Over the last year activists associated with the Free Keene website have engaged in civil disobedience in Keene’s Central Square. The City of Keene has made several efforts to stop this activism, using the only tool they have available, arrests. So far this tactic has utterly failed to stop any activism, at best displacing it to a different park. I would like to present an alternative method that the City of Keene can use that provides the greatest chance of ending the 420 celebrations, the nightcaps, the vigils, and all other activism in Central Square.
The first step to solving any problem is recognizing its cause. Why is it that activists have chosen Central Square for their civil disobedience? Certainly its location makes it great for attention, and the high traffic makes outreach easy, but that is not the only reason. The biggest reason Central Square is used for activism is the fact that it is public property, i.e. owned by everyone, even the activists. This ownership is the result of the City of Keene paying for the purchase and upkeep of the park with tax money, which is taken under threat from all residents of the area they claim jurisdiction over. The ownership is incomplete, however, as a resident of Keene, who does not use the park or wish to pay for its upkeep has no means to dispose of his ownership of what he views as a liability. The solution to this is simple, Central Square must be made private property.
Well, perhaps it’s not so simple as that, after all how does one fairly distribute the ownership of public property? The city could sell the property at auction, but that would deprive the current owners — the residents of Keene — without compensating them for the property. A group of individuals could homestead the property, establish security, make improvements, and develop a business model, then claim ownership, but that wouldn’t solve the compensation issue either. What I propose is the creation of “The Central Square Company”, an unincorporated joint-stock company which owns Central Square. The ownership of this company is given to the people of Keene in the form of stock, which can be bought, sold, traded, or gifted, in any voluntary transaction. Each resident inside the city limits would receive exactly one share at the creation of the company. The City of Keene then has nothing to do with “The Central Square Company”, thus making the park private property.
I’d like to make it clear that I’m proposing “The Central Square Company”, not “The Central Square Corporation”. This is an important distinction. A corporation has limited liability by government fiat, a joint stock company does not. In the event that The Central Square Company incurs debts it is unable to pay, the debtors can pursue the individual shareholders for a portion of the debt equal to the portion of the total stock they own. This is different from the taxation method, in that any individual owner of stock can buy or sell stock, to own as much or as little as they wish, and thus have as much or as little, even zero, liability for the debts of The Central Square Company. The park would then only be funded by those who chose to fund it, either by taking a direct ownership, and the associated risks, or through whatever means the owners come up with to generate revenue.
Of course as private property, the owners of the park, whomever they might end up being, gain the right to exclude any person from the park, for whatever reason they wish. This means that if the owners are opposed to Free Keene activism they can restrict activists from entering the park, or from engaging in activism in the park. Conversely, if the owners do not wish for a police presence in the park, they can exclude Keene Police Department, and provide for security in whatever manner seems best to them.
In order to be truly private, the company must not receive any special subsidy, tax break, or special rules from the city, now or ever. Such a special status grants central square rights not possessed by other private enterprises. Yes, as hard as it is for me to say this, if the park is privatized, the city should tax the property the same as it would any other similar property. The owners can then either pay, or not pay, the tax as they chose, in accordance with the risk they are willing to take. If the park is subsidized, then people who are non-owners, and don’t wish to voluntarily fund the park are forced to, which is no different than the current situation.
While privatizing Central Square won’t guarantee an end to activism there, it is the greatest chance. I believe that other Free Keene activists would respect whatever rules the private owners of the park were to create. If the rules of the park, created by the private owners, were to forbid activism, I believe that Free Keene activists would support the arrest for trespassing of anybody who broke that rule and conducted activism on private property against the wishes of the owners.