Image courtesy Twitter/Ishara Danasekara

The appearance of a sign designating an area near the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo as an “Agitation Site” has had a divided reception. According to Cabinet Spokesperson Minister Ramesh Pathirana, “For the time being, till people get used to this new agitation site, protesting outside (the agitation site) will not be considered as an immediate offence.” The insidious implication here is that perhaps soon, a time will come when other urban spaces cannot be used for voicing dissident views. This effort would placate many in Colombo who feel that comfort and ease trump freedom of expression and are fatigued with a culture of traffic jams and road closures to accommodate demonstrators.

Galle Face Green, the location of the current “Agitation Site” has a long history of protests that were not always considered a public nuisance. During colonial rule the LSSP held massive rallies to demand the resignation of IGP Banks, following the shooting of labourer by the police. In 1956, the Satygraha by the leaders of the Federal Party, in protest of the Sinhala Only Act, was attacked by Sinhalese mobs and subsequently set off race riots around the country. On May 22nd 2019, Buddhist monks marched to the Presidential Secretariat to demand the resignation of Muslim MPs in the wake of the Easter Sunday Attacks. The fluid politics and complex repercussions of protest are poorly captured by an “agitation site”.

According to scholar Don Mitchell, “representation, whether of oneself or of a group demands space”. Public spaces afford visibility to marginalized groups who have neither the political leverage, nor the money to purchase airtime and newspaper space for their grievances to be noticed by those in power. By enabling visibility, public spaces allow the expression of ideas and opposing views that are essential for a democratic society. Even in countries with weak or nascent democracies, public space is claimed to resist, protest and practice one’s citizenship.

While Sri Lankans acknowledge that protest is in necessary in theory, they take objection with how it is practiced. Following Marxist insurrections by the JVP in the 1980s, mass protest has been a source of discomfort and tension for the Colombo middle class. Particularly in the last few years, protests by university students against privatized medical education have been continuous, ranging from peaceful marches and night vigils, to the storming of the Ministry of Health resulting in 84 students being hospitalized. These protests disrupt the regularities of urban life and defy the ordered civilized Singaporeanized city that many middle-class residents prefer to inhabit. The right of assembly of university students, many of a lower socio-economic status, should be sacrificed on the altar of an easy commute. Previous governments regularly responded to student demonstrations with violence, with tear gas, water cannons and batons being employed to contain these “agitations” across the city. Attempts to inconvenience the public to draw attention to a cause were compared to a form of terror. In this vein, Colombo reaches a global benchmark of lumping protesters with terrorists – Extinction Rebellion – keeping company with jihadists and neo-Nazis on a UK Counter-terrorism watchlist.

The use of public space to express dissent is often in tension with many other uses, such as leisure, transport and profit margins. To live in a city, let alone a democracy, is to understand that the varying needs of people create chaos and disorder even when the system works perfectly. Protest is not the single parent of inconvenience. In Colombo, delays are exchanged for the vibrancy provided by religious processions, state funerals, Independence Day parades, cycle parades during big match season, political rallies, a crowd exiting an Enrique concert, a walk to raise funds for a school swimming pool among other things. These delays are accepted because we trust that they add value to society.

To balance these competing uses, public spaces are regulated through zoning, permit systems and laws relating to unlawful assembly. Sri Lanka is no different.  The process of informing the police about a procession or march is a legal requirement stipulated in the Police Ordinance. Police officers of a certain rank can lay down conditions and direct the routes and time frames of assemblies in public space. Chapter VIII of the Penal Code regulates freedom of assembly where groups can cause offenses against “public tranquility” and outlines when an assembly turns into a “riot”.

Bruce D’Arcus notes that “the interpretive politics that distinguish a riot from a protest from a gathering on the street are seldom clear or uncontested.” The lines that separate political rallies, strikes, riots, protests, gatherings, public disorder can dissolve in a second. A riot is what the state says it is, and there is power in being able to make that distinction. In this manner, the state determines the contours of legitimate dissent, and decides who receives access to space and the territorial boundaries of that access. The agitation site is another efficient step in the state’s effort to ration spatial rights.

A wealth of scholarship documents the increasing regulation of protest after 9/11. The threat of terrorism led to the curtailing of civil liberties and collective expression in the city on the grounds of security. In 2003, the City of New York refused to grant a permit for a protest march against the war in Iraq, even though the police admitted they had no reason to expect violence. Stationary rallies corralled from the rest of the city in “protest pens” were permitted. Such systems can manage and silence dissent, while maintaining the appearance of a vibrant and inclusive public sphere.

In the wake of the Easter Sunday Attacks, the previous government imposed emergency law which made tangible changes to the landscape of protest, and recalibrated the relationship between protesters and the police. Under these laws, the president has the authority to halt any meeting or protest that he deems can threaten security, and the armed forces are given the authority to disperse gatherings as they see fit. Demonstrators in the wake of Easter 2019 had to work with the police to produce a safe and legitimate protest in an atmosphere of fear and suspicion.

A more hopeful reading of the sign is that the state is enshrining protest as a valuable use of public space and zoning it to mitigate the logistical spanners it throws into running the city. Alternatively, it is a truncation of spaces where dissent is tolerated. This reinforces the nuisance mindset that dominates how we think of our fundamental rights of expression and assembly. Furthermore, it implies that the existing processes and laws that govern demonstrations and serve as checks and balances are inadequate. The acceptance of an arbitrary sign, without transparent processes or consultations with the general public is also proof our acceptance that our claim to public space is tenuous and shaky at best. The sign is a border of permissible dissent, fencing out protests in other parts of the city as illegitimate, unruly, uncivilized. The new shiny metropolis is free of contamination, disruption and the shock of realizing the problems of distant but fellow citizens. The landscape of dissent will continue to shrink unless we come to terms with a messier, chaotic and democratic understanding of public space.