The Right to Yell

By Paul Steely White, Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives

I have a confession: I yell at drivers all the time. I yell when they come too close to my daughter Anna when we’re biking to school, or when they don’t stop for me in the crosswalk.

In March, a postman named Glen Grays did what I do all the time. Stepping out of his mail truck, he was nearly sideswiped — a scary close call — and he yelled at the driver.

Since I’m a white guy, what happens when I shout at a driver (absolutely nothing) is not what happened to Mr. Grays. He was arrested, even though he was in uniform, in the middle of his route, and had done nothing wrong — besides being black and upset at the callous disregard he received from a driver who happened to be a police officer.

I imagine it was terrible, mortifying and enraging for Mr. Grays. I certainly felt all those things when I read the story in the newspaper. I want to live in a city where you are allowed to be outraged when someone endangers your life, where you can yell at a reckless driver, regardless of your race, or the status of the person behind the wheel.

I want to live in a city where you are allowed to be outraged when someone endangers your life, where you can yell at a reckless driver, regardless of your race, or the status of the person behind the wheel.

A few weeks before Mr. Grays was arrested, Transportation Alternatives hosted the second-ever Vision Zero Cities Conference, a three-day gathering at NYU of people from around the world working to reduce traffic fatalities. For the event, an old friend came to town, an urban planner from Mexico City who, on the weekends, likes to put on a luchador mask and yell at dangerous drivers. He calls himself Peatónito, or “little pedestrian,” even though he’s large and kind of intimidating when he pushes cars out of the crosswalk.

While he was in town, I took Peatónito to Times Square, and he went out to Corona, Queens, with some TransAlt activists and Clarence Eckerson from Streetfilms. When the man in a wrestling mask started yelling at drivers, others followed his lead; it was remarkable to watch (and you can, just search Google for “Peatónito + Streetfilms”). He shined a light on what drivers were doing wrong, and people walking by felt permission to get mad and yell, too.

Later that same week, New York Police Department Commissioner William Bratton was scheduled to give opening remarks at the Vision Zero Cities Conference. When I first announced that Commissioner Bratton was speaking, a lot of my friends called to yell at me. I understood: Stories like that of Mr. Grays are too common under the watch of our current police commissioner, and his Vision Zero efforts have been lackluster at best. But I thought if we gave him the microphone, he would be forced to present a better face, or a bigger plan, or some new way that he hoped to make traffic safety a priority for his officers.

I thought if we gave him the microphone, he would be forced to present a better face, or a bigger plan, or some new way that he hoped to make traffic safety a priority for his officers.

I was wrong.

Instead of outlining a plan to get Vision Zero back on course, Bratton questioned the very foundations of Vision Zero, refused to consider increasing the number of crash investigations, and, contradicting his own mayor and department, who have instilled prevention in their own powerful vernacular, insisted on sticking with the outmoded term “accident.” Luckily, cameras were rolling.

Our response was swift, and because the room was full of press, later that day a pack of reporters asked Mayor de Blasio to explain Bratton’s undermining remarks. The Mayor was forced to acknowledge the dissonance between him and his commissioner, but he reiterated his commitment to real Vision Zero.

After Mr. Grays’ arrest and release, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams decried the incident at a press conference with the postal worker’s family. Because, luckily, someone on the street recorded what happened on their phone, Police Commissioner Bratton was pressured to express his disappointment in the officers, stripping the NYPD lieutenant who arrested Mr. Grays of his badge and gun.

I’ve always been struck by a quote from former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” he wrote in a 1913 Harper’s Weekly article titled “What Publicity Can Do.”

Bringing outrageous views out into the open is a critical first step on the road to making change.

Bringing outrageous views out into the open is a critical first step on the road to making change. Sometimes sunlight is shaking your fist, sometimes it’s getting it on camera, sometimes it’s handing over the microphone to see what happens. I pray that no one else has to be unlawfully arrested in order to shine that light. Like our streets, New York City has a lot of room for improvement; that starts with everyone seeing what’s really going on.

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