Is It OK to Protest on a Freeway?

The I-94 Demonstration.
The last weeks have seen two high-profile freeway protests, the first on Saturday night on I-94 and the second Wednesday morning on I-35W.

This article is not about whether these are smart political tactics, or about the violence that took place during the I-94 demonstration. To me, debates about what happened, who is at fault, and the nature of the charges are a separate issue from the question I want to focus on here.

Rather, here's the rub of this article: Is there a difference between a civil disobedience demonstration on a city street (e.g., Summit Avenue, Plymouth Avenue, or downtown), a light rail station (e.g., the Green Line at Snelling and University), and a freeway like I-94? Are they the same thing or are they different?

"Taking it To the Street"
umn 72 protest 4
Protests on Minneapolis' Washington Avenue in 1972

First off, all these examples are equal in one sense because, technically, all roads are public space. (Exceptions for gated communities such as North Oaks, with private roads, prove the rule.) So the right of the public to use these taxpayer-funded government-owned spaces should be relatively equal.

And in another sense, all these cases are equal because they're all equally prohibited. Technically speaking, any gathering or demonstration that blocks a road is illegal. This is true for sidewalks, streets, light rail tracks, and freeways, all of which have ordinances or laws protecting their mobility function. For example, the Minneapolis city code says this (385.65) [emphasis mine]:
No person, in any public or private place, shall use offensive, obscene or abusive language, or grab, follow or engage in conduct which reasonably tends to arouse alarm or anger in others, or walk, stand, sit, lie, or place an object in such a manner as to block passage by another person or a vehicle.
Light rail tracks and city streets in general have the same rules prohibiting people from blocking traffic flow. So a demonstration is illegal in all these situations.

(For more on public space and protest, check out the streets.mn podcast conversation with Dr. Nathan Clough.)

The I-94 demonstration.

Is a Freeway Different?

The press conference after the late-night demonstrations on I-94 featured the Mayor of Saint Paul, the Police Chief, and Colonel Matt Langer of the Minnesota State Patrol describing what happened. Here's the quote:
There are many places people can gather to exercise their first amendment rights, but the freeway is not one of those places. Closing freeways endangers the people that are on the freeway, endangers the motoring public, prevents emergency services from occurring and prevents people from doing their jobs and taking care of business in the state of Minnesota by those freeways being closed. Being on the freeway is illegal. It’s illegal always to be there on foot including these protest events. We do our best to prevent these protests from being on the freeway and most of the time we are successful in working with these groups and preventing and keeping that from occurring.
As you can see, Colonel Langer focuses on two things in his argument against freeway demonstrations: safety and economics.

Let's take safety first. Technically speaking, the main difference between a freeway and other types of roads revolves around speed and access. Freeways have much higher speeds and far more limited access than other roads, or even light rail tracks.

But what if you could make freeway protests safe for both the drivers and demonstrators?
While stopping at the Governor’s mansion demonstration the other day, I spoke with one person who was working with the Black Lives Matter demonstrators at the beginning of the protest. Her job was to drive a car at a specific time down I-94, and to slow down in tandem with other demonstrators in other lanes. The plan was to reduce speeds slowly over time on the freeway while not allowing cars to pass. The goal was to make space for demonstrators to safely get onto the road.

To me, it sounded difficult. And according to the woman I spoke with, her Westbound contingent of volunteers had difficulty keeping their line in tact. (Eastbound volunteers managed to pull it off.)  But what was interesting was that the demonstrators had planned ahead, thinking about the safety concerns about demonstrating on a freeway.

If you take the safety issue out of the picture, the argument against protesting on a freeway rests on economic impact. At that level, it seems little different than the argument against protesting in any of the other contested sites that we have seen over the past year or two. The arguments used by Colonel Langer seem a lot like the ones used by the Bloomington prosecutor at the Mall of America: demonstrations are illegal and the disrupt the economy. (You could say the same thing about the demonstrations at the State Fair or the airport.)

And in both cases, it seems the prosecutors are trying to discourage demonstrations in these spaces by throwing the book at activists.

Who is the Audience for a Demonstration?
Demonstrators on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul, the Governor's Mansion in the background.

Last week, I found myself with a flat tire on my bicycle, needing to get back to Saint Paul from downtown Minneapolis. Glancing at Twitter, I saw that the Green Line had been shut down by a demonstration march in Saint Paul in support of Philando Castile, and decided to take the #3 bus (my old friend) instead.

While riding the bus, there were two young black men sitting up at the front, talking with the bus driver. It turned out that they were trying to get to the demonstration, but because the Green Line was shut down, they couldn’t get there. The bus driver gave them directions to get to the #16, but I don’t think they ever made it in time. (The bus is slow, after all!) Still, it seemed to me to be a tragic irony.

To me, the main difference between demonstrating on a freeway and demonstrating on a street like Summit Avenue is a matter of degree, not of kind. By moving on to a freeway, the scale and stakes of a demonstration are raised. Instead of primarily affecting people in the central cities, you’re primarily affecting people in the suburbs.

Civil disobedience is always breaking a rule, whether it’s “whites only” or “no stopping on the street.” I-94 between the downtowns carries 200,000 cars a day and is the most heavily used part of our road system. If the goal is to raise awareness of an issue, by changing the geography of the demonstration from a local street to a freeway, you’re turning up the volume so that everyone in the entire Twin Cities has to pay attention, for better or worse.

The violence, tear gas, and concrete-throwing are one thing. What happened on I-94 was unfortunate and I wish it could have been prevented. (The 35W demonstration seemed entirely peaceful by contrast.) But the point I want to make here is that whether or not people have a right to demonstrate on the road has little do with what kind of road it is. A freeway is not a special place where, as Colonel Langer seems to suggest, your "civil rights disappear." It's just a road with higher speeds, wider lanes, reduced access, and a special state-wide police force. And just as much as any other street, it’s still a public space.

1 comment:

Cozmo said...

I clicked the link you provided to the Minneapolis City Code, and found that you conveniently left out a very important part of the paragraph when you were quoting it.

It says, "Acts authorized as an exercise of one's constitutional rights of freedom of speech and assembly, and acts authorized by a permit issued pursuant to the Parade Ordinance, Chapter 447, or the Block Event Ordinance, Chapter 455, of the Minneapolis Code of Ordinances, shall not constitute interference with pedestrian or vehicular traffic. (88-Or-019, § 1, 2-12-88)"

So the city code says that blocking passage as a way of protest does not count as interference. It backs this up in the cross-reference statutes.