The ongoing protests against police violence around the United States have produced a wealth of striking images. Seas of raised hands, hardened expressions, bodies pressed on each other filling roadways and highways normally reserved for traffic. These snapshots taken from Ferguson to Berkeley to New York already look like what history looks like.
But photographers know to point their lenses at things that look like history, and we have seen similar images before — police lines and protest lines and crowds and signs and fires and fights. One image, though, which ricocheted around social media after last week's huge demonstrations in New York uniquely reflected what many of us are daring to feel — that this is something different.
It wasn't a photo, but two rudimentary maps of Manhattan placed next to each other. Road closures were marked out in red. The left-hand map, depicting traffic flows on an average Thursday evening in New York, contained only two red lines, designating congestion on the Brooklyn Bridge. The right-hand map showed traffic flow on the night of the Thursday marches following the announcement that the cop who choked Eric Garner to death was not to be indicted. In that map, the two highways tracing the island's edges were red, the bridges were red, and major avenues and cross streets were red. Manhattan looked like a heart pumping blood — or a blocked heart. A heart attack.
Appropriately, protesters recanted Garner's last words, "I can't breathe," and held the city in a chokehold.
The ongoing wave of protests, catalyzed by the failure to indict Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson but fueled by years of police killing black youth with impunity, is remarkable in size, scope, and resilience. It is sustainable and historic in terms of form. Without central planning — and eschewing the defanged respectability politics of elder statesman and politicians calling for calm — these protests have again and again shared the aim, crystallized in a hashtag, to #ShutItDown. As L.A. Kauffman pointed out in The Baffler, protesters have in the past, "used their bodies to block bridges, tunnels, intersections, and roadways," but the amount of "spontaneous and simultaneous disruptive action" we are seeing now is unprecedented.
Indeed, in late 2011 when more than 700 Occupy Wall Street participants blocked the Brooklyn Bridge, it made headlines around the country. I was there and felt that weighted rush of something significant happening as, for just a few hours, bodies disrupted the ordinary flows on that great stone artery above the East River.
That was a few hours on one drizzling October afternoon. Nightly, now, something major is blocked, regularly at the same time — the I-93 entrance in Boston, the 110 Freeway in LA, I-80 in Berkeley, and every major highway, bridge, and tunnel in and out of lower Manhattan. During this dedicated #WeekOfOutrage, the disruption can be expected to continue, even escalate.
Blocking infrastructure turns a demonstration of collective anger into a manifestation. Planned and permitted protest parades, however large, are folded into the ordinary metabolism of city business. March routes are delineated; traffic, while slowed, is smoothly redirected and at the end of the day, traffic and commerce buzzes along as if nothing ever happened. The largest climate march in history was held in Manhattan in September and amounted to little more than a grand parade. Parades are scheduled in the city every year. Disruptions, by definition, are not.
When large enough and repeated often enough, disruption to urban choke points cannot be swept away or managed, even by vast police forces well-trained in the implementation of "Move along, please." Whether or not you consider yourself involved in the struggle against police violence and for black lives mattering, you will become involved — your commute will take hours, your train will be stopped, protesters will flood outside the basketball game you're watching, where players may have donned I can't breathe t-shirts. Of course, we were all already involved in a system that systematically allowed cops to harass, beat, and kill young black people (and others) without consequence. But when entire cities are disrupted in response, no one can look away (or that's the idea, at least). Things fall apart; the center cannot.
To talk about end games and concrete aims in these protests is to talk too soon. There are many groups who want reform packages or justice in the form of prosecuted cops, but there is broad understanding that police brutality and racism is a deep-seated structural problem that will not be solved with a few symbolic court cases and policy tweaks. Disruptive protests are thus a means and an end, because a disruption — a rupture — is the least necessary in a system so rotten. Anyone who is bothered by disruption to normal services in their cities is on the wrong side of history — the side of history that has accepted as normal deaths like those of Garner, Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Ezell Ford, Darrien Hunt, and John Crawford (and I'm just listing some very recent examples).
At its most effective, disruptive protest forces to the fore that old rebellious question, "Which side are you on?" Disrupt or have your day disrupted. Either way, services must not return to normal.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard