Whose Streets? Our Streets.

Content advisory: this post contains reference to police violence.

Baton Rouge, four days after a police officer fatally shot a subdued Alton Sterling: protestors take to the streets to demand justice in the name of yet another black man executed by the state. Police warn protestors not to walk in the street. There are no sidewalks. Prominent activist DeRay McKesson is arrested, along with a hundred or so other protestors.

Jane Jacob’s Death and Life forewarns of the gradual erosion of public spaces, and ultimately the privatization of social spaces. Similarly, the public spaces that remain have since trended towards the exclusion of those who have not purchased membership into the club of automobile ownership—in a sense, its own form of privatizing public space.

Public spaces like Times Plaza, at the crossroads of Flatbush, Atlantic, and 4th Avenues in Brooklyn, provide an opportunity for strangers to spontaneously meet and discuss civic issues

Aside from removing a vital component of human social interaction, the arguably more insidious aspect of this trend is the removal of lawful outlets for political demonstration. All social change is rooted in a certain critical mass of supporters—a feat which is far more difficult to accomplish as cities decentralize and social spaces are relegated to private homes and establishments in lieu of public squares. As integral as social media has been to political movements like the Arab Spring or Black Lives Matter, neither would have been likely to materialize without the sheer mass of bodies gathering in places like Cairo’s Tahrir Square or New York’s Union Square, respectively.

Today in the United States, reclaiming these public spaces for the public is doubly criminalized. First, should you have the chutzpah to walk on your streets’ traveled way—say, for lack of adequate sidewalks or pedestrian crossings—you may face the ire of law enforcement for the crime of infringing upon the exclusive domain of the automobile. This is especially true if racial bias leaves one predisposed towards police encounters. Such was the tragic case of Michael Brown, whose fatal encounter with law enforcement was precipitated by his walking in the traveled way of an otherwise empty suburban street. And secondly, should you then choose to protest these unjust encounters by taking to the streets, you will again be arrested for infringing on the sacrosanct right of motorists to travel unimpeded by those pesky pedestrians. Never mind that the hundreds of protestors may outnumber some dozens of motorists; it is now well established precedent that convenient motor vehicle egress supersedes democratic political demonstration.

It is also worth mentioning the form that arguments against gathering in the street often take. They tend to condemn the selfishness of protestors for inconveniencing hard-working (read: white) Americans, and will often invoke some feigned nostalgia for a whitewashed version of Martin Luther King Jr., who “never would have blocked traffic.” This claim is, of course, demonstrably false:

Yet the irony is lost on most commenters that in condemning today’s protestors while praising their erroneous conception of MLK, they are in fact perfectly mimicking the accusations seen in his own hate mail. Ultimately, it must be understood that then as now, the eradication of racial injustice is vastly more important than the uninterrupted flow of motor vehicles.

Ending police violence and achieving racial justice are perhaps the defining socio-political endeavors of our time. I will be the first to admit that my personal interests in transportation and urban planning are subordinate to the larger goal of racial justice. However, there is most certainly an intersection between the two that I hope to further understand and explore. From obvious connections, like housing discrimination, racial segregation, redlining, white flight, urban renewal, and highway construction, to more subtle ones like the decentralization of urban areas, segregated land uses, and minimum parking requirements: urban transportation planning has had a strong hand in perpetuating inequality. My hope is that we may now have an even stronger hand in ending it. We might start by reasserting the public’s ownership of our public spaces, and by demanding our rights on our rights-of-way.

Author’s Note:

As a cis, straight, white man, I cannot directly experience the oppression suffered by so many of my fellow citizens. I sincerely hope that my discussing these extremely sensitive issues is understood as complementing, not coopting, this incredibly crucial and complex topic. But if you believe that I have failed in this regard, please let me know either by email or in the comments. 

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