The History of Tying Up Traffic for ProtestRoundup
tags: civil rights, civil disobedience, Protest, Ottawa Trucker Protest
David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers, is a contributing editor at Politico Magazine. He is the author of several works of political history including, most recently, Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.
The Ottawa truckers’ protests, which shut down Canada’s capital and crippled commerce for weeks as the drivers occupied city streets to fight the government’s Covid-19 vaccine requirements, have spurred impassioned debates about what forms of protest short of violence are permissible in an open, democratic society. Some critics see these protests as a new and frightening development, even carrying a whiff of fascism. Others insist that, whatever their excesses, they’re in the great tradition of civil disobedience. Now, the debate is taking on new urgency in the United States, as Washington D.C. prepares for a similar convoy of trucks.
But vehicular blockades are not in fact a new form of protest, nor is the conversation they have provoked unprecedented. Fifty-eight years ago, similar arguments and conflicts also arose over a similar protest, albeit in the service of a very different cause.
In April 1964, to protest racial discrimination and substandard housing, education and living conditions in New York, the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality vowed to tie up traffic on all the highways leading to the World’s Fair exhibition site in Queens, on its opening day, when up to 250,000 visitors were expected. Thousands of motorists would drive onto the bridges and roads and stop their cars, keeping visitors from reaching the fairgrounds and causing immense ancillary disruption. Dubbed the “stall-in” — after the recent “sit-ins,” “stand-ins,” “kneel-ins” and “drive-ins” mounted to bring down segregation — the mass action set New York City on edge.
In the early 1960s, young civil rights activists, studying Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., began using peaceful demonstrations to challenge the Jim Crow regime across the American South. In 1960, college students, mainly from Black universities in Nashville, Atlanta, Greensboro and elsewhere, held sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, movie theaters, swimming pools and other public accommodations, pressuring businesses and governments to serve customers without regard to skin color. Although segregation remained widespread several years later, the strategy proved breathtakingly successful. Demonstrators riveted national attention on the intrinsic unfairness of Jim Crow, and some cities — like Nashville, where the divinity student James Lawson trained collegiate disciples including John Lewis, Marion Barry and Diane Nash — made significant, if partial, strides toward integration.
Despite this progress, by 1963, many Americans had grown impatient with the slow pace of change. President John F. Kennedy, a sit-in supporter elected on a pro-civil rights platform, had moved haltingly on civil rights in his first years in office, introducing a major bill only in June of that year. By that point, figures like Malcolm X had gained a soapbox to denounce the mainstream civil rights movement, with its principles of nonviolence and integration, and to advocate for a more militant posture and set of goals. Within the movement itself, young people, especially at CORE and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, became disenchanted with King and his methods, calling for more extreme measures.
An early conflict over methods came during the preparations for the March on Washington, the grand gathering of August 1963. Devised by veteran organizers A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin months before Kennedy unveiled his bill, the plans initially included dramatic actions that — while still in the nonviolent tradition — aimed to overwhelm “all Congressmen with a staggered series of labor, church, and civil rights delegations … so that they would be unable to conduct business.” One idea was to have two thousand ministers and rabbis ring the Capitol in a gigantic prayer vigil. At an early press conference, an organizer with King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference declared, “We will tie up public transportation by laying our bodies prostrate on the runways of airports, across railroad tracks and in bus depots.”
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