American streets are not places where ritual, either religious or secular, is easily performed. Only in cloistered communities, set apart from the flows of American life, is this possible, as in the Orthodox Jewish communities of New York and Los Angeles. There, people (importantly) walk to temple, and participate in an “interlocking series” of rituals throughout the Sabbath. During the numerous Great Awakenings in the United States, open space was transformed into religious space through its key ritual, the revival; but this was a temporary transformation, and has not survived in contemporary ritual.
This is a reminder to me that, in much of our nations, we do not own the streets. The streets belong to the government - local or national - and are managed and policed so as to facilitate smooth flow of people and vehicles rather than as a shared space available to all.
I was asked recently what - or rather who - some people needed to contact to hold a little march (or, in this case, a dog walk). I pointed out that they didn't need permission to walk round a public square but that the Council and police would rather they were told about the event. But this is not always so:
Following negotiations with the Metropolitan police, the Greater London Authority and Westminster city council, the organisers of the Time to Act march – which is supported by the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, the Stop the War Coalition, Global Justice Now, Avaaz and Friends of the Earth – have been told the police will no longer facilitate the temporary closure of roads along the agreed route.
What we need to understand here is that the police have decided several things - firstly that people cannot walk along the highway, that those highways must be 'closed'; secondly that because of this the people who wish to use the highway need specific permission to do so; and lastly that they must pay for the privilege. The article seems most bothered about the matter of paying but for me this is the smallest of the state's offences here - the real offence is to say that you cannot walk with others along what we used to call the "Queen's Highway" without permission from the agents of government.
I've felt for a long while that the manner in which public authorities control the use of highway represents a persistent restraint on liberty - from banning 'A' boards and street seating through to the hounding of buskers, chuggers and street performers. There's a view - widely held among those who like the idea of 'town centre management' - that only permitted activities should be allowed, that anything loud, lewd or controversial should be stopped and that enforcement of imposed rules is the reason for having that town centre management.
The truth is - as Barbara Ehrenreich observed - is that our authorities have always feared public gathering, whether it's the protest march, the football crowd or simply twenty lads on a stag do.
Although sixteenth-century Europeans viewed mass festivities as foreign and "savage," Ehrenreich shows that they were indigenous to the West, from the ancient Greeks' worship of Dionysus to the medieval practice of Christianity as a "danced religion." Ultimately, church officials drove the festivities into the streets, the prelude to widespread reformation: Protestants criminalized carnival, Wahhabist Muslims battled ecstatic Sufism, European colonizers wiped out native dance rites.
In the end mankind's gregarious nature wins - we still gather together to celebrate and we share the space of celebration with others who celebrate something else. It's your birthday and you're dragged into town for a good night out. There you'll join folk out celebrating getting engaged, having a new job, leaving an old job, winning a football match and even the mundane fact that it's Friday so no work tomorrow. Sometimes there's something that links us all together, a shared event - watching our team parade the cup round the streets, seeing in the New Year, starting the Christmas season with a light show - but most days the events our private. But they are private events played out in a public place - shared with the world by using the space we all own.
Or so it should be. Ask the preacher who gets arrested because some passer-by was 'offended', the campaigners moved on because they didn't get permission for their stall, or the marchers stopped from making their point to those in power for want of the proper pieces of paper allowing such a protest. Yet political discourse - protest, campaigns, even debate - is as much part of that public place as anything else. In Susie Pryor and Sanford Grossbart's work on the ethnography of America's main street they list the reported activities and politics is right in there - the reasons people go down town:
Other consumers and retailers describe social activities on Main Street, which they associate with a variety of experiences, including dining; window shopping; strolling for relaxation; jogging for health reasons; pub crawls; wine tastings; book clubs; language clubs; craft guilds; charity events; art events; parades; demonstrations; mass celebrations following major sports victories; and meeting friends.
This activity shouldn't need a licence, special permissions or the oversight of police or public guardians - we should let people get on with it, smile at the silliness and enjoy the fact that people are using a shared space to live their lives. After all, whose streets and squares are they?