The Civility Debate Overlooks the First Amendment

While dining recently at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, DC, a friend of activist Amanda Werner recognized that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was dining there as well. The friend “immediately texted Werner: ‘DHS Secretary Nielsen is having dinner at MXDC. Can you tweet on your account? Get activists here.’”

Werner put the word out on Twitter and, within minutes, a handful of activists showed up, including members of the Democratic Socialists of America. When they entered the restaurant and saw Nielsen, they confronted her about the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy on immigration. “How dare you spend your evening here eating dinner as you’re complicit in the separation and deportation of over 10,000 children,” one protester shouted. Others chanted, “Abolish ICE! Abolish ICE!” “If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace!,” and “Kirstjen Nielsen, you’re a villain, locking up immigrant children.” After about fifteen minutes, the activists left.

Armenia: Peaceful Revolution in the 21st Century

Serzh Sargsyan had been in power for the past decade in Armenia. He served twice as president, reaching the country’s term limit, and then stepped down on April 9 at the inauguration of his successor. In a healthy democracy, the peaceful transfer of power would have been the natural end of his career in the country’s highest position of leadership.

In this small former-Soviet state, however, the institutionalization of the government had proven itself vulnerable to the autocratic ambitions of a strong leader. That’s because a structural shift in 2015 demoted the role of the president to essentially just a national figurehead. The stripped powers and legislative authority were reassigned to the parliament and its appointed prime minister, delivering a strong blow to Armenia’s democratic integrity.

In 2014, when the campaign for these structural changes had been underway, Sargsyan had announced that he would “not aspire” to become prime minister if the new structure were to take effect. To the opposition, these words were a promise that he would respect the principles of his term limit and stay away from power thereafter. Yet just eight days after Sargsyan left the presidency, the Armenian Parliament voted 77 to 18, an overwhelming majority with no abstentions, to make him prime minister. Sargsyan was back in the country’s highest position of power.

The New Harvey Milk Plaza: Designing Public Spaces for Civic Participation

San Francisco’s Castro district has been a gathering place for activists of every stripe for decades. And the corner of Castro and Market Streets is the crossroads of this historic neighborhood. So in November 2016, the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza launched a design competition to commemorate Harvey Milk here, just a few blocks from the iconic figure’s former camera store and apartment.

After a year of vigorous debate over 33 entries, a winner was chosen: Perkins Eastman whose design imagined “a vibrant, active, living place that more fittingly honors Harvey Milk’s charismatic spirit and legacy as a community energizer and a vocal activist.”

Designers McCall Wood and Justin Skoda called their rising, tiered amphitheater a “human-activated place” because, beyond meeting the basic criteria of the competition, it serves the needs of rallies, public assemblies, and soap-boxers. I had the honor of interviewing Wood and Skoda about their design, the legacy of Harvey Milk, and what makes a public space conducive to holding public assembly.