City deems flashmobs in public space illegal, says it fears harm to public property

The German city of Braunschweig has deemed flashmobs illegal. In a message to a man who had proposed a picnic on a public square, the city said that “any public flashmobs in Braunschweig are illegal and will in case of need be forbidden […] and dissolved by the police.”

What I find especially worrying is that authorities said that “the public space in Braunschweig serves exclusively traffic, i.e. the transfer from home a to home b, from home a to business b or from business a to business b.”

I.e. authorities think there should be no public life. In the dreams of these people, citizens would either be in their homes, their cars or privately-owned businesses.

Currently reading Lawrence Lessig’s “The Future of Ideas”, I think they forget about something important. Lessig time and again cites parks as an example for commons: Public space that is meant to serve people to hang around. In times where it has become a common complaint that you have to buy a latte macchiato in order to talk to your acquaintances, I find it worrying when cities try to erase the last free facilities for public life.

In fact, Braunschweig says that you may only assemble publicly when you have something political to say. The flashmobbers could announce a demonstration, but in this case, their picnic would not be granted. A picnic is, in the words of the authorities, “a non-licensable extraordinary use”.

Officially, the city is worried that the picnic may harm public property. It’s highly probable that they fear the flashmob could get out of hand like a recent event where thousands stormed the island of Sylt and indeed caused some damages. But even if this is the case, a simple fear cannot be reason enough to crack down on public life.

I think that we actually need more public life, and we need more gatherings like said flashmob that do not serve any higher means. It is an annual event; in the years before, no more than 70 people showed up. And even if it were some more – what is so worrying about people picnicking together on a public square? The same politicians that complain at length about anti-social behavior seem to have a strange, deep-rooted fear of citizens engaging in public life.

It is a fear of the unorganized character of a flashmob. These people do not understand an event where there are no authorities, where the one who started it does not claim to have a right to command those taking up the idea, where there is no leader assuming responsability, but many citizens that are all responsable for themselves. In one word, flashmobs are just too democratic for these old authorities.