Episode 44: Democracy in the Streets


[ARCHIVE CLIP, speaker: Say her name!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, protesters: Breonna Taylor!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, speaker: Say her name!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, protesters: Breonna Taylor!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, speaker: Say his name!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, protesters: George Floyd!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, speaker: Say his name!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, protesters: George Floyd!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, speaker: We shall not be satisfied until systemic racism is removed from our governing system.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, speaker: No justice!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, protesters: No peace!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, speaker: No justice!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, protesters: No peace!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, speaker: If we don’t get it …]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, protesters: Shut it down!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, speaker: If we don’t get it …]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, protesters: Shut it down!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, speaker: We are going to be out here until change comes, and we will not stop!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, speaker: Black lives matter!]


Aaron Naparstek: Hey, everybody, welcome to The War on Cars. This is Aaron here, here with my co-hosts Doug and Sarah.

Doug Gordon: Hello.

Sarah Goodyear: Hello.

Aaron: Okay, so our last episode came out on May 22, and we talked about this idea of open streets, and this phenomenon that’s happening all around the world in cities everywhere—except sort of New York, of course—where cities are opening up their streets because of the coronavirus. And we’re seeing this acceleration of plans to create more car-free space, to create more bike lanes, better bike infrastructure, to take away parking and replace it with cafe tables for restaurants. And it’s all being accelerated because of this coronavirus pandemic.

Sarah: And then, three days after that episode published, George Floyd was murdered on a street in Minneapolis by a police officer while three other police officers stood by. And that murder set off an international uprising that took over streets and public spaces around the world.

Doug: All of this is happening on streets. George Floyd’s murder happened on a public street. The Black Lives Matter protests are taking over streets, over highways, over plazas—all public spaces. And so it raises this question then of how streets can be used for wonderful things, for terrible things, and for the righting of real historic injustice.

Aaron: And it raises the question: what are streets for? And who are streets designed for? And what makes a street feel welcoming and safe for everyone who might want to use it?

Sarah: Yeah. And people talk about safe streets, we talk about safe streets. But what does it mean for streets to be safe, truly safe for everyone? And for those streets to be a part of a city that is more just and more equitable and more safe for all of its citizens, truly?

Aaron: So to delve into these questions and much more, we’ve brought back an old friend of the podcast. He grew up here in Brooklyn, spent a good part of his career managing streets and public spaces in downtown Brooklyn, and he is the co-founder and CEO of Oonee, a bike parking startup that we featured earlier this year back in episode 34. Shabazz Stuart, welcome back to The War on Cars.

Shabazz Stuart: It’s good to be here. Thanks for having me back. It’s good to see all of you, albeit virtually.

Doug: So Shabazz, you wrote this great piece for Streetsblog in which you said basically that the rallying cry for safe streets advocates for a long time has been that streets are for people but that in reality, the events of the last few weeks have shown that streets are for democracy, as you said. And I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the inspiration for this piece, your own experience getting out there and marching over the last few weeks. We bumped into each other at a protest on May 30. If you can talk a little bit about what you’ve seen and what inspired you to write that piece.

Shabazz Stuart: So Saturday, May 30 was the third day of protests in New York City. George Floyd was murdered only a few days prior, and the protests had emanated slowly like ripples across the country. And in contrast to the coverage of the Barclays Center protest the night before, you know, I think people showed up with a very keen sense of what to look for in peaceful protests. So I was immediately struck when I arrived on the corner of Parkside and Ocean Avenue, I was immediately struck by the good energy and the peace that was permeating this particular event.

Shabazz Stuart: Now don’t get me wrong, there was definitely lots of anger there, right? We’re talking about hundreds of people over the course of years, only a handful of years that have been murdered at the hands of police and/or at the hands of police allies. And so that was remarkable to me, the fact that people were taking great care to de-escalate any tension with law enforcement that was on the scene.

Shabazz Stuart: An hour into the protests, we started moving down Flatbush Avenue. It was even more evident to me that this protest explicitly sought to be peaceful. Again, the narrative that was being spun by the media at the time was that these protests had lots of violent agitators inside of them and were looking basically for trouble. We turned onto Linden, and I remember the chopper. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the chopper. For those who’ve ever been next to a helicopter, it gets really windy, and it gets loud. And so the police helicopter would fly low, under a hundred feet above the buildings, using their rotor blades to basically stop you from talking, stop you from thinking. And that chopper just hovered above us for a good hour. It became evident at that point that the police wanted to end this march, wanted to disperse this crowd. And I think that crowd was probably about 10,000 people, and that we were not going to be encouraged or allowed to proceed forward.

Shabazz Stuart: And as we turned on Bedford Avenue, we were halted. After about 15 minutes of standing in the wind generated by this helicopter, the protesters were charged by the police. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such malfeasance displayed so publicly, where there are so many witnesses with so many cameras and so many phones and there was so much media. That surprised me because literally, the eyes of the world were on this march. And so the police charged the crowd with batons and with naked aggression. Really charged peaceful protesters. I remember asking Doug, who was next to me, “Why would they do this?” Not only does it violate good ethics and just principles, but it also violates the core tenets of control of the crowd, which is ostensibly what the police sought to do was to control us. They were actually performing and fulfilling an incendiary role here, getting this crowd riled up. And they were precipitating exactly the kind of event pattern that had occurred the night before, where the news media had basically said these so-called riots were out of control.

Shabazz Stuart: And we found out through observations and chatting with other people that basically, the police who had forced, at this point, all of us onto the sidewalk, were not allowing us to proceed anymore. They were gonna hold us there. And that was the end of the march. And this impasse which was only interrupted by occasional charges from the police, this impasse continued for I’d say another 40, 45 minutes. And the situation got more and more and more tense until, at some point, a decision was made to allow us to continue to march. And what was remarkable about that moment was how immediately that tension was resolved and was dissipated. And so what that kind of said to me in the moment was that not only does allowing people to march in the streets serve to help advance democracy, it also serves to avoid violence between protesters and police.

Shabazz Stuart: If you think about this from the perspective of, well, what are our streets for? They’re exactly for these kinds of rare and important civic moments. And that particular day—Saturday, May 30—we were having a conversation that was of national importance. We were talking about the role of white supremacy in our culture. And I don’t see a more appropriate place to have that conversation than in the public square. And you cannot have a public square unless you have streets.

Sarah: What strikes me is how threatening the governmental authorities—not just the police, but many elected officials as well, how threatening they find this kind of peaceful gathering and peaceful expression of democracy, and that it’s frightening enough to them that they wanted to stop it. I’m really struck by that, that they were willing to create violence in order to stop something. What were they scared of?

Shabazz Stuart: I want to point out that I don’t think this is part of a particularly cogent plan. And this is one of the reasons why we’re having this conversation nationally about the role and the makeup of law enforcement. Because law enforcement may not be the best arbiter of dissent and what is appropriate dissent and what is appropriate use of the streets. In fact, often law enforcement’s role is to quell dissent, and you’re asking law enforcement to marshal a march against law enforcement. You know, when people are marching against the police and police don’t take well to the idea of the message, and chaos ensues.

Shabazz Stuart: What I was getting at in my piece is this broader idea when you ask Americans what are streets for? They say, “Well, it’s for transportation, driving.” When you ask Europeans what are streets for, they say, “Well, it’s for civic life, it’s for living.” We have this very narrow definition of the purpose of streets, and in those moments where we’re marching, the streets are playing an ancillary role to a national conversation. And the police could justify their actions, as could other civic leaders, by saying, “Well, the buses still have to run. People still have to get where they’re going. We can’t delay mail.” But we don’t use that justification to quell parades or to end block parties. So for a march which is of national consequence, we should understand that our streets are playing to a higher sensibility, which is: how are people who are citizens of this republic going to express themselves and speak truth to power? And if we’re not careful, we can use a bureaucratic humdrum to quash dissent all the time.

Doug: And I was also thinking about something that you hit on in what you just said, Shabazz, which was that the more the cops seem to impose order on the march, the more chaos ensued.

Shabazz Stuart: I was surprised when there were actually a lot of white bodies as well as Black bodies. And there was probably 10,000 to 15,000 people. I remember being very surprised that the police were being—for a lack of a better term—so cartoonish. Because what they were doing in that moment was fulfilling all of the accusations that were being charged upon them. I mean, we were having a conversation about police brutality on a national scale, and in front of us was police brutality. There were people with their hands up, there were bodies flying in all directions. That really was a turning point for me in terms of how I viewed the conversation. I think it was a turning point for a lot of people in that particular space and that particular moment. And I think there are a lot of people there who will probably never look at law enforcement the same way again.

Shabazz Stuart: And it gets us back to this conversation around law enforcement, the public square and what is the purpose of the public square? That the public square is for the public. So one day the public square can be for driving a bus or delivering mail. The next day, the public square could be for a farmers’ market. And the next day, a public square could be for a protest. And I want to reemphasize that what we’re saying is not a radical concept. Freedom of assembly is so important that it’s in the Bill of Rights. It’s also in the New York State Bill of Rights. It’s something that we deemed sufficiently important to the functioning of a good republic that it’s enshrined in multiple constitution documents across the country.

Aaron: You know, we are The War on Cars after all, and there’s been an interesting discussion popping up online really over the last four or five years or so, particularly since Vision Zero initiatives started popping up, Vision Zero traffic safety initiatives, and the advocates of Vision Zero have often discussed enforcement to make streets safer. And there’s been a lot of pushback on that, saying, you know, hey, like, calling for more enforcement to make streets safer does not necessarily make streets safer for Black and brown people. And, you know, the bike advocacy movement does tend to be a very white and male movement. And I think, you know, there was clearly a blindness to that. There’s been some writing lately saying essentially like, you can’t actually have a movement for safe streets until you deal with the problem of racism.

Shabazz Stuart: There is a lot to unpack in this conversation. I think it’s a conversation that’s long overdue in our community. Look, we cannot be afraid of the term “enforcement.” And I’m afraid that we’re heading in this direction where all enforcement is bad. Enforcement is a necessary mechanism in the ecosystem of a society that functions with law. If you have laws, your laws need to be supported by an enforcement mechanism at some point, otherwise why bother having laws? And I think we risk being naive if we think that we can have a fully functional legal system without some form of enforcement. So when we talk again about abolishing police departments, we’re talking about completely rebuilding what our enforcement mechanisms look like. And the question is not to abolish the notion of enforcement, the question is to fix the notion of enforcement.

Shabazz Stuart: But secondly, it’s also an inclusion argument. How do we go into communities, and as planners or as advocates assume that we know what these communities want without including these communities in the conversation? Here in New York City, half of all the residents are Black and brown, right? Only 40 percent of the residents are white. But when you go to, say, street advocacy groups, when you go to planning groups, when you go to groups who advocate for those who ride mass transit, the overwhelming majority are white, and the majority of them all are pretty much male. So how can this non-representative group decide for everyone else what is going to be best practice and appropriate for scale across such a diverse city? So all of the online essays that you’re reading are actually giving a very fundamental point, which is that our safe streets, our current planning paradigm is fundamentally undemocratic. You have Black and brown communities seeing solutions imposed upon them to which they’ve have no input, or very little input, and that often can leave people at best feeling like they are irrelevant and at worst feeling angry.

Sarah: And do you think that this movement as it’s emerging in the streets now offers a way forward to make that process more inclusive? Do you think that we can take this moment and use it not just to reform the way we deploy law enforcement, but also to reform the way we plan and manage streets?

Shabazz Stuart: I think the movement—the conversation we’re having now across the country is focused narrowly on the role of law enforcement and then broadly on white supremacy. I don’t know if you can narrow it down to traffic enforcement, right? Because we’re having a really broad conversation about enforcement and laws and police, globally speaking. I do think in the short term, you can be mindful of the advocates, that enforcement as it is today is inherently problematic, but you have to be mindful that simply saying we need more enforcement is not going to be a silver bullet or a panacea that solves our problems. So we have to account for the problematic nature of law enforcement on our streets in our planning schemes.

Shabazz Stuart: We have to address that explicitly in our policies. We have to say, “Okay, well, if we enforce bicycle lanes, why are Black and brown people more likely to get stopped for running red lights on a bike, or for driving and—what do those stops look like?” We have to think about that and can account for that. It doesn’t mean that we say no more enforcement. So if we include Black and brown voices in our conversation in a respectful manner that is humanizing and acknowledging of their diverse experiences, then we can expect to resolve some of these challenges by virtue of having these people, this constituency, at the table with us as we discuss these issues. So these questions that we’re facing are very daunting, for sure, but we can take some degree of reassurance in knowing that the answer is actually very simple: we need more Black and brown voices as part of our process. We need to go seek them out and include them at our conversation table so we can create better plans going forward that are reflective of the diversity of our community.

Aaron: Before we wrap up, I just wanted to try to touch on this idea of the automobile and democracy, because, you know, so often when we talk about the car or we think about the history of the car, we think about it as—or we talk about it as a democratizing force in American life. Especially in the early 20th century, Henry Ford paying people $5 a day to work on the assembly line, that created a middle class and it gave people opportunity and it gave people access. You know, and I think a lot about looking at the uprising that we’re seeing today for Black Lives Matter in America, I think a little bit about the Egyptian uprising of 2011, and the images we saw in Tahrir Square, which is this place that is, like, notoriously choked with traffic on a regular day. I mean, it’s like famously just this utterly gridlocked traffic circle, that during the Arab Spring in Egypt became a place where people gathered. It was like Cairo’s Barclay Center. And one of the impressions you really got was that, you know, if you’re a dictator, if you’re somebody who doesn’t really want democracy to happen in your city or your country, you’re much happier with a Tahrir Square choked with gridlock, with every citizen sitting in their own metal box unable to communicate in any way other than just honking at each other, rather than a Tahrir Square filled with people who are, like, together and communicating with each other and collaborating and working together. Is the automobile itself sort of anathema to democracy?

Shabazz Stuart: Look, I’ve never driven a car in my life. So I’ve been a passenger in a vehicle, and the element of the question that resonates with me is thinking about being on a bike and thinking about being a passenger on mass transit versus thinking about being a passenger in a vehicle, and thinking about the tone, tenor and quality of my interactions with citizens. And, you know, when you’re on the street, when you’re walking, when you’re biking, when you’re on mass transit, you are with other people. Conversations happen, you are getting a sense of what’s happening around you in society.

Aaron: If someone’s in your way on the sidewalk, you don’t just go up to their face and go “Honk!” Right? Like, it’s a different relationship.

Shabazz Stuart: Yeah, I mean, and look I’ve been—one of the things that’s interesting to me also about this is going back to the conversation that’s being had on Twitter, but also in other forums and formats. One of the pieces that I read kind of said, let’s put a pause on banning cars, right? And let’s stop banning cars because Black people need their cars. And thinking about what happened to Philando Castile, for example, thinking about what happened to those two young people in Atlanta that were dragged out of their car by the police that bashed in their windows, right? In South Atlanta. Like, Sean Bell was shot 51 times in his van.

Shabazz Stuart: So, you know, it’s hard for me to grapple with are cars antithetical to democracy as a whole. I think there are democracies that have plenty of cars. But what is more bankrupt is do cars help democracy? There is this idea that it was American, which was that if we all had cars, we’d all be able to go wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted, with whoever we wanted. And it didn’t take us very long to figure out that redlining was still a thing, that neighborhoods were still off limits, that police officers were gonna still beat you up, whether you are walking or riding or in a vehicle. That you could still get stopped on the highway, you could still—you know, driving while Black was a thing just like biking while Black was a thing. We can still get frisked. Stop and frisk can happen in a car, it can happen on the street.

Shabazz Stuart: And so one of the big things that we’ve had to fight against as advocates is divorcing ourselves from this idea that cars are somehow ancillary to American democracy. Which sounds absurd when we say it, but actually has become a key part of American culture, this idea that to be an enfranchised American, you must have access to a car. If you think about it, that is, in popular culture, the thing you do, you get the vote, you get to drive with your driver’s license and you drive. That has been such a false flag, and that has been something that is so profoundly damaging and off base for what we need to focus on in society. And when I saw those statements being parlayed in some of those pieces, that thought occurred to me that wow, we’re seeing this element, this assumption that cars equal democracy, cars equal safety. And there’s no evidence whatsoever that’s actually true. It’s a key part of the American psyche.

Aaron: That seems like a great spot to wrap up. Shabazz, I just want to, on behalf of all of us, thank you so much for joining us to talk about what’s going on and process these events. We really appreciate it.

Shabazz Stuart: Thank you for having me.

Aaron: So that’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Thanks so much everybody for listening.

Sarah: Don’t forget to rate and review us on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, we always love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected], or you can find us on Twitter, always too much, Twitter @thewaroncars.

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Aaron: This episode was edited by Ali Lemer. You can find links in the show notes and on our website, Thewaroncars.org. I am Aaron Naparstek.

Doug: I’m Doug Gordon.

Sarah: I’m Sarah Goodyear. And this is The War on Cars.