Opinion - Exiled to Liberty Plaza

New Gold Dome protest area is a pretty and expensive “free-speech zone”

It was a time worth celebrating. The state of Georgia in June began tearing down the concrete parking deck located across the street from the Gold Dome. The eyesore would be replaced with a park, part of the ambitious Capitol Hill master plan that changes every few years.

And not just any park, mind you, but Liberty Plaza. The public space proposed by the state, not exactly the most progressive or design-savvy entity, will be high on unimaginative, patriotic, non-Georgia kitsch, including replicas of the Liberty Bell and Statue of Liberty. It is also likely to be where state officials will place a long-overdue monument to Martin Luther King Jr. on the Gold Dome grounds. Plaza construction is well under way and expected to be completed by Dec. 1.

The plaza gives state workers and Downtown residents a place where they can relax on their lunch breaks or take their families on a stroll of the historic neighborhood. But come sundown, the gates on the fenced-off park will be closed. Liberty Plaza will also serve as the Gold Dome’s designated protest and rally area, ending decades of holding public rallies at the Capitol’s Washington Street entrance, what’s often considered its “front door.”

We’re glad that an unsightly parking deck has been razed to make way for something that could provide a better space for people, especially families who live Downtown. But the creation of a fenced-off protest area for public speech, relocated to the back of the Capitol without any public input, says volumes about the state’s perspective on dissent. It’s basically creating a (very expensive) “free speech zone” — a place where activists are relegated, rather than seen and listened to.

For decades, the plaza on the western side of the Gold Dome has served as the official staging area for protests, rallies, and vigils. When Troy Davis was scheduled to be executed, death penalty opponents gathered on its steps. When Georgia was set to pass one of the country’s most heinous anti-immigrant bills, the area along Washington Street was packed beyond capacity and flowed onto the street. Until recently, the plaza was the site of a statute of Thomas Watson, a former Georgia lawmaker and staunch segregationist. The scene could be somewhat ironic, but it was just outside the halls of power. State officials argue, however, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that the old set-up is a safety hazard, as large events sometimes require shutting down traffic lanes. Liberty Plaza would offer more space.

Now those protests and events will have to head across the street, to Liberty Plaza, which will be less visible to motorists, pedestrians, and lawmakers. Protesters might enjoy the view of the Gold Dome but also have to compete with noise from Downtown Connector traffic. They’re separated from the government they’re protesting just by the width of a street, but still being brushed aside. (Plans call for one day rerouting Capitol Avenue.)

Georgia isn’t alone in this practice. During the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, protesters were put in “free speech zones” surrounded by chain-link fences topped with razor wire. Most recently, in Ferguson, Mo., city officials created an “alternative speech zone” to help quell arrests and discontent. It was reportedly located in a padlocked field.

Public and law enforcement officials create “free-speech zones” for several reasons, including the idea that corralling protesters will make an event safer. But they also do it to try to mask discontent — put on a good face for a city’s moment in the sun or help avoid issues that could generate bad press. Or sometimes they just can’t be bothered with what aggrieved parties who lack the resources to hire a lobbyist have to say. So the powers that be send them down the street. The people in power can say they’re not stepping on anyone’s right to freedom of assembly. But they can’t say they’re paying attention.

The First Amendment allows us to assemble and protest our government. It doesn’t offer total freedom — protesters don’t have a right to a captive audience, for example, although we think they should. The need to protest is something that lives very deep within us. If you need proof, just look at Ferguson. When the Missouri Highway State Patrol took over law enforcement operations there and, in a touching moment, marched with the residents, a tense mood was broken. The people simply wanted to express themselves after an injustice.

Public officials should not be given easy outs and escape routes to outright avoid protesters. Even when protests were held on the Washington Street plaza, lawmakers could always find ways to avoid the dissent. But now they can scurry to their cars without ever knowing a protest is taking place. State officials who work in the Sloppy Floyd office building can flee to their cars in a parking deck via an elevated walkway overlooking Liberty Plaza. It looks close but is distant.

Protesting is at the heart of the nation’s ideals, and public dissent has literally helped change the United States. And it is a bold part of Atlanta’s history, most notably thanks to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Ironically, the iconic civil rights activist will likely have some sort of statute in Liberty Plaza, relegated outside the Gold Dome, fenced off with the protesters. We should be able to press our noses against the halls of power and protest if we choose.