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Drivers Are Drowning Out the Voices of the Most Vulnerable During COVID-19

What's the difference between a convoy of deadly cars and a peaceful public assembly?

It sounds like the set up to a bad joke. But as drivers turn to socially distanced "gridlock" protests to shut down American streets and grab their leaders' attention, we're all being forced to reckon with that question — and the question of how non-drivers can make themselves heard when one of the only ways to publicly protest without risking COVID-19 infection is from behind a windshield.

The most prominent "gridlock" protest to date happened on Wednesday, when swarms of conservative drivers clogged the streets surrounding the Michigan capitol in Lansing to protest Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's extended statewide stay-at-home order. The drivers blocked ambulances' access to a local hospital, and also intimidated opponents by waving semi-automatic rifles and Confederate battle flags out of car windows.

One pundit suggested that the protest reflected the real America that "DC/NYC" elitists ignore.

But for many, what was most intimidating about the demonstration — and the many like it that have erupted across the United States in the past few weeks — was the cars themselves.

The motor vehicle, after all, has a long history of being deliberately used as a weapon by violent political insurgents, not to mention the 1.35-million-person body count every single year worldwide. Cars have become disturbingly normalized in American society, but they are indisputably deadly — and as anyone who remembers the tragic death of Heather Heyer knows, they can be and have been used to kill in a protest context.

A memorial for Heather Heyer, who was killed by a driver while counter-protesting a Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
A memorial for Heather Heyer, who was killed by a driver while counter-protesting a Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

But there's another, less bloody reason why the rise of the "gridlock" protest should trouble us: because they drown out non-drivers in one of the most important realms of the political process.

Whether they're protesting ICE detentions — yes, leftists and liberals do this car thing, too — or a ban on in-person Easter church services, people who protest from their cars monopolize scarce space in our civic discourse (as well as in our literal streetscape). No matter their political persuasion, they are choosing a protest tactic that is inherently inaccessible to non-driving supporters and inherently violent to pedestrian bystanders who might oppose or support them.

Let's be clear about something: the problem with "gridlock" protests isn't that the drivers who participate in them are restricting access to public space. Effective public assembly is crucial to our democracy, and it should make life inconvenient, especially for the powerful. It is essential that Americans of all political stripes continue to find creative and safe ways to demand the attention of the people who hold their fate in their hands during the era of social distancing.

But there's a world of difference between crowds of protestors demonstrating their people power at a statehouse sit-in, and the sheer horsepower of thousands of pick-ups idling in front of an emergency room entrance to make a point. When protest becomes dangerous to the lives of others — not dangerous to property, mind you, and certainly not dangerous to the status quo, but literally to the lives of our fellow man — it is no longer a peaceful demonstration.

Anyone who has a problem with protestors showing up to demonstrations armed with guns should absolutely have a problem with protestors armed with 2,000 pounds of weaponizable steel and a gas pedal. Seen through that lens, bringing a car to protest at the steps of the statehouse isn't just bringing a gun to a knife fight: it's bringing a tank.

And, lest we forget: drivers already dominate our political landscape. Long before the era of the socially distanced "gridlock" protest, automobile interests have successfully won a disproportionate share of our transportation funding, almost complete legal immunity for drivers who kill and maim other road users in "accidents," and an outsized role in shaping our global culture.

Most important: People who advocate for transit typically don't drive, meaning that they can't ring a state capitol with cars — so lawmakers might be inclined to forget that they don't only represent that guy in the Charger waving a Confederate flag and protesting against speed limits, for example, but also represent the woman in Detroit struggling to get to work on her crosstown bus that's stuck in traffic because our political system is so weighted towards the interests of drivers.

In the era of social distancing, we should all demand that no one's voice is drowned out under the blare of car horns.

"The current street landscape in New York City has allowed conversations such as the inequitable distribution of street space to come to the forefront," said Erwin Figeroa, the director of organizing for Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group that would never be able to mount a 300-car protest, but often loads up buses with hundreds of activists. "People not involved in advocating for car-free streets are even starting to question the amount of space dedicated to motor vehicles. This allows for more hyper-local, individual actions to take place: from measuring the width of their local sidewalks and documenting it to social media, to opening streets for pedestrians and cyclists with the help of neighbors and a couple of traffic cones, this is the time to tap into our collective creativity in advocating for more equitable streets."

We hope he's right — and we hope that the minivan doesn't become as big a fixture in our protest culture as the megaphone.

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