors.

I have studied numerous groups on Mill Ave and the evangelical preachers insofar are the only groups who have chosen to wield such heavy-handed tactics to stifle organized retort—and, equally so, sometimes people who oppose them (local businesses mostly) attempt the same.

As an outgrowth the actions and reactions on the parts of the police have been positive—with the gross exception of the violent intimidation by The Door, who are dangerous and malignant—and they have hopefully repeatedly educated the public and business owners that the law is blind to the polite. That if the evangelical preachers are permitted to use amplification so too are their opposition; that if a group is permitted to stand on a street corner, so too are their opposition. That all debate, talk, discussion, however animated, falls within the ability of all parties to make their own social contracts until the point the law is broken.

The evolution of these various groups has been interesting.

And perhaps not unhealthy for Mill Ave.

I and the rest of the Mill rambling public look forward to when their growing pains begin to settle and the various sides manage to find some truce, however uneasy, about their use of everyone’s public corners.

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