After the vigil, I started thinking about different forms of organized resistance in the past, especially in the South, wondering if there are any useful precedents for a strategy today. In addition to slave revolts, historians have shown how enslaved people performed more subtle forms of everyday resistance, such as work slow-downs, that cut into the profit margins of the masters. You could also read the Great Migration of the 1910s and 1920s as a kind of mass resistance—a laying down of tools and a refusal to work under Jim Crow’s constant threat of the noose. In the 1930s, there were massive textile and other industrial strikes across the South, so much so that the Communist Party realized that to “turn left” you had to “head South” (predictably many of these ended in vigilante murders). The strategies of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s are probably more familiar: sit-ins, voter registration drives, nonviolent marches, and more.
In every case, these were acts that struck at the pocketbooks of whites in power, as the brutal retaliations in each instance demonstrate. But how much would these strategies work today?
The United States is an oligarchy, as proven clearly by democracy’s utter failure in Ferguson. And the vast majority of politicians—our first black President included—are all snuggled deep in those corporate pockets. So is the mainstream media. So what could be done to strike at the pocketbooks of the corporate oligarchy in such a way that will make the news?
I think activists in New York and Oakland and Washington DC have found one fantastic answer. They have marched out to the highways, interstates, subways, and bridges to stop traffic and “Shut It Down.” I’m a literature professor. I’m certainly not an organizer, and even less a strategist. But to me this has the feel of a winning strategy.
How do corporations thrive? From people buying their products. But we would need a critical mass of people to stop buying those products before the corporations would even notice the boycott. Strikes are happening all across America, but they barely receive much notice in the news.
How else do corporations thrive? By getting their goods from one place to another and by getting the workers into the cities from the suburbs. Mobility is essential to capitalism. So let’s Shut It Down. Block the Highways. Block the Bridges. Block the Deliveries. Block the Commuters. Let’s have a Movement to stop the movement of people and goods. Let’s have a Non-Movement Movement.
One thing that all of these shootings demonstrate is that white, corporate America is deadly afraid of black and brown mobility: “illegal aliens” crossing borders; hooded teenagers walking through middle-class neighborhoods; stranded motorists stepping onto someone’s porch to ask for help; young people playing loud music as they pull into a parking lot; young men walking in the street instead of on the sidewalk; black people simply “driving while black.”
In 21-st century America, power is mobility, and mobility is power. Why do you think “pro-business” Republicans are so vehemently opposed to the democratizing potential of high-speed rail and public transportation—even though studies have proven that high-speed rail can be a massive engine for economic growth? Why do you think New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered revenge on his political opponents (I suppose I should say “allegedly ordered”) by shutting down a bridge at rush hour? Why do you think laws meant to curtail voting rights have tied the franchise to the driver’s license?
So, if mobility is power, it seems logical that one way to disrupt power is to disrupt the establishment’s control of mobility. Shut It Down. Block the Highways. Block the Bridges. Block the Deliveries. Block the Commuters.
Blocking streets inside a city causes frustration, but stopping traffic on the highways and interstates threatens the lifeblood of capitalism. If the delivery trucks and commuters can’t get into the city or out of it, if traffic comes to a standstill because there are hundreds of people standing in the interstates and the onramps and offramps, you can guarantee that people will notice. And they won’t be happy. Do it once and the corporate news might not cover it. Do it over and over, and they will. Do it enough times and in enough places, and pretty soon the corporations and their politicians and security forces might finally acknowledge that they have to start listening.
Put enough people on the highways to block traffic, and the police will have trouble arresting everybody. And even if they do arrest everybody, they still have to hold up traffic even longer just to clear the road. Critical mass brings extra time and extra visibility.
Strikes, boycotts, and sit-ins are important. But Shutting It Down strikes me as a strategy with 21st-century fluidity and flexibility.
Watching the TV news on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I saw three things: Protestors looting in Ferguson (read: too much black mobility is a threat to property); Black Friday sales (with no irony about how “black” might sound right now); and “the busiest travel day of the year” (the gas-fueled mobility we love to hate and have no other way to fix than to stay home).
If I were more of an organizer and an activist, I’d have a better sense of the dangers, legalities, and logistics for organizing a flash mob and Shutting It All Down. But I know there are other people who can do it. They’re already doing it. They’re Shutting It Down. Block the Highways. Block the Bridges. Block the Deliveries. Block the Commuters.
The first step of changing discriminatory policies is getting heard. And getting heard in a corporate climate is hard thing to do. For our first step, let’s cause a great big national traffic jam. Then maybe the powers that be will start listening. And then maybe it will become easier to organize for more practical change.