Monday, December 1, 2014

The Inconvenient Truth About Blocking Traffic (And Other Kinds of Protests)

Last week I was meeting up with some friends in downtown LA to watch the Clippers game. Per usual traffic was crazy, but it was a little more busy than usual around the 110/10 freeway. As I pulled closer, I realized there was a protest stopping traffic. It was an inconvenience. To be honest, in a city where traffic is already horrendous, it was an extremely unwelcome one. But at most, I'll call it an inconvenience.

A few years ago, a friend of mine was at my house and we were having girl chat. This friend was pregnant and suddenly, without warning, she felt sharp pains in her abdomen and began bleeding. We hopped into the car and headed for the hospital. Just a few blocks from my house, we encountered a police checkpoint and had to pull over. The police officer asked us a few questions and was moving at a maddeningly slow pace for a few minutes until in frustration I yelled "My friend is pregnant and we think's something wrong, we have to get to the hospital now." Thankfully, he let us go. This was more than an inconvenience; it was a critical interference in a medical emergency which we later learned was a miscarriage. While unintentional, it is a symptom of what happens when transportation is stopped.

After the murder of Michael Brown and the failure of the grand jury to indict Darren Wilson, demonstrations have taken many forms - boycotts of Black Friday, marches at police departments, silent vigils, and as I mentioned above - the blocking of traffic. Most notably, traffic on 395 in DC was brought to a complete standstill as protesters formed a human chain on the highway.

Since then, debates have arisen about the value of these protests. Some say "We stop traffic to bring attention to our cause and to start the conversation about police brutality/racism/social injustice. It's a mere inconvenience for a greater cause." Others say "Get out of the way; I just want to go home and all you're doing is making me angry!"

Left: Black Panthers at Seattle Capitol Steps | Right: Black Panthers providing breakfast
Both sides have merit. I believe that there is a duality to bringing about social change that requires radical elements (e. g. The Black Panthers very visibly arming themselves) as well as practical tools (e.g. the Black Panthers providing free breakfast to young children). For that reason, I applaud the  sacrifice of citizens that drive people to the polls as well as the bravery of protesters willing to dangerously step out in traffic in the name of what they believe.

However, my respect for that bravery does not extend into a full-throated endorsement. It takes a certain kind of arrogance to assume that stopping traffic is merely an inconvenience. When there isn't a clear line between your actions and the result you want, often those actions become dramatic displays of your emotions/feelings versus strategic methods yielding favorable results. When I discussed this with a friend he said "I'm not in a moral position to express how oppressed people express their rage or react to dehumanization." When I suggested that stopping traffic may not be the best use of people's time and energy, he responded "[Your opinion] comes from a high and mighty, armchair activist standpoint."

Fair points. But history suggests I may be on to something. We all know about the famous Selma march and the Birmingham boycotts led by MLK. We all know about the radical move to ask middle aged women to walk for miles to tiring jobs as domestic workers to protest segregation on buses. What we don't all know is the practical side. In "Why We Can't Wait", MLK outlines how it took over a year for them to decide to boycott in Birmingham. There were meetings, detailed plans, an end goal, and a demonstrated commitment from a community working together to effect change. In short, they used practical efforts to affect radical change to the system. The genius of that is often overshadowed in movies and Black History Month vignettes that focus on America's obsession with the concept of nonviolence. (TaNehisi Coates quips, "American society's affection for nonviolence is notional.")

So you may say "Well that may all be fair and true, but why are you so critical of the protesters versus the unjust system and its perpetrators?" Well, it's because I don't care about the system in the way I care about the communities who are recipients of injustice. These communities fighting and protesting are where my heart lies. I want these communities to win and they are the ones that lose on their way to their second job, or to take care of their children or an ailing parent, or maybe even some kind of medical emergency when they are sidelined by traffic. In all honesty, this post isn't even really critical of traffic stoppers; it's critical of those who both dismiss it by calling it a "mere inconvenience" while also elevating the conversations it allegedly creates as a healing type of town hall meeting and Kumbaya moment.

That is simply false. It is neither an inconvenience or a positive jump start to conversations on race relations. I'm not seeing the direct line between preventing a mother with two screaming toddlers in the back from getting home at a reasonable hour to preventing police brutality. Does it start a conversation? Sure. But I'm not convinced a profanity-laced conversation about traffic is a fruitful one. And that is the inconvenient truth of inconvenient traffic stops and other reactive measures.

If we want change, let's look to the example of those who created it in the past. There's no need to reinvent the wheel. If stopping traffic is your form of radical protest, I won't get in your way (even though you are literally in mine). But I will ask, so what's next? What's the plan? What's the goal? And how will we get there?