Kyle Shelton | @kylekshelton | July 13, 2016
Following the police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La. and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., city streets, sidewalks and highways have once again become the sites of protest. After 14 Dallas police officers were shot, including five fatally, at the tail end of an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter march, tension between police and protesters have become heightened during demonstrations.
In recent days, residents in cities across the nation have marched along neighborhood avenues; rallies have closed major intersections; and interstates have been blocked by those seeking to call attention to shootings of black people at the hands of law enforcement. Residents in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis-St. Paul, not to mention those Memphis, Los Angeles, Chicago and Portsmouth, Va., have blocked highways. During a highway blockage in Minneapolis Saturday, several injuries were reported among police and demonstrators, as objects were thrown towards police and several arrests were made.
In Baton Rouge, police stopped an apparent attempt to block Interstate 110 on Sunday by containing protesters on local streets. After halting the protest, officers arrested several dozen demonstrators for intent to block the highway and for impeding traffic on the local roads. Lines of police officers even briefly confronted protesters who had assembled on private property with the permission of the owner. Days earlier, Baton Rouge police officers used a similar charge of impeding the flow of commerce to arrest protesters walking along a road.
In each of these actions, public rights-of-way have become conduits of the conflict, contested sites where questions about lawful assembly, control of the street, and access to public space intertwine with protests over police brutality and racial injustice.
The intent of these protests is often to keep attention on the police killings by disrupting commerce and commutes of thousands of regional residents. Stopping traffic disrupts the daily life of actors who might otherwise be unaware of or unconnected to the precipitating event and the aims of the protests. Public rights-of-way are also imminently visible and there is an inherent inversion of power in the act of individuals stopping the motion of large vehicles.
Faced with what they viewed as unjustified police violence and systemic inequality, protesters have used the public street to voice their anger and grief. By attempting to control the roadway’s use, even if only briefly, protesters make the roadway a contestable and malleable structure, one that can be defined and used as more than just a traffic artery.
Organized group protests on public streets are not a new phenomenon, nor are law enforcement’s efforts to stop those actions. But the highway protests, and similar events where actors employed infrastructural elements as venues to mediate a larger conflict, are almost completely unique to the post-World War II world.
Cities reinvent themselves
The reframing of infrastructure as a flexible part of the built environment, as a deployable unit of political rhetoric and civic action, emerged after 1945, when cities across the globe reinvented themselves in the wake of the social, political, and physical changes fomented by the war.
At the same time cities were taking on a new form, once-marginalized populations gained political power and increasingly sought to influence civic decisions, especially in the United States. Never before had a moment of massive urban remaking merged with newly vested citizens interested in seeing their visions for the future implemented.
Among the most salient examples of the meeting of these two pressures in the form of an infrastructural action were the marches of the Civil Rights Movement that utilized public roadways — such as the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965.
In an article in The Journal of Urban History from October 2015, I explore these twin developments in greater detail through an analysis of how residents from two neighborhoods in Houston — where the Kinder Institute for Urban Research is based — responded to highway construction in the 1970s. By politicizing infrastructure, literally making inert materials into arenas in which they could claim and assert political power, the Houstonians I examine – like protesters on freeways across the nation – crafted a shared set of actions that constituted an expression of what I call “infrastructural citizenship.”
In this case, “citizenship” was defined by the many acts residents took to construct themselves as political actors.
In 1970s Houston, when confronted by highway construction that threatened to run through or near their homes, residents of the white and wealthy Courtlandt Place neighborhood and the predominately black, mostly lower-class Third Ward used the surrounding infrastructural debates to advocate for the protection of their communities and to forward their own visions for the city.
Concerned that the roads would at worst displace them, or at best lower their property values, residents in both communities staged protests, wrote letters, and attended countless public meetings. They organized historic preservation campaigns, lobbied city officials, and paid for independent planning efforts. They argued that their homes and local streets should be held in the same esteem as regional roadways and downtown redevelopments. With each action, the residents used infrastructural debates to assert their rights as citizens. Even if those efforts failed to achieve their desired outcomes, the simple act of projecting their hopes onto the structures allowed citizens to reshape their meaning on the landscape.
While the intensity and confrontational nature of recent protests are different from the highway fights in Houston, the two examples show the crucial position that infrastructural citizenship has played in the development of our cities and that it continues to play in the negotiations of our policies, politics, and daily lives.
Far from secondary objects, roadways and other infrastructure are among the most essential and hotly contested elements of our cities. The act of asserting a right to these spaces—whether to protest or to influence their shape—is a hugely political one.
Multiple roles of infrastructure
What is crucial about infrastructural citizenship is the universality of its deployment. The concept describes two distinct actions—the use of infrastructure itself to inform a larger debate (around voting rights or police brutality) and the engagement in debates about infrastructure in the hope of directly influencing choices about the systems themselves.
A diverse cross-section of Americans have participated in both forms of infrastructural citizenship. The debates span different historic eras and geographic boundaries. White suburbanites in the 1960s asserted infrastructural citizenship when they advocated for easier highway access to their homes. At the same time, black city dwellers forwarded a different articulation as they resisted the same projects. Comparing different assertions of infrastructural citizenship clarifies how Americans viewed the systems and worked their presence into their lives.
The many infrastructural fights taking place each day cannot be separated from the social and political milieu within which they occur. The protests rippling across the nation today and the organization against highways in Houston in the 1970s are not solely about control of the roadway. Rather they are wider-ranging debates about race, power, and decision-making in urban America. Protesters, in the 1970s as today, turn to the streets as infrastructural citizens to force those conversations into the public eye.
Kyle Shelton is a program manager at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. A version of this piece was originally published in December 2015.