This year’s presidential election leaves our country deeply divided and we, at Forecast, found ourselves seeking ways to respond and make space for our community to come together. With many communities feeling fear and concern, it felt more important than ever for public spaces to be welcoming, culturally vibrant, and safe for everyone.
As it happens, the answer was just across the hall from our offices where the Minnesota chapter of the ACLU has offices. On December 7th, 2016, Forecast Public Art collaborated with the ACLU-MN to offer a presentation and facilitated conversation engaging the following questions: What is the role of freespeech and creative dissent in our country’s future? How does public art play a role?
We invited two thoughtful audience members – Christina Chang and David O’Fallon – to offer their take on the experience. Here they are:
Christina Chang writes:
Theresa Sweetland, Executive Director of Forecast Public Art, began by explaining that the event had been planned in the wake of the last presidential election as both a coping mechanism — offering a reason for people to come together and share their feelings — and a first step towards taking action, even before knowing what that action was going to be. A number of arts organizations have held and are holding similar events. The Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is literally across the hall from Forecast, and the two had never partnered on a program before. All it took was for Theresa to walk across the hall to introduce herself and explain the motivation.
This impulse to know your neighbors is a natural one given that those who thought a candidate like Donald Trump could never get elected “woke up feeling like strangers in a foreign land” on November 9, 2016, as the heads of the California Senate and Assembly wrote in a joint statement. The polarizing candidates had the effect of drawing a line in the sand: “Whose side are you on?” The ugly sentiments that we associated with an earlier time in history — white supremacy, nativism, xenophobia, racism, sexism — showed themselves to be thriving in pretty much every part of the country, and bigots across the nation mistook Trump’s electoral college victory to be validation. The number of hate crimes reported to organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) that track such data shot up in immediate response to the election.
The program was billed as a discussion about civil disobedience and direct action. Legal Director Teresa (Terri) Nelson, with input from Public Education & Communications Director Jana Kooren of the ACLU-MN began by running through the different types of public forums identified by law (the Latin plural is actually fora, which I kind of like) and the relative restrictions to free speech in each. The distinctions were largely technical, but a few hot tips are worth noting. There is legal provision for assembly without a permit in the case of a response to breaking news, like many of the #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations. You have the greatest protection of First Amendment rights in designated public spaces like city streets and town squares. Gmail and other web-based email users beware — all email stored on servers are public after 180 days, after the practice of declaring snail mail abandoned after 180 days. Doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s because internet privacy hasn’t been looked at by the courts since 1984! It seems about time, no? Lastly, a note for artists: If you plan on holding a permitted event in a public space, know that the permit doesn’t give you exclusive use of the space. Individuals may still enjoy the space as a public space independent of your event even though you’ve “reserved” it.
The discussion really started to get to the heart of the matter for me when a participant asked about the point at which free expression crosses into hate speech, which is not protected by First Amendment rights. On its own, hate speech seems pretty straightforward — speech intended to incite violence and unrest against a member or members of a protected class group (gender, race, religion, sexuality, etc.). But wait a minute. Isn’t that what Trump was doing at his rallies? This notion of intent is where things get tricky. As Trump repeatedly did, you can insist that you didn’t really mean what you said in the way it was taken. How convenient. If a case against him were to go to court, the prosecution has to prove intent at every stage of the incident — not impossible, but very, very difficult, as Terri said.
Intent is what troubles me about the justice system. It only seems to work if you assume everyone is acting in good faith. There is one way we can take action and help groups like the ACLU do their all-important work. Be witness, and build evidence of intent. Report incidents of hate to the SPLC. Report incidents targeting Muslims to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Download the Mobile Justice app to record and submit incidents directly and securely to the ACLU. For those who are leery of putting themselves out there, just think of this. The highly publicized rallies and marches are the end results of weeks of organizing behind the scenes. You can support these efforts at whatever comfort level is right for you.
 Jelani Cobb, “Comment: States vs. Trump,” The New Yorker (28 Nov 2016), p. 31.
David O’Fallon writes:
We gathered one late afternoon, lawyers and artists, performers and directors, managers and directors, in Forecast Public Arts warm space, an inviting combination of library and communal kitchen for ideas and insights. We gathered in search of hope and community maybe best said as the hope that is born and sustained in community.
I came in need of community and hope. “Remember Remember the 8th of November”. We will never forget that date and the emergence of an America that shocked us. It is true, as many say, that the virulence and racism and anti-intellectualism have always been part of the national fabric. But now they are unleashed. We’ve elected, somehow, a man who by actions and speech gives them voice and cover and authority . “Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of wars”.
So said Antony on the assassination of Caesar. With this election there is the fear that the dogs of war, domestic and foreign, down the street and in Syria and the Ukraine and … are straining at the leash.
In the warmth of the Forecast spaces we greet old friends and meet new ones and one long term friend, Barbara, after short greetings told me that as she stood in line for coffee just a day ago, the young man ahead of here used foul and sexist language with the young women barista. When the barista looked shocked, the young man said “Do you want to hear that again!” And Barbara intervened to say that she didn’t want to hear it again either. The man turned on her and said, in brief, that she’d better get used to it as this is Trump time now.
No. we won’t get used to it. Some dogs need to be kept leashed. And this is our time.
Hope is not magical thinking. It is not optimism. It is squarely facing reality as best we can.
This gathering gave us a chance to face the emerging and anticipated reality better informed, better prepared. The ACLU lawyers ( Janet and Teresa–names?) provided what we needed to have. Tools. Information. Support. Definitions of public spaces and public speech. The fact that there is a framework of laws that has and will protect the speech of artists. The protection of free speech against and for those in power is a core value and tenet of this trouble democracy.
You can think whatever you wish. Hold any opinion you care. Speech is free. Democracy is not.
Meaning that democracy needs the work of artists and arts and cultural organizations. Values that I thought were broadly agreed upon are now threatened as never before in my life. We have to question our own work as well. I believe that we must be in service now, to challenge policies and people and systems that would weaken our democracy , contradict fundamental values of “all people are created equal” Basic tenets such as separation of church and state are threatened. As is protection of the air and water, the wilderness.
In the space that evening there was a concern bordering on a fear that speaking for these values, manifesting and living values that diverge from those in power and that even acceptance of just plain differences (wear a hijab?, confront sexist and racist behavior in public?)may become dangerous.
You could make a longer list. I sum it up as we are now off the map, off into unchartered territory.
So we need each other in collaboration and community in coalitions of intelligence and compassion and strength.
Here’s a short list of practices that I keep –and that drive my learning. They are loosely adapted from the International Futures Forum. (http://www.internationalfuturesforum.com)
- Take the long view: the longer the time line we are willing to consider the more responsible our actions are likely to be.
- Use a compass, not a map: compass to give direction and purpose. Responsible action will come from our deepest values
- Sustain networks of hope: Conduct an urgent search for the means to move from fear and pessimism to hope (see above) and optimism. To identify sources of darkness and promote sources of light.
- Converge ideas and action: Theory and Ideas must be tested in action. Results honestly assessed. Practices and ideas evolved, changed. Constant learning through a continuous cycle of action and reflection, learn and doing.
All of these seemed present to me in the conversation and community convened by Forecast and informed by the ACLU. Now what?
We need each other and I pledge myself to continuing, to build tools, to educate, to convene, to speak, to act—to build and sustain networks of hope.