Why Highways Are the Center of America’s Protests

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Black Lives Matter protest shuts down Interstate 35 / Fibonacci Blue

July 13, 2016; Washington Post

“If you can find a way to jam up a highway—literally have the city have a heart attack, blocking an artery—it causes people to stand up and pay attention. Highways still perform their historic role from a half-century ago. They help people move very easily across these elaborately segregated landscapes.”

—Nathan Connolly, historian, Johns Hopkins University

Writing for the Washington Post, Emily Badger reminds us why highways and our transportation systems in general figure so prominently in BLM protests. Across the country, thousands of protesters connected to the Black Lives Matter movement marched on highways and bridges. In the last month, protesters blocked highways in Baltimore, Atlanta, Oakland, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Chicago. These connected images remind us of prior moments in the struggle for racial justice. Badger writes:

Block a highway, and you upend the economic life of a city, as well as the spatial logic that has long allowed people to pass through them without encountering their poverty or problems. Block a highway, and you command a lot more attention than would a rally outside a church or city hall—from traffic helicopters, immobile commuters, alarmed officials.

Protesting on main transportation routes is not new. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s used roads and bridges as well. For example, protesters in the march in Selma used the Edmund Pettus Bridge to travel to Montgomery. These moments are meant to interrupt the status quo—which, let’s face it, has been inadequately protecting the rights of those whom the protestors represent.

“When people disrupt highways and streets, yes, it is about disrupting business as usual,” said Charlene Carruthers, the national director of Black Youth Project 100. “It’s also about giving a visual that folks are willing to put their bodies on the line to create the kind of world we want to live in.”

On July 9th, hundreds protesting the death of Philando Castile started at the Minnesota governor’s mansion and continued onto Interstate 94, blocking the entire highway. Castile, an African American man, was killed on July 6th after his car was pulled over because it had a broken taillight. Through the use of Facebook’s live recording feature, his death captured the attention of millions.

I-94 is an interstate highway built in the 1950s that stretches from Montana to the Great Lakes region. Like all interstate highways, the federal government provides most of the resources used to build and maintain it. Much of the area now covered by the highway was once home to thriving African American communities.

A recent study by the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University identified more than 1,400 Black Lives Matter protests in nearly 300 U.S. and international cities from November 2014 through May 2015. In at least fifty percent, the march shut down highways, bridges, or other transportation infrastructure.

“We systematically show that the political protest today is now almost totally focused on transportation systems, whether it’s a road, a bridge, in some cases a tunnel—rather than buildings,” said Mitchell Moss, the director of the Center and one of the authors of the study.

Today, marches on I-94 and other American highways are symbolic. First, the disruption of the flow of people and commerce is hard to ignore. Second, they connect the protests to the death, which took place during a traffic stop. Third, it reminds society of the thousands of African Americans who were displaced to build these huge byways at taxpayer expense.

America’s history of devastating African-American communities to build highways was the subject of two speeches this March by Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. During the first twenty years of highway development, 475,000 families—over a million people—lost their homes, many of them poor and black. Foxx, an African American, spoke of his home community in Charlotte, which was ripped apart by major highways.

Many cities are coming to terms with this injustice and reintegrating these communities and the city as a whole through the building of new bridges and walking paths. However, the use of highways and other transportation routes by protesters to “stop time” and have us reflect upon unseen but impenetrable barriers is unlikely to stop anytime soon.—Gayle Nelson