The City That Still Wants to Encourage Public Protest

While many state and local governments have moved to stifle civil disobedience in recent years, San Francisco is building a public space to support civic activism.
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A crowd of 12,000 carried flickering candles from San Francisco’s Castro Street to City Hall to honor slain Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk on November 27, 1979.

Photo by Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images.

In San Francisco’s famous Castro neighborhood, the plan is to redesign the public space above the Castro Muni Metro station—called the Harvey Milk Plaza—into an arena for staging rallies, peaceful assembly, street demonstration, protests, and candle light vigils. The plan’s aim is to turn the Harvey Milk Plaza into a public square that encourages political activism and provides a “soapbox for many,” according to The Architect’s Newspaper.  

“A place where people can gather and express their opinions, protest, mourn, or celebrate.”

“We’re trying to create a great urban transit center and a place where people can gather and express their opinions, protest, mourn, or celebrate,” said Andrea Aiello. Aiello is the president of Friends of Harvey Milk, a community group that helped organize the international competition to redesign Harvey Milk Plaza. The Friends also helped gauge community support before selecting the winning design by local architecture firm Perkins Eastman. Aiello added that the new square would be a place “where people can come, learn, and be in the place where [Harvey Milk] stood as he spread his message of hope and inclusion.” 

This move to encourage public assembly is in contrast to a trend where state and local governments—through militarized law enforcement and legislation—have stifled civil protests in recent years. In fact, in July 2016, U.N. Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai conducted an official trip to the United States and released a report the following year detailing an “increasingly hostile legal environment for peaceful protesters in some states.”

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The report cites as signs of a weakening of democracy the hostile response to a non-violent Black Lives Matter protest movement and an increasing corporate power in United States that actively discourages unionization. Kiai said, “It is at times like these when robust promotion of assembly and association rights are needed most.”

This makes this San Francisco’s neighborhood action stand out. The proposed redesign of the Harvey Milk Plaza aims to create a public space that enables—rather than deters—peaceful assembly.

Public protests in the streetscape, from the Boston Tea Party that sparked the American Revolution to the March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, have helped shaped American principles, says Aaron Huey, founder and creative director of Amplifier, a Seattle-based civic arts organization.

“We do our work with our voices and songs, with marching feet, and with our hearts; and we have to use those tools to own every inch of daylight,” said Huey, as he reflected on the role art and architecture have on freedom of speech, the right to assemble, civic discourse, and democracy.

There’s already a history of civic assembly in Harvey Milk plaza.

Amplifier produced the “We the People” poster campaign featuring Muslim, Latino, and African-American women cloaked in stars and stripes. The posters sparked a national dialogue about American identity and became an essential part of the counter protests at the presidential inauguration and Women’s March last January.

“Our visual landscape … is owned by whoever can pay the highest price, so grassroots movements don’t often have any of that space. We want to fill that space with images and messages that wake people up,” Huey said.

Currently, a giant rainbow flag soars above the Harvey Milk Plaza, marking it as sacred ground for LGBTQ civil rights history, but pavement and pedestrian areas around the plaza are better known for awkward stairs, unpaved grounds, and water drainage issues.

The new square—projected to unveil in 2020 in tandem with improved accessibility of the station—will feature ramped amphitheater steps that begin at the plaza’s grounds and rise before flattening into a large central stage. From there, a second story of steps rise, creating a seating gallery for spectators to look down to the central stage. Signage will provide a timeline of key moments in the Castro community’s march toward LGBTQ and civil rights. And LED candles will mimic the candlelight of the public remembrance vigils that have historically been held in the plaza.

Although community planners anticipate city zoning requirements and engineering limitations to force some revisions to the proposed design, Aiello says that the design will remain true to the overall intent to create a space that encourages public assembly.

Milk and Mascone’s legacy of LGBTQ activism lives on in modern-day community leaders.

There’s already a history of civic assembly in Harvey Milk plaza. In the 1970s, Harvey Milk used his nearby camera store and the plaza as a campaign headquarters for his neighborhood activism to promote civil rights.

Milk once said, “You’ve got to keep electing gay people ... to know there is better hope for tomorrow. Not only for gays, but for blacks, Asians, the disabled, our senior citizens and us. Without hope, we give up.”

In 1978, Milk advocated for an ordinance that protected gays from being fired for their orientations. Months later, he and then-San Francisco mayor George Moscone were assassinated. On November 27, the night of the assassination, more than 25,000 people gathered in the plaza for a candlelight vigil that has continued each November since then. And in 1985, the plaza was named after Harvey Milk.

Aiello said Milk and Mascone’s legacy of LGBTQ activism lives on in modern-day community leaders who have stepped up. She says the public square redesign will help these leaders spread Milk’s message across the city by providing them a place and a platform to organize.

“We’re hoping with the reimagined Harvey Milk Plaza, it will inspire people to continue to work toward justice, inclusion, and equality as they remember Harvey’s messages that hope is really important,” she said.

This story was funded in part by a grant from the Surdna Foundation.