As the country recoiled Monday night from the injustice of the non-indictment in Ferguson, something genuinely new happened. At first, here in Philadelphia, it was like any other of the sickeningly familiar outpourings of grief and anger that have motivated people into the streets before, with a large mass of people starting at City Hall and parading through the major streets of Center City: Broad, Market, South, Arch.
But then, as the marchers reached Old City, the protestors advanced onto an on-ramp to I-95, forcing Philadelphia Police to throw up a barricade at the top of the ramp. There is a large tangle of ramps in that area connecting local streets to I-95, I-676, and the Ben Franklin Bridge, so there were plenty of access points, but the PPD successfully managed to keep the protestors off the highway mainlines. This in contrast to what happened simultaneously in St. Louis, where protesters shut down I-44; New York, where marchers shut down the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Triboro bridges; Seattle, where demonstrators shut down I-5; and Los Angeles, where I-10 and CA-110 were both shut down.
By the time dusk fell over America Tuesday night, the practice of invading or attempting to invade limited-access highways, had spread to protests in dozens of cities, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Durham, Minneapolis, Nashville, Oakland, Providence, Portland, and San Diego, to list the ones I could find news stories about in three minutes of Googling.
Blocking highways is a rarity in the arsenal of political protest in the United States, although it is more common in countries like France, and has played a critical part in the Occupy Central protests this year in Hong Kong. The experience from abroad shows that highway blockades are very effective at getting attention and achieving change. And now that it’s suddenly a nationwide phenomenon here, people are trying to wrap their heads around what it means.
The first thing to say is to reiterate a point Stephen J. Smith made on Twitter Tuesday night: “Reminder to urbanists watching highways being shut down: sometimes it’s not about you.” Nothing that follows should diminish the fact that the protests of the last two nights have been primarily about systemic racism, excessive force by police, and a judicial system rigged (with the consent of STL County voters) to make sure that Officer Darrell Wilson and those like him escape accountability for their actions. Those are important things, and it’s critical to not lose sight of them.
But sometimes, it’s about more than one thing, and there has to be a strong suspicion that this has become such a widespread tactic because of the resonances it holds with the particular case. Michael Brown was on foot, Officer Wilson was in a patrol car, and their initial encounter was a conflict over the extent to which the street is a public space. While walkable cities are certainly not immune to racism or high-handed policing, the particular sins of the Ferguson Police after the shooting seem alien to anyone whose mental model of bad, racist police comes from the NYPD, or even the LAPD. Charles Marohn’s article from August, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, points out that Ferguson is a town that is architected around the car, in a way that is guaranteed to immiserate its residents and turn its government against them. And in general, the message that things need to change seems to be more urgently directed at suburban drivers than urbanites, and the easiest way for urban residents to get that message in front of their faces is when they’re in their cars. The highway, unlike their homes in driving-only suburbs, is accessible.
The backlash has already started, at least if the comment section cesspools of local newspapers and TV stations are any indication, but backlash strongly implies that the strength of the protestors’ distress is coming through. In one incident, a driver in Minneapolis plowed through a crowd (on local streets), and there are already calls for that particular act of terrorism to be repeated. The thesis being presented, is that the ability of car traffic to flow freely is more important than any exercise of the freedoms of speech or assembly. (This is a related fallacy to the Ferguson PD’s assertion that, much as a shark must keep swimming to survive, the First Amendment stops working for anyone standing still.) I don’t know whether it’s my American identity or my humanity that recoils more at this sort of bullshit, but I do know that it should be strenuously fought, until a clear consensus has been established that this kind of thinking is immoral and vile. You’d think that this would go without saying, but apparently we aren’t there yet as a society.
So, going forward, what should aspiring blockaders keep in mind? A few things, starting with the fact that it is a hazardous action, even before considering those who would deliberately ram you. All of the successful incursions I’ve read about have also involved a handful of arrests. It’s more effective to set up a preliminary blockade with vehicles first, and then move pedestrians into the empty zone in front. A moving blockade, where a line of cars across all lanes slow down to 20 mph or so, might be more achievable at times like rush hour, but requires more in the way of pre-planning and co-ordination. And lastly, it’s not necessary to actually reach the road; if you simply force the police to close the road, or all of the ramps to local streets in the inner core, in order to contain your credible threat of incursion, that’s as good as blocking it yourself. I’m sure other tactical suggestions will surface in comments.
As I wrote on Twitter Monday night, this is a new reality in America, and I’m sure that, as a society, like with all new things, we will deal with its arrival very badly. But the genie is out of the bottle now, and even if we were inclined to put it back in, which we shouldn’t be, we couldn’t.