Freeway Takeovers: The Reemergence of the Collective through Urban Disruption

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Freeway protests on Highway 5 near La Jolla, CA circa Dec 2014

[Editor’s Note: Last night citizens in Chicago shut down Lake Shore Drive in protest over the Staten Island grand jury’s refusal to indict the police officer responsible for the choking death of Eric Garner. Yet in SoCal, protesters have been using the freeways as a vehicle for protest and political awareness for decades. UCSD PhD candidates Troy Araiza Kokinis and Jael Vizcarra explain the goals, meaning and context of these protests and others like them.]

Driving along the Interstate 5 in Southern California makes commuters privy to the militarization of port cities like San Diego. It is not unusual to encounter a tank headed to Camp Pendleton or a truck filled with “1.4 Explosives.” These sightings normalize the spatial coexistence of daily life with technologies of destruction. These quotidian reminders along the freeway belie the laid back, “chill” ethos that San Diego relies on to attract visitors. San Diego’s freeways are redolent of war and an inflated defense budget.

The trail of freeway takeovers witnessed after the Ferguson verdict that acquitted Darren Wilson has once again revealed the extent to which urban geographies remain highly racialized spaces. The freeways, essential arteries to the flow of capital, goods, and labor in the city, have the dual function of compartmentalizing the various racialized populations who reside in spatially segregated communities. The freeway divides urban space along racial lines and the history of its construction exposes the conflict over who has a right to safety in the city. Communities of color have long experienced intrusions into their communities in the form of slabs of concrete. Prior to the gentrification trends affecting most major US cities, residents of cities like San Diego and Los Angeles organized to bring attention to local government’s intervention into their neighborhoods. Residents whose living quarters were threatened resorted to tactics such as freeway takeovers to maintain their communities intact.

One of the many examples can be found in the legacy of Chicano Park in San Diego’s Mexican-American working-class neighborhood of Barrio Logan. Barrio Logan has been segregated since the early 1900s, when white leaders in San Diego focused their attention to the downtown waterfront and displaced Black and Latino residents into Logan Heights and Southeast San Diego. The city then doubled down on their plans of spatial exclusion in the 1950s, when Barrio Logan residents were blockaded from accessing the beach due to the expansion of the National City Naval Base. Shortly after, the San Diego City Council decided to initiate construction of the San Diego Coronado Bridge and added ramps connecting to Interstate 5. The Naval Base expansion plans rezoned Barrio Logan and turned it into an urban laboratory envisioning a harmonious coexistence between industry and a working-class neighborhood. Moreover, the decision to court the navy was also due to the belief that it would attract a non-radical, middle class, and white population to the neighborhood. The decision to not consult the residents regarding the drastic changes in their community demonstrates a deeply rooted disregard for the dwellings of poor and working-class racialized groups in the US. The neighborhoods of Mexican-Americans were not deemed valuable and worthy of the amenities afforded to the white, affluent residents of Coronado.

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Protesting in Barrio Logan circa 1970s

This was not the first time that a city council opted to use neighborhoods of color as urban planning experiments. Barrio Logan’s disruption coincided with the emerging Chicano Movement of the 60s and Logan residents spoke against the industrial pollution and waste dumped into their backyards. Residents blocked the construction of the freeway ramps and temporarily brought construction of the Coronado Bridge to a halt. Today, the bridge hovers over the neighborhood and imposes itself over the skies of Harbor Drive. Unable to stop the construction, the residents turned the pillars of the Bridge into Chicano Park. The mural covered walls depict classic Chicano Power imagery evocative of other struggles of land and labor, such as those organized by Cesar Chavez in Delano. Arguably the most recognized mural is the shrill “Varrio Si. Yonkes No!” (Yes to the Barrio. No to the Junkyard!), a symbol of working-class resistance in a militarized zone. Chicano Park is a standing reminder of the history of land struggle in San Diego involving urban development and racialized working-class communities.

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ASCO in action circa 1970s

East Los Angeles serves as another important example of a racialized working-class community threatened by the construction of freeways. In the 1960s, the 60, 10, 101, 710, and 5 Freeways were all extended to cut through the East Los Angeles neighborhood. This environment spawned what Raul Homero Villa has coined as East LA’s “expressway generation”, from where some of East LA’s finest muralists emerged. Throughout the 1970s, ASCO, one of the area’s most important Chicano art collectives, used the walls of the freeways as a canvas to paint political slogans, like “Pinchi Placa Come Caca” (Fucking Pigs Eat Shit), “Gringo Laws = Dead Chicanos”, “Kill the Pigs”, and “Comida Para Todos” (Food For Everyone). ASCO turned these geographical sites of state power, the freeways, into forms of communication that expressed the relationship between spatial formation and racial tension.

Willie Herron, a member of ASCO, also played in one of East LA’s first punk bands, called Los Illegals. Herron specifically addressed the freeway’s divisive role in the lyrics to the song “We Don’t Need a Tan” (1981):

We’ve got our own sector where they keep us away.

Rip out our houses just to build a freeway.

The media burns us. They rip out our pride.

They stereotype us like in boulevard nights.

The intrusion of the forces of urban order into the racialized neighborhoods of Barrio Logan and East LA have taken the form of symbols of progress and modernity like expansive freeways and state of the art military facilities. The contradictions that are made visible by this type of urban development provide the historical context necessary to understand racialized and marginalized folks’ decision to agitate and disrupt the very development that threatens to inhibit the reproduction of their communities. For racialized communities already marginalized in the city as low-skilled workers and excess labor, these forms of development have only sought to discipline their communities through further fragmentation. In the case of Barrio Logan, the Coronado Bridge connecting the mainland to Coronado Island became a site of contestation when its residents disrupted the construction numerous times and turned the bridge into a space for collective enjoyment. The seizing of the bridge and the refurbishing of the concrete bespeak the desires of communities of color for a different experience in the city, an experience not subtended on their removal from the urban landscape.

The California freeway has long been a contested space historically and for this reason it is no wonder that protesters have sieged the highways and interstates during times of social upheaval. The Ferguson-related California freeway takeovers have had a series of recent predecessors that have relied on disruptions to infrastructure to make collective grievances visible. In 2006, 40,000 high school students across Los Angeles walked out in protest of immigration legislation, taking over the 110 and 101 Freeways in three different locations. These freeway takeovers are most likely some of the earliest in public historical memory.  In 2013, Angelinos witnessed protesters take over the 10 and 101 Freeways after George Zimmerman was found not-guilty of murdering an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin. The recent Ferguson verdict has sparked a total of six freeway takeovers by members of working class minority communities throughout California: four in San Diego, one in Los Angeles, and one in Oakland.

So what can we learn from the recent trend of freeway takeovers?

Urban spaces are racialized. In spite of the gentrification processes displacing the racialized poor and working classes, it has become very difficult to negate the continued disenfranchisement, incarceration, and killing of black and brown bodies. In fact, gentrification processes likely exacerbated the economic and social tensions that existed prior to the “urban renewal” trends present across the US. Although the post-racial understanding of urban space has erased the relevance of race in both the popular imaginary and its embodied presence, these moments of social crisis serve as the physical and material manifestations of the tensions that processes such as gentrification aim to ignore. The freeways constructed through urban spaces were originally meant to connect white suburban spaces to the financial and industrial enterprises located in the metropolis. However, as the gentrification processes increase, the freeway is used to connect young, white professionals living downtown or in recently renewed urban spaces, to their high-paying tech jobs or to weapons manufacturing sites located in isolated islands of wealth in the urban periphery, like San Diego’s La Jolla and Sorrento Valley or the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley (See http://camplajolla.org/).

Even though the city is imagined as post-racial, California’s freeways still play an essential role in dividing urban space along racial lines. In Los Angeles, the recently gentrified downtown area is divided from East Los Angeles by a river and five freeways. In San Diego, working class immigrant City Heights is divided fromgentrified queer and bohemian districts Hillcrest and North Park by the 805 Freeway; Barrio Logan is separated from the famous Gaslamp District in downtown by the 5 Freeway and Coronado Bridge. In the Bay Area, the black working class neighborhood of West Oakland is encircled by the 80, 880, and 580 Freeways, which separate it from the gentrifying East Oakland on the border of Berkeley. Although these freeways are finally beginning to fail as barriers to gentrification, they still serve as some of the last clearly understood markers of an “us and them” in post-racial urban space.

Freeways delimit the use of space and are infrastructural markers of inequality in the city. Since they also serve an important economic function, the targeting of these spaces reflects a class consciousness among the racialized urban poor and working classes. The tactic of freeway takeovers is channeled towards a source of corporate and state power – the arteries of the global commodity chain. The participants of the takeovers express a disregard towards the interests of commerce, capital, and the state. This disavowal of capital is synonymous with the interest of racialized communities in refusing to accept the “mutual interests” they are expected to share with commerce and the state. These takeovers are not just haphazard but strategic. They target those who benefit the most from the commerce-oriented infrastructure of the city – a mostly white professional class. Moreover, protesters recognize an outside enemy that is not within the racialized urban community and target an external entity. This externalization of the grievance, whether it be rooted in anti-immigrant sentiment or racist cops, counters the idea that racial tensions are just about sour grapes among racial groups. Targeting the freeway, a structure, is another way of pointing to the way white supremacy is also a structure and cannot be overcome individually through individual choice. All the freeway takeovers discussed have in common the following feature: they are popular acts that insist on reformulating a critique in a collective manner that seeks to bring attention to the historical and structural roots of the social ailments they address.

California protesters are not the first to target freeways as protest spaces. In fact, freeway takeovers are extremely common in Latin America. In September 2014, Yaqui Indians in Vicam, Sonora blocked Mexican Federal Highway 15 for multiple weeks in protest of toxins dumped in their water supply. Moreover, parents and students have used freeway takeovers to protest the murder of the 43 students in Ayotzinapa, Mexico by the state and paramilitary forces. The frequent use of this tactic throughout Latin America at least serves as an inspiration for this recent trend in California. The tactic is extremely familiar to the many migrants who come from rural regions of Mexico and Central America. After all, contemporary migration from Mexico and Central America is largely facilitated by the displacement rural peoples whose fates have been intertwined with the expansion of NAFTA and transportation of goods along highway systems. The use of this tactic by heterogeneous working class communities of color may even reflect a broader cultural contribution of the migrant population.

City Heights protest, 2014

Working class minority communities are not the only sites of freeway takeovers. On November 26, 2014 UC San Diego’s Black Student Union took over the 5 Freeway in La Jolla, California. However, being a poor, racialized, and criminalized person of color in Ferguson is not the same as being a student of color at UC San Diego. UCSD students, even if considered disruptive, have not been represented as rioters, looters, and thugs. The freeway takeover tactic sidesteps the need to rectify and assimilate some forms of protest over others – it makes disruption the main goal and avoids drawing a line between the “good” protestor and the “bad” one. Black and brown bodies are already perceived as threatening and criminal, but depending on their location in the city (are you in La Jolla? Barrio Logan?) those bodies are more prone to be harassed at the hands of police.

It is important that UCSD’s Black Student Union brought traffic to a halt in a space like La Jolla, where 83% of the population is white and houses cost slightly more than $2 million on average. La Jolla has been designed to repel and neutralize the types of challenges to the status quo that the Black Student Union made visible. The freeway takeover that occurred was a necessary response to the business-as-usual attitude pervading white, upper-class neighborhoods that do not bear the brunt of daily traffic stops, racial profiling, and arbitrary ID checks. Protesters brought to La Jolla a feeling of the same level of disruption that thousands of South County San Diego inhabitants feel everyday.

The freeway takeovers that have been happening over the span of a week display a collective desire and a renewed sense of urgency. There is no alternative to overthrowing white supremacy and civic disruption refuses to allow the perpetuation of anti-black racism. These actions center race as an inevitable and unavoidable truth in contemporary life in America, and as long as the lives of people of color continue to be vulnerable to state terror and violence, cities like La Jolla will continue to be vulnerable to unforeseen disruptions. The dysfunction and disorder caused by a freeway takeover re-channels the urgency of the freely flowing space into the need to radically alter the current social structure.

Jael Vizcarra is a Ph.D. student in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California San Diego. She researches the self-organization of immigrants and her current project is a comparative study of Mexican migrant women active in the informal economy of Los Angeles and Turkish migrant women active in the informal economy of Berlin. She is also interested in the cultural production of people of color and popular representations of race in music, film, and politics.

Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis is PhD student in Latin American History and Teaching Assistant in Sixth College’s Culture, Art, and Technology Writing Program. His dissertation, titled “Anarchism and Armed Struggle in Midcentury Río de la Plata,” investigates the role of anarchist organizations during the Dirty Wars in Argentina and Uruguay. He specifically focuses on the relationship between anarchist groups and populist political movements, such as Peronismo and the Frente Amplio. Other interests include Fascism in Latin America, Spanish and Italian anarchism, Situationism, Chicano art history, Southern California micro­punk scenes, and Morrissey.