An activist from the Bay Bridge shutdown, photo by Kelly Johnson Revolutionary Photography

#BlackLivesMatter and the new civil disobedience: Is blocking bridges burning bridges?

This Martin Luther King Day weekend, Bay Area activists from the Black Queer Liberation Collective, the Anti-Police Terror Project, and the Last 3% of San Francisco staged 96 Hours of Direct Action. Their goals include the resignation of Oakland’s mayor, the Oakland and San Francisco police chiefs, and officers involved in the shooting deaths of eight people; as well as “the immediate divestment of city funds for policing and investment in sustainable, affordable housing so Black, Brown and Indigenous people can remain in their hometowns of Oakland and San Francisco.”

The actions ranged from a memorial service on Friday afternoon, to showing up at Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s and San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr’s homes, to a peaceful march of several thousand people.

The most well-documented action, of course, occurred Monday afternoon, when 25 activists chained themselves across the Bay Bridge, halting traffic for several hours and ultimately, being arrested.

Since the Internet gives anyone the ability to spout their opinions, we explore this tactic below!

First, a condensed history lesson…

PJ: Historically, civil disobedience directly challenged unjust laws. Schools are segregated? March right in! Government won’t let you make salt? Harvest tons of it! Restaurants won’t serve you? Pull up a seat at the counter!

Erin: Now, laws tend to be less explicitly oppressive, but various institutions still enforce inequality — think of police racially profiling residents, businesses paying women less than men, state governments denying voting rights to folks who can’t afford IDs.

So civil disobedience, though still non-violent against people, now tends to break laws (like trespassing) less directly related to the injustice activists challenge. Activists might chain themselves to a police station, risk arrest taking over a corrupt company’s headquarters…or block the Bay Bridge.

Harvesting salt in defiance of the British Empire
Encountering hate during public school de-segregation

Now, we fight! We know that’s why you’re here.

PJ: My main objection to the bridge blocking is that it was too broad. Most of the people stuck on the bridge were commuting, running errands, or maybe returning from a family vacation. If the only people on the bridge were from the mayor’s office and police officers, it would make sense to shut down the bridge and affect just the decision makers.

But that’s not what happened. A random slice of the American population was dragged into the mayhem. Large swaths of middle- and working-class people were just trying to get to their jobs and go home to their families, but were unjustly thrust into paying the cost of this protest.

Erin: I do feel for the folks on their commutes; a worker might have lost the week’s grocery money because she couldn’t get to her hourly job. (It’s pretty screwed up that we require anyone — outside of first responders — to work on a holiday named after a tremendous champion of workers’ rights.)

I disagree with you about the action being unfocused. Beyond the mayor and police chiefs, we’re all the “targets” of this action. You, me, everyone on the bridge.

This bridge closure forces not just politicians, but the rest of us, to decide where we stand. Does violence against Black folks and gentrification constitute an emergency? Absolutely. Hence, the urgency and “disruption” (suck it, Silicon Valley!) of the bridge closure.

PJ: A worker may have lost his job as well, knowing the precipitous position of hourly workers. If the activists are asking the general population to get “woke” with them, they first need to build empathy. The public must SEE things from the activists’ angle, feel the anger, feel the injustice. Instead, the average undecided person stuck on the bridge had her anger turn towards the movement, instead of the other way around.

One of the major victories of the march in Selma, for instance, was to build public support for civil rights activists. Here, activists are alienating the general public. Movements for social justice need to convert the people who are unconvinced, and by this action you are actually turning them away.

Erin: Is the anger we feel at sitting in traffic comparable to the anger we should feel at 400 years of racism? That should be “mild annoyance” versus “deep seated rage.”

The goal of this action was not “avoid inconveniencing people on the bridge.” Activist Mia Birdsong noted that they chose the bridge specifically because it was “way more disruptive” than other options. The bridge closure made people think and feel uncomfortable — and hopefully not just at the “inconvenience,” but at the injustice.

PJ: The comparison to 400 years of racism, while poetic, rings hollow to Middle America in the context of this action. This is something the activists keep telling themselves, but is not actually registering with the audience. It won’t! How could it?

Imagine yourself walking down the street on your way to work and a protester starts telling you about 400 years of injustice.

Erin: That’s not a scenario I need to “imagine:” I live in Berkeley.

PJ: Hah! The immediate reaction of the general public is mild annoyance, mixed with a propensity to duck and move on. Now, imagine if that protester had blocked the way to work. What would the mild annoyance look like now?

Daily news reports of police brutality and clear visual evidence of injustice has a much stronger effect on even the most apathetic of audiences. Other options for protest that have worked really well before. Picketing in front of the mayor’s house, chaining protestors to the police station, trolling a mayors’ meeting (listen to the camera clicks!) — activists have done these recently, and they’re effective methods of bringing much-needed attention to the issue of racism.

Now, the key would be to scale up these actions, get more people to join your ranks. If I, as your model undecided, un-activist member of the public, saw a thousand people protest the mayor’s office, tens of thousands march to the police station, you would have my full attention.

Erin: Few of the smaller-scale actions brought the massive, national press attention that shutting down the bridge did, however. The protesters built a tremendous amount of political power through this act. They have more leverage to demand a seat at the table. The mayor can’t ignore the activists because damn! Remember how they shut down that bridge?

Civil disobedience shakes up “business as usual.”

PJ: For the record, the lady trolling the mayors meeting did get national attention. Go Her! However, if the plan all along was not to primarily gain public sympathy, but a power play to gain a “seat at the table,” the bridge closing makes more sense.

I would be interested to find out how much leverage the movement will actually have once it is at the table. Why would Mayor Schaaf cede to any of their demands? What incentive does the mayor have in supporting the cause? If she doesn’t, they will close down the bridge again? She can simply order a larger police force to remove the protesters (with more public support this time). However, if the protesters were able to swell their ranks and show up at the mayor’s office with tens of thousands of potential voters, her job would be in trouble. She would be much more inclined to listen to the protesters demands.

Erin: Hopefully, the mayor will respond to the activists because they’ve established they’re a force to be reckoned with. We’ll soon see the efficacy of this particular tactic of bridge closure — which, again, is part of a series of strategic, intentional actions.

PJ: I think civil disobedience is one of the most important tools progressives have. There are effective and ineffective ways of using any tool.

The bridge closing was courageous, provocative, and conspicuous. However, it was an act unjustly (however “mildly”) thrust upon an unsuspecting population to protest deep injustice. This loss of moral high ground and lack of connection to the psychology of the average American ultimately makes this act ineffective. I hope to be proven wrong in the coming days as the mayor reacts, because the protesters are clearly fighting for a just cause.

Erin: Activists are not here to make us comfortable. They’re here to disrupt what is and move us all towards what could be.

I’m incredibly proud to live in a community where people are willing to risk their comfort, safety, and even lives for justice. The very least the rest of us can do is support their good work.