Should Activists Block Bridges?

by on April 22, 2024

Activists and “No Business as Usual”

Bridge blockades have become an increasingly common activist tactic. Last week’s Golden Gate Bridge blockage by Gaza war protesters is the most recent example.

Do bridge blockades actually further protesters’ cause? Or support its goals by forcing public attention on an issue many ignore? How do bridge blockages connect to the traditional activist template of using strategies designed to win public support ? And of focusing pressure and demands on targets with the power to grant them?

Finally, at what point do a movement’s tactics set back its goals?

I discussed bridge blockades in The Activist Handbook, after AIDS activists blocked the Golden Gate Bridge in 1989

Here’s my take on bridge blockades.

Choosing the Right Target

Organizing typically starts by people identifying their grievances. Organizers then mobilize people against those responsible. The traditional community organizing approach is to come up with a list of demands and then confront the target by  demanding “yes” answers. Anything short of a clear “yes” could prompt direct action.

Identifying the right target is a key organizing skill. Nearly all traditional organizing groups use this approach.

Bridge blockades involve a different model. Drivers negatively impacted by the recent Golden Gate Bridge blockade and similar acts had no ability to address protestors’ demands.

But bridge blockades don’t target those responsible. They are about maximizing publicity for the cause without requiring the large turnout of a march. The banner in the above photo says it all—“Stop the World for Gaza.” Protesters seek to force people to think about a specific issue. This goal is easy to achieve when those impacted are sitting in traffic unable to get to work, medical appointments or other destinations important to them.

But does getting attention to a cause also advance support?

“No Business as Usual”

Today’s activists increasingly follow a “No Business as Usual” strategy. I wrote about this as potentially originating in a January 31, 1989 Golden Gate Bridge blockade by a Bay Area offshoot (no actual connection) of the legendary AIDS activist group, ACT UP.

The argument then was that people had to be more alert to the AIDS crisis and the government’s failed response. Activists felt blocking a Bay Area bridge would heighten awareness. What it did instead was trigger a huge backlash. People asked why drivers were targeted when virtually none influenced federal AIDS policy. And when the Bay Area was leading the nation in AIDS advocacy.

ACT Up often used aggressive tactics that alienated the mainstream. In my book I defended the group when it was attacked for protesting Cardinal O’Connor at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in December 1989. The Catholic Church and O’Connor specifically fought against LGBTQ rights and  help for people with AIDS. Given the emergency nature of the crisis, ACT UP’s “By All Means Necessary” approach was justified against all those who blocked aid (I discuss why even some ACT UP members disagreed with this protest).

Confining people in traffic is not likely to sway them to your cause. In fact, one of the inconsistencies of bridge blockades is that they disproportionately negatively impact the working-class people priced out of San Francisco and other cities. The workers forced to commute long distances to their jobs.

Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta never promoted aggressive tactics that ignored their true targets and disadvantaged working people. As I discuss in Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, the farmworkers’ movement was so conscious of securing a positive response from others that it marched with American flags. That was to avoid claims that the primarily Latino marchers were anti-American.

UFW alum Eliseo Medina brought that tactic to the massive 2006 immigration marches. Both movements built power without a “No Business as Usual”-style disruption event (the same is true for the Black civil rights movement). All of these movements sought to build public support.

Why Not Limit Targeting?

All grassroots movements use a variety of strategies, and bridge blockades are increasingly among them. It takes incredible coordination to pull them off. But organizers should assess the net impact of what is being accomplished. No other mobilizing strategy generates such a strong backlash, and that’s not because its effectively speaking truth to power.  Rather, the backlash is caused by drivers who feel unfairly punished.

Bridge blockades aren’t building support for a cause. They likely reduce it.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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