Reportback on bike memorial event & blockade: Guest post by Jules Bentley, New Orleans
July 19, 2014, New Orleans
Yesterday (Friday, July 18) a group of maybe 60-to-80 people met up at Flora’s and spent an evening shutting down traffic. On foot and bike, we took over Franklin, rolled up to and along St. Claude, then held the intersection at St Claude and Elysian for just over a half hour, blocking all automotive movement, though we did let city buses and an emergency vehicle through.
The prompt for this action was the death of Philip “Geric” Geeck, a 52-year old cyclist killed by a truck at the St Claude/Elysian Field intersection Thursday afternoon. Note that his death occurred in broad daylight and his torso was crushed by the truck, so all the blinky LEDs, helmets and other “safety” apparatus marketed to cyclists would not have saved him.
I had some hesitancy about attending this event; I was concerned that an element of it might be demanding police arrest and charge the truck driver, and I didn’t want to lend my presence to any demand for additional policing. During the informal open forum and grievance-airing that took place at Flora’s before the memorial slow-ride / blockade, there were conflicting opinions on that subject.
This wasn’t an anarchist action by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a disruption of business as usual, and an example of collective, leaderless direct action taken by those most affected (cyclists) in response to a threat to their lives.
Also contrary to my worries, it turned out there were only a couple of cycle bros — for those fortunate enough not to be familiar with this demographic, these are one of the near-infinite subsets of the category “hyper-entitled white dudes”— snapback-wearing, skinny-tire-riding, tastefully-small-diameter-plug-having tight-pants type alterna-jocks. The overwhelming majority of the group, and those who were talking most, were familiar neighborhood faces, age-and-otherwise diverse, many of them local or at least pre-Katrina.
Make no mistake, there were one or two annoying voices, but by and large the group was frumpy, fat, cranky old-school Marigny/Bywater weirdos. As others have noted, Geeck himself was in many ways a quintessential downtown bohemian— a working-class queer sculptor and artist who adored animals, held multiple jobs, including as a waiter, and liked dressing up as Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
I have read some criticisms online (I know it beggars belief that people online would criticize an action) opining that the tactic of seizing space was too confrontational, that it was “alienating” or an exercise in privilege. I guess I don’t see how, when someone is killed horribly, a bunch of people of that exact same demographic coming together to mourn and express outrage is “alienating” to anyone who’s not a dick to begin with. These weren’t careerist non-profiteers or recently-arrived outsiders speaking on behalf of a community they weren’t part of; we were people who bike between work and home, coming together to honor one of our own and rage against his pointless and unnecessary demise. Many of the people involved were scared, at least initially— it takes courage to block traffic, especially if you aren’t used to disobeying rules. Shutting down Elysian Fields was a genuine and relatively spontaneous expression of how upset we are, and I think the front-page, above-the-fold coverage this action got in the newspaper is proof that it was an effective means of calling attention to the issue.
When business-as-usual is literally killing you— for instance, the way traffic-as-usual has been killing bicyclists— you need to disrupt business as usual, and people that cry about that need to get their priorities straight. Petitions, grant-funded nonprofits and friends commiserating on each others’ Facebook pages don’t get the goods. Direct action gets the goods, and nothing else in history has ever worked worth a damn. To cite a recent and demographically relevant example, MACCNO (the pro-music coalition) storming City Hall with a brass band is what finally crushed the proposed noise ordinance, not petitions or letters to the editor.
When we reached the intersection where Geeck was killed, various of us arrayed ourselves across the lakebound lanes of Elysian while those who knew Geeck personally had a long, very moving shared moment of communion at and around the memorial set up in the neutral ground. By closing off the road to automotive traffic, we provided space for the mourning: Geeck’s loved ones, who were mostly on foot, were able to pass back and forth freely from the downriver side of Elysian to the neutral ground via this seized corridor of space.
As more people became comfortable, the blockade itself evolved from a few grim-faced cycle-straddling sentinels into a subdued but positive social environment; people wandered around the blocked lanes catching up with friends, meeting new people and, in many cases, sharing their own experiences of being threatened or hit by cars while bicycling.When the cops finally showed up, their first question was, “Who’s in charge?” Nobody was, but the cops kept repeating the question. Various of us shouted “No-one’s in charge!” Finally, a young woman was like “Actually, EVERYONE here is in charge,” which I thought was a lovely moment. The cops wanted us to clear one of the lanes, as a compromise, and this young woman yelled to the assembled blockade, “Do we feel like clearing a lane?”
The unified, collective answer was NO!
The police were stymied. A stand-off ensued— most just ignored the police, but a couple people, including an older trans person whom I often see hanging around Mardi Gras Zone, engaged the cops in circular and endless dialogue, which at least kept the cops distracted.
Eventually, Victor, who had witnessed the death yesterday and was a primary organizing force behind the event, but who at no point tried to tell anyone what to do, got up and suggested we give the intersection back. “This intersection is ours,” he told the cops. “We’re giving it back to you temporarily; it’s a loan. If our voices aren’t heard, if our lives aren’t valued, we’ll be back.”
Unless we were ready to escalate, which I don’t think we were, the blockade had to end sometime, and this provided a tidy closure; we relinquished the space on our own terms, and disbanded without arrest.
~ Jules Bentley
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