In Protests, Who Owns The Highways?
The typical American highway is no place for a person on foot. It is really not a place at all.
These roads exist entirely outside of the human context, designed for the accommodation of cars and trucks that carry men, women, and children inside at high speed, and yet have their own brutal mechanical needs, wholly incompatible with flesh and blood.
That was what made the images of last week’s protest on the road known as the Atlanta Downtown Connector so jarring. A few dozen individuals, including members of the group Southerners on New Ground, walked out onto that roadway and laid down a banner reading “#BlackLivesMatter.” This was one of several actions around the country protesting police violence and mass incarceration, and expressing solidarity with those who have been demonstrating in Ferguson, Missouri, over the killing of black teenager Michael Brown by white policeman Darren Wilson.
“These are just some ordinary folks who are sick and tired of being criminalized, overpoliced, the mass incarceration,” organizer Mary Hooks told WSB-TV. “Ordinary people get fed up. Ordinary people need to be heard.”
The protesters blocked traffic on I-75/85, one of Atlanta’s major commuter routes, for only a short time, but they managed to get the attention of the drivers who rely on that route before the police cleared them from the roadway without making any arrests.
Reaction to the protest was decidedly mixed among Atlantans, with some people going on Twitter to criticize the action with comments such as, “I support the protests in #Ferguson, but why are they shutting down a highway in Atlanta so that BLACK folks can’t get home from work?” and “Look, I get standing in solidarity w/ #Ferguson, but #Atlanta traffic is already bad. So yeah, if you’re stuck in that, I’m POd w/ you.”
Blocking city streets has been an urban protest tactic since there were urban protests. In the European revolutions of 1848, barricades made out of stones and other construction material became the front lines in cities around the continent, where great masses of ordinary people rebelled against the old social order. Almost 200 years later, during the Occupy movement, the old standby chant of “Whose streets? Our streets!” became ubiquitous once again. In Hong Kong, the blocking of city streets by pro-democracy protesters has caused frustration among many residents, and even sparked violent backlash.
Blocking major roads in the United States, however, is much more rare. Most notably, the Selma to Montgomery marches that were pivotal in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s used U.S. Route 80, a move that was upheld in a ruling by Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. His opinion was deeply controversial at the time: “The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups,” said the judge, “and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways.”
Ever since Mike Brown was shot in early August, tension over who can use the streets and sidewalks—and how—has been high. That question may have in fact been fundamental to the shooting itself. Ferguson police have said Darren Wilson initially confronted Brown because he was walking in the street instead of the sidewalk. “[Wilson’s] initial contact [with Brown… was related to blocking the road,” Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson said a few days after the shooting.
Jim Dalrymple II, who covered the Ferguson story for BuzzFeed, wrote extensively about what the streets of the city are like on the physical level last month. He described West Florissant, the focal point of the protests, this way:
There’s fractured asphalt, a mishmash of strip malls, and treeless sidewalks that fade gradually into busy lanes of traffic. There are good things happening on the street—shops, restaurants, passionate people—but as a physical space it’s indistinct, more like a scorched concrete field than a focused boulevard.
And yet, for much of August the street morphed into a dynamic, if sometimes violent, civic gathering space. It became a kind of public square, which is surprising because other recent protest movements have been tied to spaces that were already intentionally civic: the Egyptian revolution in Tahrir Square; the Ukrainian revolution in Independence Square; Occupy in Zuccotti Park.
But there is no equivalent space in Ferguson. Not even close.
The same could be said of many, if not most, American communities. It’s certainly true of large parts of Atlanta, where people are completely dependent on cars to get them from one human-scale spot to another—say, from home to work. In between are the non-places that have come to constitute huge swaths of our nation. When the highways of Atlanta were covered in ice by a storm last winter, thousands of commuters were stranded in these in-between places. Some of them sheltered in their cars for hours, not daring to venture out. Others sought safety in fast-food restaurants or stores, if they could reach them. All of a sudden, people were confronted with the fact that they spent much of their day traversing terrain that is fundamentally unfriendly and unsafe—and profoundly unknown—if you are not in a car.
The protesters who willingly ventured out onto such a roadway last week disrupted more than traffic. They challenged the idea that highways exist somehow outside of us, in a theoretical space that doesn’t have to do with human interaction, with people’s words and faces and feelings. They made the invisible visible. They demanded that, if only for a moment, we stop and look at where we are. In that way, what they did was truly radical.