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Is Shutting Down the Bay Bridge a Smart Way to Protest, or Is It Counterproductive?

The case for the nuisance protest.

Yesterday's protest, by Black.Seed, shut down all westbound lanes of the Bay Bridge for 30 minutes, and caused backups into the early evening.


Yesterday’s shutdown of the Bay Bridge’s westbound lanes by Black Lives Matter protesters touched off a mini-firestorm on social media over the legitimacy of the organizers’ tactics. Angry Twitter users engaged in name calling and posted, in one case, a list of charges the protesters should face. On Facebook, a KQED commenter groused, “I support the movement but when they interfere with the RIGHTS of the general public, many of whom are SYMPATHETIC with their cause, it is wrong. The surest way to make enemies is to affect the daily lives of people who are in support.”

After local activists’ 96 hours of protests over the long weekend—from waking up Police Chief Suhr to shouting down the mayor at his Martin Luther King, Jr, Day speech—it’s a fair question: Can’t civil unrest be, well, civil? Can we not advance the cause of social justice while letting everyone get on with their day? And doesn’t pissing off fellow citizens undermine the movement’s lofty goals?

“Everyone has that question on the brain: Are these tactics effective?” says Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice and a member of Black Lives Matter Bay Area. Her answer is yes—but only as part of a larger strategy that includes civil disobedience (that is, breaking laws to show they are unjust) and public unrest, alongside long-term community organizing. The goal, says Cyril, is to force a public conversation about issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

For instance: Without the public attention activists brought to the Chicago police’s fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald in 2014, his case might not have remained in the spotlight long enough to bring the video of his killing to light. “The video was released as a result of the work of fine investigative journalists, and the larger public pressure put on the issue,” says Cyril.

For Cat Brooks, a Black Lives Matter leader and cofounder of the Anti-Police-Terror Project, highway blockades and other in-your-face tactics are as useful today as lunch-counter sit-ins and bus boycotts were in the 1950s. But what’s effective changes with the times, she says. “I don’t think that four years ago shutting down a freeway would have had the same impact,” says Brooks. “There wasn’t a national conversation about police violence. And shutting down freeways might not be effective in two years.”

The connection between worsening rush-hour traffic and inspiring social change may seem tenuous at best. But unless they interrupt business as usual, activists are not going to get the sustained attention they want to tackle deep-seated issues, says Kandace Montgomery, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis. In November, Montgomery was arrested, along with 50 other protesters, when they blockaded Interstate 94 following the police shooting of Jamar Clark days before. “If we aren’t shutting down highways, if we aren’t making thousands of white people angry for demanding justice, the governor doesn’t pay attention to us,” says Montgomery. “Before our actions this year, he and the mayor weren’t looking at inequity when comes to the black community.”

Commuters and airport riders from San Francisco to Minneapolis to Boston have to deal with these hassles, in other words, because we’re so bad at making progress without them. If activists stopped their actions, says Cyril, an important tool would be lost: “You’d basically have Los Angeles in 1992”—the year of the riots over the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police. “That has happened before,” she says, “and it doesn’t produce a whole lot of change. There’s some sense of hope in the beginning, but without the other pieces of strategy, that’s all that exists.”

As disruptive as a highway or BART blockade is, it also happens to be a nonlethal way of keeping a systemic social issue in the news. If the other choice is to wait for the next officer-involved shooting to push for change, then the battle really is being lost. “The reality is, had Mario Woods simply been killed, the story is over,” says Cyril. “If no resistance had happened as result—if there was no disruption—that story would have been gone within a week or two.”


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