Tucson Opinion: An Archaeologist on Why We Instinctively Gather in Public Space | Local editorials and opinion

The following is the author’s opinion and analysis:

The coronavirus pandemic has changed our relationship to public space, as our community life took place virtually for over a year. But when there was great tension in society, as happened after the assassination of George Floyd, Americans turned to our physical public spaces – streets and government buildings.

In response to these protests, Republican lawmakers have proposed laws that target protesters and threaten the right to freedom of assembly and speech. As we discuss the speech on Facebook and Twitter, protecting access to our physical public spaces is imperative. They are just as important to our democracy as online spaces.

As an archaeologist, I study how people constructed and used public spaces throughout history. From Göbleki Tepe, Turkey, to Ceibal, Guatemala (where I do research), we find evidence that egalitarian groups came together to create monumental, ceremonial spaces. In these squares and platforms, people from different backgrounds gathered and exchanged ideas, just as the ancient Greeks did on their agoras. Communities were formed.

Modern societies seem to have largely replaced face-to-face gatherings with mass media following the invention of printing, television, and now the Internet. We belong to communities so large that we cannot possibly physically interact with every member. Then why do we return to physical public spaces in times of political crisis? Why did Black Lives Matter protesters take to the streets and why did the Biden government insist on a personal inauguration ceremony despite a pandemic?

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