Using the city’s spaces to make political points is hardly a new idea — streets and public squares since antiquity have hosted debate and demonstrations. In the US, formal and informal activist organizations have long recognized urban space as the ideal platform to confront an otherwise dismissive government or public with their concerns. But as Oksana Mironova argues below, many of these activists, from the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) in the 1960s to Black Lives Matter in the last five years, declined the polite forum of public square demonstrations, instead seizing the potential of disruption. As the “resistance” settles in for the long haul, New York’s long history of activism can offer insights about how best to make protest make its point.
Shutting Down the Airport
On a good day, with bottlenecks at customs, immigration, and security, John F. Kennedy International Airport’s Terminal 4 is a crowded and exhausting space. On the morning of January 28th, the everyday chaos of the airport was amplified. A federal Executive Order barring nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States surprised the Transportation Security Administration’s field staff and drew outcry from an indignant public. By noon, dozens of protesters had gathered at the airport, including state legislators and immigration lawyers offering aid. Over the course of the day, word spread over social media and advocacy organizations’ text message and e-mail lists: “Emergency action against the Muslim Ban – JFK Terminal 4, outside arrivals.” By sundown, the crowd at JFK had swelled to thousands. Protesters spilled out of the terminal building and into its throughways and adjacent parking areas, carrying signs invoking the Statue of Liberty and Holocaust refugees denied entry in the 1930s. Citing overcrowding, the Port Authority briefly shut down the AirTrain; in a show of solidarity, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance declared a work stoppage, tweeting photos of normally crowded taxi ranks empty of cars.
The protest drew on the energy of the previous week’s inauguration day Women’s Marches. While many people attended both, the feel and form of the two actions were quite different. The Women’s Marches were largely permitted mass demonstrations, which, through the sheer number of bodies on the street, aimed to challenge the mandate of an unpopular president. With permitted actions, organizers may work with the city to minimize disruption by scheduling the action on a weekend, staggering start times, and pre-defining a route. In contrast, the JFK action, a raucous and relatively spontaneous gathering which came to victorious conclusion when a federal judge in Brooklyn issued an injunction against the executive order, illustrated the continuing effectiveness of unpermitted, disruptive protest.
Terminal 4 emerged as the site of demonstration for a practical reason: immigration lawyers set up camp in the terminal to get as close as possible to ten travelers detained as a result of the executive order, and the protesting crowds gathered around them. At the same time, the Terminal 4 protest was also an act of continuing resistance to the broader federal agenda, taking on the rhetoric of exclusionary American nationalism by targeting the airport, one physical manifestation of otherwise often figurative borders. The visibility of the action lay in its ability to disrupt the everyday function of the airport, to “shut it down.” In this, the Terminal 4 protest functioned as a “circulation struggle,” defined by scholar Joshua Clover as an intentional disruption of infrastructure such as highways and public transit routes that facilitate the flow of goods, people, and capital. Unlike traditional mass demonstrations, these actions do not draw their strength merely from the sheer number of people participating. Instead, by physically disrupting the function of urban infrastructure, they symbolically disrupt the concepts and systems that infrastructure represents: the international flow of capital, nationalist exclusion, or a repressive regime.
The Cost of Modern Connectivity
JFK’s Terminal 4, one of the busiest international arrival terminals in the world, is a site embedded with deep symbolism as a gateway to what sociologist Saskia Sassen calls a “global city.”[i] Since its inception as an outpost of the Dutch West India Company in the 17th century, New York City has functioned as a node in a global, market-based network of industrial production and trade. In the 1950s and 1960s, New York shifted its focus from manufacturing to finance, insurance, and real estate, reorienting the economy around a dense cluster of high-end services engaging and supporting the global circulation of capital. Developers repurposed and expanded infrastructure to reflect the aesthetics and economics of the moment: sleek, modernist skyscrapers filled with office workers, and winding highways accelerated the movement of capital, goods, and people through the city.
New York City had been committed to building connectivity since in the 1930s, when, in an effort to jumpstart the local economy, Mayor LaGuardia and master builder Robert Moses began to fashion the publicly funded crown jewels of modern, global New York: LaGuardia Airport (originally New York Municipal Airport, opened 1939) and JFK (originally Idlewild, opened 1948). After World War II, spurred on by American competition with the Soviet Union, deindustrialization, and the availability of federal funds for urban redevelopment, planners’ pursuit of a globalized city intensified. Moses, with the cooperation of several decades’ worth of mayors and governors, and with support from the city’s private sector, cemented his name through urban movement infrastructure projects. The dense network of highways carving through the boroughs and soaring bridges punctuating New York’s waterways matched a national drive for dramatic urban development. To the federal government, large and flashy infrastructure projects signaled America’s ascent to power on the world stage — funding for large urban renewal infrastructure projects flowed readily, and the resulting airports, tunnels, and highways became imbued with nationalist symbolism.
The city’s rapid modernization came at a heavy cost to some residents. While pitched to the public as neutral and universally beneficial, large infrastructure projects were often designed to ease the flow of capital through the city, and to clear obstructions in its path — leaving out, and even penning in or displacing, those residents who were not considered valuable to the new, fast-paced economy. Highways cut through neighborhoods starved of investment by redlining, accelerating the flight of white families to suburbs that maintained racial covenants, made newly accessible by Moses’s bridges. Spatial segregation, political inequality, and NIMBYism concentrated highway fumes and other noxious byproducts of modernization in poor communities of color, damaging the health of residents in neighborhoods like the South Bronx to this day. But in the 1960s, as large infrastructure projects marginalized urban neighborhoods in the name of economic progress, residents used the new, striking structures to stage resistance to the very forces that sought to sideline them. Through circulation struggles that physically and symbolically disrupted urban movement, they made a claim to the resources and the image of the city.
Holding a Gun to the Heart of the City
“We have used every means at our disposal to awaken the City Fathers of New York to the crying needs of their city. We have picketed, boycotted, sat-in, lied-in, etc. All of our efforts have been in vain.” In the early 1960s, Isaiah Brunson, an organizer with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was frustrated — and he was not the only one. While southern chapters of CORE organized against voter suppression and the violence of Jim Crow, Brooklyn CORE and other northern chapters had spent years waging battle against the worst effects of segregation in cities like New York, from poor quality housing and schools to discrimination in hiring and money-lending practices.[ii]
As localized protests resulted in token concessions without meaningful change, increasingly frustrated organizers looked for ways to draw greater visibility to the broader struggle. They saw an opportunity in the 1964 World’s Fair, an international exhibition of jumbled, overlapping corporate and nationalist symbols, which was to be dedicated to “man’s achievement on a shrinking globe in an expanding universe.” Sited in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the Fair would celebrate American culture, industry, and technological advancement; President Lyndon Johnson was to open the proceedings with a keynote address. Like the expansion of the city’s airports, the World’s Fair sought to reinforce New York City’s importance on the global stage; it would build on the legacy of the 1939 World’s Fair, which celebrated “the world of tomorrow” at the cusp of World War II (and which, under then-New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses’s direction, transformed a massive Queens ash dump into Flushing Meadows Park). Officials of the 1964 fair, including Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and Moses, appointed president of the World’s Fair Corporation, invested enormous public funding and political capital in its success.[iii]
Brooklyn CORE saw the Fair as an opportunity to draw attention to racism in the city, and by extension, the country. While the Fair’s organizers promoted global “peace through understanding” with an expensive and flashy exhibition, Brooklyn CORE pointed to the physical decline of Black neighborhoods. CORE members planned to disrupt the Fair’s opening day by recruiting protesters to intentionally run out of gas and slow traffic on five major highways leading to the Fair. Other chapter members planned to disrupt subway service.
The stall-in’s goals were broad and far-reaching: CORE demanded sweeping reforms, including investigations into discriminatory practices by labor unions, school desegregation, an investigation of slum conditions in Black neighborhoods, and an investigation of police brutality.[iv] Brooklyn CORE wanted fairgoers to be confronted with the deteriorating conditions of the very impoverished neighborhoods that the highways ran through. The action challenged New Yorkers to see the fair and the highways not as neutral spaces that are open to all users, but as exclusionary spaces perpetuating racial inequality in the city.
The condemnation from legislative leaders, the media, and many white New Yorkers was swift. Mayor Wagner accused CORE of “holding a gun to the heart of the city”; Robert Moses threatened the protesters with armed Pinkerton guards. President Johnson declared that the protest would “do the civil rights cause no good.” The action also drew criticism from more established civil rights leaders, who saw this performative street theater as a dangerous novelty and a potentially harmful deviation from established strategy. James Farmer, CORE’s national director, reprimanded and suspended the chapter, while Roy Wilkins, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), dismissed the action as emotional and unsophisticated — “strictly Brooklynese.”
In the popular imagination, the protest, a confrontational but non-violent act of civil disobedience, was perceived as dangerous and even life-threatening — even by some of the Black New Yorkers on whose behalf organizers thought they acted. Radio station WLIB, which broadcast from the Hotel Theresa in Harlem to a largely Black audience, asked, “Is tying up traffic on expressways with the possible loss of life and limbs to innocent persons calculated to improve race relations in the city? We think not.” The protest’s “imagined violence,” according to scholar Brian Purnell, was a result of its “subversion of everyday normalcy.” By intentionally targeting the seemingly neutral highway, the action became a grave and vocal reproach against the city as a whole. And, from this potential for both physical and symbolic disruption, the protest drew its power. It drew support from other local CORE and NAACP chapters, and in a show of solidarity, the sanitation workers’ union announced that it would call for a strike if its employees were asked to tow stalled cars.
On the day of the Fair, there were no traffic jams — the organizers were unable to turn out the large numbers of motorists necessary to stage the stall-in. Several protesters were arrested, and beaten, by police for delaying the subway en route to the Fair. Nonetheless, even the threat of disruption ultimately kept fairgoers at home: on the first day of the Fair, having planned for 250,000 attendees, organizers counted only 49,000. Moses, according to biographer Robert Caro, attributed the low attendance to the “over-dramatization of a civil rights auto stall-in and to chill drizzly weather.”
Changing Protest Strategies
In the late 1960s, as activists became disillusioned about the potential of pacifist tactics and institutional appeals, confrontational protest became more commonplace. Radical civil rights groups like the Black Panther Party, founded in Oakland in 1966, and the Puerto Rican nationalist Young Lords Organization, founded in Chicago in 1968, increasingly took local matters into their own hands, directly intervening in specific situations of injustice. When the newly formed New York chapter of the Young Lords Organization barricaded the streets in El Barrio with trash in the summer of 1969, they applied a tactic used by Brooklyn CORE just five years earlier in a very different social and political context. Perceptions of the state of the city had shifted from a hopeful celebration of post-war American progress, which the 1964 World’s Fair tried to capture, to one of a city in crisis. Rather than focusing on a symbolic site like the World’s Fair to address a national audience, the New York chapter of the Young Lords Organization’s Garbage Offensive focused on one specific neighborhood issue.
According to Felipe Luciano, the founding chairman of the New York Young Lords Organization chapter, members polled El Barrio about the neighborhood’s most pressing concerns in July of 1969, and found residents to be overwhelmingly upset by the city’s poor garbage collection practices. To address inadequate garbage pickup in El Barrio, the Young Lords Organization’s members began to collect and bag the trash on their own. Like the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for School Children Program in Oakland, the Young Lords performed an essential city service, highlighting the city government’s abnegation of its responsibilities to minority neighborhoods and winning community support for their broader goals.[v]
When the Young Lords’ request to the local Sanitation Department depot for better brooms did not yield results, what had begun as a service turned into a statement. Young Lords members and El Barrio residents participating in the clean-up began to block Manhattan traffic with four-foot-high, steaming piles of the trash they had collected. Over the course of several weeks, these makeshift barricades blocked the major East Side thoroughfares (Lexington, Madison, and Third Avenues) at five uptown cross-streets, disrupting the free movement of motorists throughout Manhattan. Faced with the obstruction of the 158-year-old grid, city officials and the broader public were forced to confront the reality of neglect in El Barrio, and government intervention after weeks of inaction became inevitable: eventually, the NYPD was called in to drag the piles of garbage out of the street and confront the agitated protestors.
The city did increase sanitation services in the neighborhood, at least in the weeks following the Offensive. But the action, according to Darrel Enck-Wanzer, was really about “guerrillismo… building a community, and constructing a place and space for literal and social movement in El Barrio.” Like the protesters at JFK last January, the power of the Young Lords’ statement lay in their defiance of institutions’ prescriptions of where, when, and how to protest: the urgency of their plight superseded the designated channels of dissent. By making the injustice of neglect as disruptive for the broader public as it was devastating for the activists’ community, the Young Lords refused to occupy the margins of urban space any longer.[vi]
The Reemergence of the Circulation Struggle
Meanwhile, traditional protests are becoming both more frequent and increasingly circumscribed, through what sociologist Alex Vitale terms a “command and control” style of policing of urban protest, which aggressively micromanages large demonstrations to minimize the very disruption that might give them power.[vii] In this context, circulation struggle remains one of the most effective tools at the disposal of social movements to break through public inertia. By contravening police prescriptions of appropriate times and places for dissent, activists engaged in circulation struggle often risk arrest or provoke other state intervention, accentuating the complicity of governmental power in maintaining the injustices they protest.
In December 2011, Occupy protestors in California used a blockade to draw attention to the disconnect between the wealth generated by the Port of Oakland (one of the main entry points of imported consumer goods into the United States) and the poverty experienced within some Oakland neighborhoods. On November 28, 2014, Black Lives Matter protestors shut down the West Oakland BART station for four and a half hours to symbolize how long Michael Brown’s body was left in the street in Ferguson, Missouri (and how police violence against Black bodies had been ignored by the broader American public). Black Lives Matter chapters across the country have repeatedly disrupted highways in response to police violence against Black people, especially in sprawling urban areas dependent on highway circulation: Atlanta in October 2014; outside of Ferguson in August 2015; and St. Paul in October 2016. And in New York in July 2016, a handful of protestors advocating for immigrant justice shut down traffic on the George Washington Bridge, spanning four lanes with a banner and a chain. The protest, as part of the short-lived “Somos Visible” campaign, sought to highlight the (otherwise often ignored) labor performed by undocumented immigrants in the US, using CORE-inspired tactics to activate neutral space and demand the attention of disinterested urban residents. By disrupting the movement of people and capital, these protests have brought issues dismissed as marginal before a broader public. As shared public institutions shrink and the polity fragments, infrastructure becomes one of the few possible points of intersection among disparate groups: both a symbol of the citizenry’s shared fate, and a stage from which the few can address the many.
[i] Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. 1991.
[ii] Brian Purnell in Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America (Jeanne Theoharis, Komozi Woodard eds.). 2005.
[iii] Joseph Tirella, Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America. 2014.
[iv] Craig Steven Wilder, Covenant with Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn
[v] Jennifer 8. Lee, “The Young Lords’ Legacy of Puerto Rican Activism” New York Times. August 24, 2009.
[vi] Darrel Enck-Wazner, “Trashing the System: Social Movement, Intersectional Rhetoric, and Collective Agency in the Young Lords Organization’s Garbage Offensive,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 92:2. 2006.
[vii] Alex Vitale, “From Negotiated Management to Command and Control: How the New York Police Department Polices Protests.” Policing and Society, 15, 283-304. 2005.
Oksana Mironova was born in the former Soviet Union and grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. She is a founding board member of the New York City Real-Estate Investment Cooperative (NYCREIC). Her writing about cities, alternative economies, and public space has appeared in Metropolitics, Shelterforce and other publications.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or The Architectural League of New York.