When activists arrived at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to protest a Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces fundraiser that was coupled with an exhibition game between the Nets and Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv, the police were waiting with a message of their own. As the night unfolded, this message spoke volumes. Protesters would not be allowed on the expansive plaza that unfolds from the front of the Barclays Center all the way to the Atlantic Yards subway entrance. Instead, they would have to be in a fenced-off pen on the narrow strip of sidewalk to the side of the arena. Yes, an outdoor space built with public funds was deemed a privatized, no-free-speech zone, enforced by armed public employees, otherwise known as the police.
Brooklyn journalist Norman Oder, who’s written—and continues to write—a blog about the Atlantic Yards project for almost a decade, explained to me the way it works: “To the extent there are restrictions on activity at the plaza—the Daily News Plaza, to be precise, given the newspaper’s sponsorship—we must remember it’s not quite a public space, despite the significant public support—direct subsidies, tax breaks, eminent domain, override of zoning, and giveaway of naming rights—for the Barclays Center.”
(In an attendant irony, I was told at one point by arena security that reporters couldn’t talk to people in the “Daily News Plaza”.)
I asked one police officer to distinguish between “open space” and “private space” for freedom of assembly. He said, “This plaza is private land owned by Barclays. If a demonstration happens here, it’s because Barclays says a demonstration can happen here.”
That’s what made what then unfolded all the more bizarre. While 200 people marched around the tightly constricted pen with signs that read, “Don’t play with apartheid” and “This Jew says no to Gaza slaughter,” counter-demonstrators gathered on the private, open-space plaza. All male, mostly young and carrying Israeli flags, they showered the demonstrators with profanity. Many not holding a flag held phones up with one hand, videotaping the protesters, and raised a middle finger with the other. When I attempted to interview one young man, he said, “Fuck them, fuck your questions and fuck you. Get the fuck away from me before I bury you.” I asked how he wanted to be identified. He said, “My name is ‘fuck you.’”
Not seeing much opportunity for discussion on this side of the barricades, I asked several police why this counter-demonstration was permitted on what I thought was private land. Did Barclays clear this? Most wouldn’t answer, although one more loquacious officer said to me. “That’s above my pay grade. Maybe if you raise taxes here and increase my salary, I’ll have an answer.” (I am waiting for comment from the Barclays Center about whether this counter-demonstration received any kind of official approval.)