Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
From drive-through rallies to video demonstrations, the public resistance of the coronavirus era adopts new strategies, and advances very different causes.
A seething woman wearing USA gear is leaning out of a pickup truck in Denver, Colorado. She points at her sign — “Land of the Free” — while around her, vehicles blare their horns. Facing the metal mass are a pair of health care workers clad in teal scrubs. They’re serene, blocking the crosswalk with crossed arms.
In San Francisco, a line of cars creeps through downtown, sleeping bags and tents lashed on their roofs. The drivers blare their horns, signs posted on their windows demand “#HotelRoomsNotHospitalBeds” and “Test us now! We need to know!” On the sidewalk, advocates wearing bandanas cheer; photographers leap into the street to capture the traffic.
The two genres of protest could not have been more different in intent. One was convened on April 13 by San Francisco housing advocates to pressure the city to house its large homeless population in vacant hotels before cases of Covid-19 spread within the city’s shelters. The other happened a week later, one of several “Operation Gridlock” events organized by right-wing organizations to advocate for an early end to statewide shelter-in-place orders — an act that public health experts say risks detonating a powder keg of contagion.
The kinds of vehicles seemed to tell one story about the divergent desires of the protesters — the Gridlock gatherings tended to feature long lines of trucks and SUVs; in San Francisco, the crowd drove more modest Hyundais and Toyota sedans. The signs and the expressions of the protesters and counter-protesters told another. But both were navigating the same novel question faced by passionate people across the globe: How to organize attention-grabbing acts of public resistance at a time when gathering in the streets can be perilous.
The abrupt pause in large physical mobilization comes after a period when, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, the U.S. saw record bursts of vibrant in-person protests. A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll released in April 2018 showed that, since the beginning of 2016, “one in five Americans have protested in the streets or participated in political rallies.” Nearly 20% of them had never done so before.
“The whipsaw of going from the highest levels of public collective actions to this situation — where certain kinds of protest are completely impossible and people are having to innovate to take collective action on a smaller scale — jumps out at me as one of the great ironies of this moment,” said L.A. Kauffman, an organizer and author of the 2018 book How To Read a Protest: The Art of Organizing and Resistance.*
Though holding a well-attended rally has become more challenging in the coronavirus era, the urge to gather and yell and effect change hasn’t waned. And historically, pandemics have helped trigger mass mobilizations — sometimes to damaging effect. Cholera outbreaks in the early 1800s were followed by protests against doctors in Ireland and England, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in the New Yorker; by the late 1800s, Neapolitans defied health orders to “confiscate suspect produce” by binging on figs and melons in front of city hall; Ukrainians turned to looting and fire-setting. “[I]n a roundabout sort of way, cholera helped ‘set the stage’ for the Russian Revolution,” Kolbert writes.
In our current pandemic, vehicular protest has emerged as the go-to direct-action strategy. It’s a tried-and-true model that predates the coronavirus: Taxi drivers in Mexico City staged car sit-ins against Uber; commercial truck drivers have used “slow roll” demonstrations to critique industry regulations. For years, large groups of urban bicyclists have staged monthly Critical Mass rides to advocate for the rights of non-automotive road users.
But now, vehicle-based demonstrations are being used as a tool by all kinds of movements that have little relationship to the vehicles themselves. Tenants rights, decarceration, and labor rights advocates have used drive-through protests and car rallies to elevate the needs of essential workers and Covid-vulnerable populations. On April 16, for example, Rideshare Drivers United and the Transport Workers Union of American formed a caravan around California labor offices to push the state to enforce laws making drivers eligible for unemployment insurance.
Stop Solitary Connecticut, an advocacy organization that focuses on ending solitary confinement in state prisons, held a park-and-honk rally on April 6 outside of Governor Ned Lamont’s house. The group has pivoted all its energy into releasing incarcerated people from jail immediately, to save them from the spread of infection. “We haven’t had a single action that has not been car-based,” said Joseph Gaylin, an organizer with Stop Solitary. The group designates people to speak with the press — keeping a six-foot berth — but otherwise, all protests have been done while driving or parking a vehicle, or digitally.
From a certain angle, these traffic-jams-with-a-message feel like sad simulations of what protest should be. One of the goals of mass mobilizations is community-building, Kauffman says; it’s harder for participants to feel the “embodied sense of being part of something larger than themselves” from within the confines of their cars. And in urban environments, fewer people have access to their own vehicles. (I showed up to the San Francisco drive-through rally by bike, masked.)
“It feels weird,” says Gaylin. “The tradition I grew up with was when you’re doing organizing work you come together in physical community.” When we spoke, Gaylin was on his way to a car vigil outside Northern C.I, a state supermax prison where Covid-positive prisoners were being held. Family members of the incarcerated and other activists pulled up outside the prison, got out of their cars, and prayed.
It helps to separate the machinery from the message. Depending on one’s political leanings, seeing committed people jam a city street with their cars to demand housing for the homeless can be read as inspiring — activists are adapting new methods to fight for the public health concerns of others. A similar caravan of drivers advocating for an end to shelter-in-place rules despite being fearful enough of their own exposure to shield themselves inside metal boxes takes a far more hypocritical tenor.
Some urbanists have seized on the optics of Operation Gridlock’s hulking SUVs and trucks demanding the immediate restoration of the conveniences of the American Way of Life. It’s easy to critique the format of their protests as the embodiment of the worst parts of car culture — a selfish form of individualism. “No matter their political persuasion, they are choosing a protest tactic that is inherently inaccessible to non-driving supporters and inherently violent to society by its nature,” wrote Kea Wilson in Streetsblog, noting that it was a vehicle that killed Heather Heyer during 2017’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. But conflating all auto-centric uprisings as one brutal force can obscure the disparate danger posed by the protests themselves, as well as the protesters behind them.
Denver’s caravan was just one of many acts of coronavirus resistance in U.S. cities in recent days, led by conservative groups that were egged on by the Koch brothers and organized on Facebook. In Michigan, Confederate flags and rifles poked out of the windows of the vehicles that swarmed the state capitol on April 15. About 150 drivers rallied in Buffalo’s Niagara Square on April 20, calling on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to reopen the state. Some attendees defy social distancing mandates and gather in person, as several thousand protesters in Madison, Wisconsin, did on Friday. Other foes of stay-home orders have adopted different vehicles to their cause: Anglers in Washington state convened a flotilla of pleasure boats on Sunday to convey their frustrations about Governor Jay Inslee’s ban on recreational fishing during the crisis.
The extensive coverage of these protests has largely overshadowed how unpopular such anti-lockdown sentiments are: Pew Research polling shows that 66% of the country is more afraid of social distancing measures being lifted too quickly than lasting too long, and an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that only 12% feel sheltering measures “go too far.” As made-for-cable-news theater, however, these rallies are doing their job.
Ironically, the defining photo of the reopen-everything protests could be of those who oppose it: the small counter-protest of masked health-care workers in Denver, quietly reminding the furious drivers that winning their fight could have grave consequences. That scene — which was captured by freelance photographer Alyson McClaran — evoked past images of asymmetric stand-offs: Ieshia Evans, the Black Lives Matter activist wearing a long dress who stood stoic before a trio of armored police officers in Baton Rouge in 2016, or the lone man who stared down a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Health care workers stand in the street in counter-protest to hundreds of people who gathered at the State Capitol to demand the stay-at-home order be lifted in Denver, Colo., on Sunday, April 19, 2020. Photos by Alyson McClaran pic.twitter.com/yanunDrVKj— Alyson McClaran (@McclaranAlyson) April 20, 2020
“The power of a protest is not directly related to its size — there are moments where the right people taking the right action ... can make a far more dramatic statement than a much larger action could make,” Kauffman said. “We have a whole set of visual references where what we’re seeing is courage on the part of protesters. It’s changing now, in this era.”
Creative organizing work has been done outside the confines of vehicles, too. On April 19, 2,000 demonstrators gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, spacing themselves out into an even grid across the square to maintain six feet of distance. The demonstration was formed both to protest the formation of a new unity government by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud with longtime rivals the Blue and White Party, and to challenge new powers the Netanyahu government has granted itself in a bid to fight coronavirus.
The site of a huge crowd maintaining such order during a pandemic — and creating an aesthetically striking shape as they did so — likely did far more to amplify their message than anything on their placards. Still, the act itself was antithetical to the social distancing precautions deemed necessary by governments around the world; six feet of distance isn’t a magical shield, and the crowd risked infection to gather.
Under lockdown, housebound Spaniards have revived the tradition of the Cacerolazo, a protest where demonstrators beat cooking pots on balconies that has frequently been used in the past in countries where police crackdowns have made going out to demonstrate dangerous. As they protest the government’s handling of the pandemic and a corruption scandal in the Spanish royal family, people taking part initially hear just themselves and people on neighboring balconies. It is only when footage of the protests spreads that participants see what they really took part in — a deafening national chorus of discontent amplified across social media. The many videos, knit together, become the true site of the protest.
Other powerful acts of coronavirus-era resistance, aptly enough, involve emptiness: Workers for companies like Whole Foods and Instacart and Target have held strikes for better pay and stronger protections for their employers. In a crisis where the public health risks have been disproportionately borne by a small group of critical workers, withholding one’s physical presence can speak volumes.
Disaster-appropriate protests from past crises have involved pointedly providing the kinds of emergency aid that governments failed to muster, in order to highlight the gaps. After Hurricane Sandy damaged Rockaway, Queens, for example, the Occupy Wall Street movement switched gears from protesting the 1% to providing disaster relief to the 99%. The change in focus caused a rift, the New York Times reported, with some Occupy members afraid it was abandoning its fight against capitalism for charity. But the support itself was in line with its anti-corporate roots; by “teaching storm victims about conducting sit-ins” and printing “the crisscrossed ‘A’ symbol of anarchism” inside “In Case of Emergency” signs, the flavor of resistance remained.
During the coronavirus crisis, hundreds of mutual aid efforts have emerged in communities across the country, offering food delivery and emergency supplies from local volunteers. Kauffman says the pandemic-born groups aren’t as explicit about their anarcho-communist roots as others have been. “The mutual aid efforts have been extraordinarily powerful, but that dual character that they historically have where they are both an attempt to provide a solution to a problem and a critique of the institutions who allowed the problem to fester, that’s been harder to make visible,” said Kauffman.
Whether these uprisings translate into political leadership change will likely depend on how nimble governments will be in adapting their election processes so people can vote safely, she says.
But rallying groups now, even at a limited capacity, will have dividends later, says Leighton Johnson, another organizer with Stop Solitary CT. He believes the techniques the group is adopting now — lawsuits, car protests, social media blasts, shame campaigns — will help them to come out of lockdown stronger. “It’s teaching people how to campaign virtually, and I think it’s going to … give more ammunition for the fight,” he said. One day after the Coalition on Homelessness’ car rally, San Francisco supervisors passed a landmark emergency ordinance to demand thousands more hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness. (The struggle continues, as activists press for faster action and San Francisco's mayor London Breed resists.)
Kauffman is hopeful, too, that the energy will carry through to November and beyond. “It’s too hard to know when social distancing is likely to be relaxed and what that’s likely to look like, but I think the proliferation of experiments that we’ve seen already shows that there are a lot of people who are going to be working hard to innovate in the face of this,” said Kauffman. “The need for protest has only grown.”
Feargus O’Sullivan contributed reporting.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story used an incorrect title for this book.