"My uncle was arrested another time—did I tell you?--for being a pedestrian.” -- Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
On September 26, 2017, anti-fascism protesters walked onto Highway 101 in Los Angeles during rush hour and blocked all the lanes of traffic for 20 minutes. They held up signs which read “Nov 4 It Begins”, announcing the November 4th anti-Trump protests which just recently took place. The group received threats online, including from motorists who threatened to run them over.
This has become par for the course. Over the last several years, I have noticed that some of the strongest reactions to protests are in response to protesters blocking traffic.
When commerce is holy ...
Many Republican legislators seem to share the sentiment. This year, Republicans in many states have been pushing legislation that would criminalize protests, especially if the protests interfere with traffic or commerce. Republican legislators in 20 states have proposed new restrictions on the right to assemble and protest so far this year, and 6 have passed.
In North Dakota, House Bill 1203 would have allowed motorists to run down protesters and other pedestrians if they obstruct vehicular traffic. Similar bills were introduced in Tennessee and Florida. Such bills are especially disturbing in light of the vehicular homicide of Heather Heyer, Virginia earlier this year, when a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, VA. Fortunately, North Dakota’s House bill 1203 bill was defeated, but four other bills placing increased restrictions on protests have been passed in the state.
In Washington, a proposed law would create a new crime called “economic terrorism, which would criminalize protests which cause "economic disruption". A similar bill was introduced in North Carolina.
If the intent of these laws is not clear, consider Republican South Dakota Representative Lynne DiSanto’s post of an illustration that showed a truck driving into protesters which reads: “Nobody cares about your protest. Keep your ass out of the road.” DiSanto added, “I think this is a movement we can all support. #alllivessplatter.” Or consider Republican Pennsylvania Representative Aaron Bernstine, who tweeted the following, while sharing a news story about St. Louis protests: “If anyone EVER tries to stop my car on a highway with negative intentions… I will not stop under any conditions.”
... free speech is the sacrificial lamb.
In my home state of Indiana, a bill was introduced which would require the police to remove protesters from the streets “by any means necessary.” Indiana Sen. Rick Niemeyer, who is from my own district, voted in favor of the bill, explaining "You have emergency vehicles out there, people trying to get to work, people trying to pick their kids up and it's a violation of the constitutional rights of the people that are on the road."
It seems someone needs to explain to Senator Niemeyer that people don’t actually have a constitutional right to drive on the road, but protesters do have a constitutional right to assemble. But in Senator Neimeyer’s upside down world, commerce is holy and free speech is a sacrificial lamb.
What’s going on here?
On one level, this is the standard response of the establishment to change. Similar anti-protest measures were passed in the South during the Civil Rights Era and also during the labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And in recent years, populist mobilizations have got political and economic elites running for cover.
But there is also something deeper going on here, something to do with the act of blocking traffic. It’s striking that many Americans seem to have so internalized the ethos of consumer capitalism that they now are more concerned about interference with their “right” to shop than with their actual Constitutional rights. In many cases, protesters blocking traffic seems to cause more outrage than the actual murder of black men and women or the destruction of our planet’s capacity to sustain life.
Why is that?
“But people need to drive to work.”
I suggest that it is because the seemingly benign act of blocking traffic is actually far more powerful than it appears at first glance. Consider, if you will, all that is required for you to drive your car to work:
First, roads have to be built, which involves the felling of trees, the flattening of land, the diversion of streams. Massive amounts of asphalt (which is petroleum tar) are applied to the ground. Oil has to be mined from the earth through various and increasingly destructive methods, and then transported long distances, which involves burning that oil. Legislation is then passed which allows these industries to socialize the costs of their business while privatizing the profits.
Then, vehicles have to be built, from plastics (also petroleum) and energy intensive steel, and then transported long distances to markets, advertised, purchased using loans. Those loans are made possible through government bailouts to car companies and other lending institutions which are deemed “too big to fail”.
Then we drive to work. Many of us drive, instead of walking or biking, because zoning laws make it impossible for us many of us to work close to where we live, and public transportation is often inadequate. Because of that distance, we also eat at more fast food restaurants, which pumps our veins with gross quantities of factory farmed meat, monoculture farmed carbohydrates, and massive quantities of high fructose corn syrup. All of this requires massive quantities of pesticides and fertilizer, which often contains petrochemicals, as well as legislation to prop up these industries.
Now add in the fact that, if you are a person of color, there is virtual war being carried against you on by a racist police and court system—a war which takes often place on our streets and highways.
All of this is maintained and perpetuated by a political system. That political system criminalizes blocking traffic--with increasingly harsher penalties in states with Republican controlled legislatures. But these new bills are just part of an entire upside-down system in which the the movement of cars is deemed to be more important that the lives of forests, animals, and even human beings, and in which the profit derived from automobiles and the associated industries is deemed to be more important that the survival of the very planet.
How standing in the street can be revolutionary
This contradiction is highlighted in the act of blocking traffic.
“But people need to drive to work,” you may be thinking. So much is contained in that response, so many unstated assumptions and unexamined value judgments. The seemingly innocuous phrase “going to work” obscures an entire system which is killing people and quite literally destroying our world.
That’s why blocking traffic is a revolutionary act. It literally forces people to stop. It forces the whole system to stop, even if just for a few minutes and in a limited geographical area. And by stopping, there is at least an opportunity to consider, to consider what the costs of our participation in this economic and political system are.
The point is not to stop people from driving to work (though it would be nice if the system didn’t require us to do that). The point is to get people to consider how even seemingly benign acts, like driving to work, are part of an incredibly destructive and violent system. And also to see how seemingly simple acts, like standing in the street, can interrupt that system. Our economic and political systems will not be changed by individuals giving up driving to work. They can only be changed by completely reconsidering our value systems and the many things we take for granted. That begins with getting people to stop.
Yes, blocking traffic inconveniences people. That’s the point. Social change is never convenient.
And, yes, blocking traffic upsets people. That’s also the point. “But surely angering people won’t make them sympathetic to your cause,” you may be thinking. You’d be right. Angry people will not be sympathetic. But neither will somnambulant people. Getting angry is the first step to waking up.
In fact, I would suggest that the people who are most angered by protesters blocking traffic are closer to understanding than those who just blithely put their car in park and turn to their cell phones. People who are most angered by protesters blocking traffic at least seem to have an unconscious sense of how threatening the act of blocking traffic is to the existing social order.
If we are to bring about real change—political, economic, social, and ecological change—then a lot more people will need to be inconvenienced. A lot more people will need to be made angry. A lot more cars will need to be stopped. A lot more commerce will need to be slowed. And a lot more people will need to wake up from the dream of business as usual.
Note: This essay was inspired by a talk given by anarchist bard, Rhyd Wildermuth, entitled “Witches in a Crumbling Empire”.