Members of the League of Women Voters of Diablo Valley turned out in Walnut Creek’s Civic Park to demonstrate, celebrate, and register voters during the fourth annual Women’s March on January 18, 2020. Photo by Maxine Arton.

The civic open space that surrounds the State Capitol in Sacramento has benches for rest, a rose garden for inspiration, and mature trees for shade. On a typical day at Capitol Park you’re likely to see retired folks relaxing, students on tour, and employees scurrying to work with coffee.

Capitol Park at other times is transformed into a place for citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights. The Constitutional right of American citizens to peaceably assemble and communicate with their government that started with our nation’s founding has become a tradition, and for over 200 years citizens and activists have assembled to carry out that right. A recent example of people gathering at the Capitol, in the Bay Area, and across America occurred on January 18 as part of the fourth annual Women’s March, with many of the affiliated events taking place in civic open spaces.

“Public space, by its very nature and construct, is the neutral common ground that we the people own and fund collectively,” said Nidhi Gulati at Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit that creates community-based public places. “It’s the most rightful place for us to occupy as members of a civil society to express our opinions.”

When “we the people” want to communicate with those who are working for us inside government buildings, civic open spaces have the least amount of hindrances, said Gulati. “Opportunity for gathering in and around public buildings should be an absolute necessity,” she said.

In today’s culture, cars, car-centric cities, and ubiquitous electronic devices tend to isolate us from one another. “The public realm is where you see ‘the other’,” said Gulati. “Even smaller interactions with someone who might be sitting on a park bench makes it possible for you to see someone who might come from a totally different walk of life than your own. That is the power of the public space. How do we expect people to know each other, stand for a community, and understand our differences if we never see them? Public space creates opportunities for us to see our fellow citizens and form common concerns and common values before we can even think about communicating with our government.”

Several civic open spaces in the Bay Area carry the weight of history: Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley is known as the incubator of the Free Speech Movement, and San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza has seen tens of thousands of people rally for any number of causes, including civil and LGBTQ rights. “[Civic Center Plaza’s] history of protest participation contributes to the power of the rally. I also love the backdrop of City Hall and what it represents for San Francisco as a mecca for change and radical vision,” said Elizabeth Lanyon, advisor and city liaison for Women’s March San Francisco.

Other civic open spaces are not as well-known, but serve people just as well. Women’s March Contra Costa rallied at Civic Park in Walnut Creek with the theme “Voting Is Our Super Power.” Women’s March Santa Rosa rallied at the Old Courthouse Square, and Women’s March Oakland descended upon Frank Ogawa Plaza to promote participation in the 2020 Census with the theme “Oakland Counts.”

Attendees of this year’s Women’s March Oakland gathered in Frank Ogawa Plaza. Photo by Alec MacDonald.

In addition to open spaces, public engagement also happens in government board rooms, voting booths, the opinion pages of newspapers, and on social media — but there’s something special about a communal demonstration, as I learned speaking with people at a rally for political accountability at Capitol Park in December. Attendee Michelle Cadenhead said that her co-workers don’t talk politics, and that being there made her “feel validated and hopeful.” Jessica Gadow said, “Staying home encourages fear. Without coming out and doing these things, nothing is going to change. This is love to me.” Kaitlin Walker, who attended with Rob Cunningham and their two children, said, “We want to show our kids that we’re doing the work,” adding, “There’s so much energy making signs and getting ready. You don’t have that kind of energy when you’re home on Facebook crying.”

Also, a board room, voting booth, and assorted media can have inherent barriers, said Project for Public Spaces’ Gulati. Not everyone has electronic devices, for example, and some people — like Gulati, who is from India — work and live here but don’t have access to the voting booth because they aren’t citizens. “A system that doesn’t provide other opportunities that are more accessible for people to exercise their human right is exclusionary,” she said, adding that providing such access “is what the public realm is for.”

Holding an event at a civic open space provides opportunities for more people to participate. “Downtown Oakland has a number of people who are hard to count or undercounted,” said Alisha Woo, co-director of Women’s March Oakland. She emphasized the importance of holding the event in an accessible location, given that the surrounding area has “lots of communities who may not be fully represented or fully served.”

Visuals during a civic open space rally are an important part of communicating a message. First and foremost are the people. “Thousands of people holding space in public together in cities at the same time across the country is impactful. It’s important to let elected officials know that we’re paying attention together as a country,” said San Francisco’s Lanyon.

Other visuals are planned for impact. Women’s March Contra Costa featured women dressed as suffragists, which recognized the centennial of a women’s right to vote. San Francisco has turned the lights of City Hall pink after every Women’s March. “It is a powerful symbol of how completely the march, and all we stand for, have been embraced by our city,” said Martha Shaughnessy, a founding member of Women’s March San Francisco. The logo for Women’s March Oakland this year was an oak tree drawn with one line to show that everybody is connected.

What are the common features of a vibrant and safe civic open space that serves the greatest number of people without hindrances? Gulati says that geographic location, centrality, and transportation are vital components. Can most people get there easily? Is public transportation available? Can a mother safely push a stroller to the location without crossing an eight-lane street or highway? “When you’re gathering in large crowds, how easily you can get out of the place is equally important,” said Gulati.

Another way to communicate that your event is safe for everybody, said Woo, is reflected in your accessibility, who is scheduled to speak, who the co-hosts are, who you partner with, and if the event is family-friendly.

Joining a rally at a civic open space is a powerful way to be involved in the civic process, said Woo. “There’s been a marked decrease in the quantity and quality of civic education and in general participation in the civic process. I’m talking about serving on a jury or working a polling booth. That’s something that you do in person as part of the government process. Being at a rally is a similar type of thing. It is an in-person, moving, powerful, in-community civic experience. Especially with the increased secularization of American lives, a lot of folks are looking for that.”

“A rally is an important way to inspire people to take action. People change their trajectory once inspired,” said Scarlette Bustos, lead coordinator of Women’s March Sacramento.

Women’s March events around the Bay Area kicked off a busy election and census year that calls for civic participation, whatever your beliefs. Woo and the other planners hope the marches will help to kickstart enthusiasm and action. “A lot of folks think of political and civic participation as boring, uninteresting, or as a duty. There’s a lot of negative emotions associated with it. While it can be painful and frustrating and challenging, I also hope that we can inject back a little bit of joy and positive feelings of community. I hope that the event we put on in Oakland helped to make that happen,” she said.

Aleta George covers open space for the Monitor.