One Lesson from the Boston Highway Blockades: Progressives Must Organize the Suburbs
Last Thursday, a bunch of local activists blocked two major highways on the outskirts of Boston for hours in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Whatever one wants to say about their tactical and strategic acumen, they acted decisively when others did not. And for that they are to be commended.
However, there was certainly some blowback from the blockades. Riding on the back of vicious rhetoric of the type not aired in public in these parts since the busing battles of the 1970s. Not your normal Howie Carr style epithets either, but real scary Klan-level stuff. The comment sections of the websites of all major Boston media - and some national and international media besides - were alight with dozens of calls to literally torture, dismember and/or execute the blockaders.
Of course, it's easy to say outrageous things when you're posting anonymously in online forums. But it was clear that it was largely people from the suburbs - the very people who were late to work because of the blockades - who were spewing the bile in question. While hundreds more of their contemporaries indicated their extreme displeasure with the highway actions minus the casual death threats.
So I thought I should see what people from the suburbs that I know personally would say about the matter in the proverbial light of day before starting work on this editorial.
I did that by simply asking for feedback on Facebook from my relatives and friends who live in Boston's suburbs. Over a dozen people responded - all white, from a mix of political backgrounds ranging from solidly conservative to solidly progressive with the majority of them somewhere in-between politically. The most interesting thing about their responses was that most of them thought the blockades were a bad idea. While some thought the blockades were a stupid or dangerous idea.
A number of respondents - conservatives included - said that they agreed with people's right to protest, but disagreed with their methods in this case. Because they felt that the blockades were dangerous to protestors and the people stuck in traffic alike. Some mentioned the issue of the ambulance that had to be diverted away from one of our big downtown hospitals to a less prestigious suburban hospital because of the blockades. They thought that was an even worse problem than making tens of thousands of people late for work or appointments. I don't exactly agree since emergency services personnel are trained to deal with unexpected obstacles of all kinds, do so every day, and did in this case. But I certainly understand why people feel that way. No one wants a loved one stuck in an ambulance in a traffic jam - regardless of the cause.
Obviously, I don't agree at all with people who say that the blockades shouldn't have happened. Too many black people are being executed by cops for anything ranging from minor offenses to nothing at all to tell protestors that they should just stick to traditional rallies, marches and lobbying to stop the violence against communities of color.
On the other hand, I do see a problem with the way that the blockade organizers conceptualized their action that speaks to a larger problem with left-wing American politics at this point in history.
The problem being that at least some of the blockade organizers viewed suburbanites as rich people.
In the first of two press releases put out by the blockade organizers and reprinted by the Boston Globe, the protestors said "And so, for four and a half hours, we disrupt access from the predominantly white, wealthy suburbs to Boston’s city center."
That statement is indicative of a flawed analysis. Most Boston suburbs may be largely white. But most white suburbanites are working class and middle class. Under intense economic pressure, and generally a few paychecks away from penury. Not wealthy at all.
Telling suburbanites that they are all rich people is not the right way to win them over to a cause like #BlackLivesMatter.
A criticism that naturally assumes that the blockade organizers wanted to win over people in Boston's suburbs in the first place.
But judging from their statements and their actions, I don't think they did. In fact, I think that the tendency within left-wing circles in American cities since the Civil Rights Movement is to basically assume that suburbs are hopelessly racist and conservative. And that organizing the people that they believe to be the most oppressed - working class people of color in the cities - is the way to go.
To my mind, and this is a long-standing critique on my part, this attitude cedes the American suburbs to the right-wing.
I believe this explains why relatively few progressive organizations have a significant base in the suburbs. Those that do include some labor unions (like the Mass. Nurses Association and the newly resurgent Mass. Teachers Association), some community organizations (primarily anti-poverty groups like the various MASSCAP agencies and immigrant organizations like the MIRA Coalition), some feminist groups (like NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts and Mass NOW), some religious organizations (like the Unitarian-Universalists and the United Church of Christ), and some of the more left-wing segments of the Democratic Party (like Progressive Massachusetts and local MoveOn.org chapters). In most suburbs, these organizations are politically weak - except during focused single-issue campaigns like fights over referendum questions and during gubernatorial and Presidential election campaigns where they put out a great deal of effort for very little return from the center-right led Democratic Party.
A related issue is that there's very little left-wing news media in the United States - and, for a variety of reasons, what little there is reaches far more urbanites than suburbanites. As such, given an economic system in which people are expected to work longer and longer hours for less and less money - and in which suburbanites therefore have very little time to pay consistent attention to even the major corporate news media (and the political economic system that it spends less and less time covering) - what little information that people in the suburbs get on key issues of the day is usually coming either from the centrist corporate news media (a.k.a. the "liberal" media like nightly network news shows) or the right-wing corporate news media (mainly Fox News and its coreligionists). Both of which compete for people's time with entertainment media, video games and what remains of public life (religious, sports, service, art and leisure activities). An entertainment media which itself is owned by the same media conglomerates that own the news media ... whose CEOs recognize that there's far more profit to be made with entertainment media than with news media.
So, suburbanites have very little knowledge about the world outside their communities that isn't mediated by corporate elites and their bought politicians, academics and foundation flacks. And what little they do know about issues like the effects of structural racism on our society is based on emotional appeals by those often very unscrupulous sources to attack people below them on the class ladder - like immigrants and black urbanites - rather than looking to the upper class and the institutions they control as the ultimate source of many of their problems.
This is one big reason why my suburban friends and relatives tend to be more politically conservative than my urban ones. They are only exposed to a very narrow range of news and analysis on a very sporadic basis. Without a broader range of information at their disposal, and constant open debate about said information, they more easily accept capitalist truisms about the world around them - assuming that, as Margaret Thatcher famously stated, "there is no alternative" to neoliberal capitalism. Truisms like "poor people are poor because they are lazy." Rather than, "poor people are poor because rich people are hoarding the product of the labor of the vast majority of humanity - and using the media, the police and sometimes the military to keep everyone in line."
If the broad American left had a significant presence in the suburbs, and had already built a robust media presence that reached the suburbs, I think a lot of people like my suburban friends and relatives would be a lot more sympathetic to largely urban movements like #BlackLivesMatter. And more accepting of actions like last week's blockades of Boston highways.
But neither of those things has happened.
If the political left is going to become a significant force in America again, it's going to have to try much harder to organize people in the suburbs. Or at least engage them directly on a regular basis. This will be a big challenge, but one very much worth pursuing. A project that this publication definitely wants to assist.
If that does not happen, then some of the psychotic threats that too many white Boston suburbanites made in the aftermath of last week's blockades will be acted upon. Both individually, and even more dangerously, politically.
As it stands, increasingly conservative suburban voters have already done tremendous damage to the American body politic since the late 1960s. The last thing we need is for the suburbs to move further to the right.
However, if progressives do start to put in a good faith effort to organize the suburbs, they will find far more support among white suburbanites and suburbanites in the near future. For actions like highway blockades that do really inconvenience suburban commuters, and for movements for social justice like #BlackLivesMatter that inspire such tactics. And maybe change American politics for the better in the process.
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston, and Assistant Professor of Communications at Lesley University. He was born in Boston, MA and raised in Peabody, MA - a predominantly white working and middle class suburb.