As an undergraduate in upstate New York, I witnessed the post-’60s architectural trend through which college campuses, government buildings and other common spaces were rendered inhospitable to public gatherings for fear of civic unrest. The sprawling commons that once accompanied lofty edifices gave way to strategically placed fountains, steps that were made too steep for standing, and elaborately terraced courtyards that would have made Panopticon prison designer Jeremy Bentham proud.
Today, of course, we have become acclimated to such design schemes, which routinely are found in contemporary shopping malls, government plazas and public pavilions. We’ve also grown accustomed to the idea that we must pay for the privilege of occupying virtually any space beyond the walls of our private domiciles. And we even think nothing of the surveillance cameras that have become so pervasive, granting us all a fleeting taste of celebrity or, at least, notoriety.
Given this wholesale appropriation and regulation of public space, it’s only a small step for us to begin giving up our right to use what remains of it. And that brings us to this week’s cover story, set in West Sacramento, where fears of a gang called the Broderick Boys has led the district attorney to issue a curfew and to restrict certain residents’ right to free assembly.
The result, according to authorities, is a drastic reduction in gang-related crime. Of course, when one holds the sole power to define who is and is not a gang member, such a public-relations coup is that much easier to pull off. In fact, a number of area residents are claiming they’ve been mislabeled as gang members and, in one instance, even added to a terrorism database.
It’s not surprising that, in our current security-obsessed homeland, we more readily give up our public autonomy—or that of others—for the promise of personal safety. But it is at just such times—and with a government whose exploitation of security fears is so egregious—that we need to remain most vigilant.