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A Fragile Answer to the Question of “Whose Streets?”

The experience of our cities has been radically transformed by protest. Which visions of the future do these moments impart?

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

A city is a big thing—big enough that, typically, we must manage it in chunks: as a string of favorite neighborhoods, a well-worn subway line, a local park. These personalized territories are small and bordered by habit, but in the dual emergency of a pandemic and a nationwide uprising against racist police violence, they have been transcended by something bigger. Across America, cities are being fiercely contested and remade as collective space. They appear now in the birds-eye perspective, as spasming heat maps of protest movements and police incursions. Every block is implicated in a battleground, so we’re finding that the American metropolis looms large once more.

In New York last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio figured out how to use this size against his constituents. His strategy treated protesters—or any person who challenged his authority and the New York City Police Department—as insurgents to be immobilized and corralled. When his 11 p.m. curfew was largely ignored last Monday, he shut things down the next day at 8 p.m. Authorities erected barricades and ended ride and bike shares, pinning curfew-breakers in place. Many of those who had been out faced a question that, in a city chronically divested from public transport, felt pre-pandemic, familiar: How the fuck am I getting home? Some walked. Others funneled into subways and buses, potentially exposing themselves and essential workers to the coronavirus in the process.

Before the pandemic, a years-long transportation crisis had rendered New York inconvenient for everyone beyond the wealthy elite and often unlivable for black, brown, and other minoritized communities. In the third-most-congested city in the world, where more than half of residents do not own a car, the poorest neighborhoods get the oldest buses. In addition to its general decrepitude, the subway became the site of a violent fare-evasion crackdown in 2019; that same year, cops admitted to profiling black and Latinx commuters. A New York Times analysis found that only a quarter of the city’s 472 subway stations had elevators, and two-thirds of New Yorkers who have difficulty walking live more than 10 minutes from an accessible station. To quell the recent surge of unrest, the mayor has had recourse to an old, definitive paradigm: a transport grid that slows people down and keeps them at home.

Freezing the bike and ride shares that protesters rely on seemed not just punitive but trickily preemptive on the authorities’ part. On Tuesday, Citi Bike announced that during the course of a weeklong curfew, bike rentals would terminate at 6 p.m.—two hours before curfew, and what might reasonably be called peak protest commute hours. (How else could one plan to arrive at Gracie Mansion in time for an evening demonstration?) Then came reports of NYPD officers stealing bikes from protesters, enforcing their confiscations with batons, and ensnaring at least one journalist amid the seizures. A civil rights attorney called this maneuver “as lawless as it looks.”

This type of theft is both anti-protest and part of a long-term trend, rooted in the city’s tessellating systems of police surveillance, racial discrimination, and neoliberal austerity. The NYPD had already been sitting on a stockpile of e-bikes thanks to de Blasio, who in 2017 began cracking down on them after more affluent residents called riders—many of them immigrant delivery workers—“reckless.” When the pandemic hit full swing, authorities wound back these seizures in recognition of the essential labor these workers were now risking their lives to do, and state legislators later swept in budget language to legalize the bikes completely. Yet as scholar Mimi Sheller notes in her book, Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes, legal status is hardly a guarantee for free movement; a city’s “law and order” apparatus will often front for its pervasive regime of disciplining and patrolling streets, through racist but theoretically legal “police stops, searches, arrests, police shootings and imprisonment.” The law is a matter of fickle interpretation, anyway, when it’s NYPD doing the enforcing. Last week, a viral video showed police apprehending a Caviar delivery worker for breaking curfew, even as he pleaded with the officers that his job meant he was legally exempt. His courier bag was in full view as they handcuffed him.

Both plainly and subtly, New York City has worked to impede the mobility of its poor and marginalized residents. It is now, with fewer cars and more protesters on the street, that the terms of this game are changing, stiffening, into an explicit tactical conflict between authorities and a resistant population. Law enforcement has weaponized the city’s geography—trapping people on bridges and kettling them on city blocks. Meanwhile, those in the streets have used Citi Bikes and Revels to transport protest supplies, scout out police, and even loot stores more efficiently. Cyclists are biking on the frontline ranks of protests in order to protect marchers against cops and nearby traffic. Groups are occupying highways. The mechanisms of this spontaneity are far from perfectly egalitarian—Citi Bikes, for example, require credit cards to rent and are at least minimally trackable, in terms of user data—but they generate for many a novel sense of ownership of their city. Across New York and many other places in America, individuals have redefined mobility as a function of mutual care and agency: The answer to the call-and-response chant, “Whose streets?” is always the collective, “Our streets.” These shouts resonate beyond the notion of individual freedom of movement, instead calling for what Sheller terms “acts of co-mobilization … based upon forms of solidarity, reciprocity, caring, trust, generosity.”

Even before protests, the coronavirus had already forced a rethinking of urban planning. Scholars and groups working around mobility justice have pointed to the pandemic’s global slowdown as an opportunity for addressing some of their oft-ignored demands, which range from a low-carbon economy to a refigured urban density that grants public housing residents more green space, more balconies, and more air. The multiracial collective The Untokening has articulated a program for urban living that centers vulnerable residents and denies the legitimacy of policing within communities. Now that we are witnessing, in addition to the pandemic, some slow, gritted attempts at a reorganization of power, advocates face the question of how to harness the energies of these overlapping moments. People have enacted their refusal of a system that, in every facet of public life, fails to service the nonwealthy and targets black people, especially, for harm. Despite what they may be concretizing and envisioning outside, their opponents can still make use of an urban geography rife with racist, classist, and ableist obstruction. The coronavirus, too, poses dire health consequences, especially in cities where officials have shut down testing centers. It is uncertain whether this radical moment can stay ahead of the status quo; whether organizers might be able to take a historic rupture and crack it open even wider.

The demonstrations today are unorthodox—even unprecedented. Protesters cannot rely on traditional means of disrupting civic life, since the pandemic has already rendered civic life unrecognizable. For the groups on the street, there can be no strategic reliance on interrupting mass commerce, tourism, or traffic. There is, instead, a more insistent proximity to new worlds, radically imagined, previously impossible: Defund the police. Abolish the police. The future protesters are picturing must be more exigent simply because the past has already fallen away. The sight of people retaking and improvising on their environment abstracts outward, to a set of values for a different, nascent city: one with less pollution, where anyone can go anywhere, where nobody gets tackled by a racist cop for jumping a turnstile—where there are maybe no turnstiles at all. Standing on the edge of this moment, one receives, like flecks of ash in the air, brief insights into a world where such things are possible.

Over the weekend, de Blasio announced his decision to lift the curfew a day earlier than planned, having been routinely and publicly denounced for letting the NYPD brutalize his constituents under its cover. This will most likely be chalked up as a strategic win for demonstrators. But in the endless writing about these individuals, their demands and moral virtue, observers have yet to reckon with the full emotional tectonics grinding beneath the protests. Through their antagonizing and disobedience of persecutory authorities, people have gained newfound freedom and ownership in a city that often tries to shake them off. Protesters may be planning concrete actions, but they also work within, to borrow phrasing from Mimi Sheller, “a feeling, an improvisation, a break.” What is it like to gather with thousands during the day and then to bike home at night on a deserted avenue once clotted with Ubers, SUVs, sports cars, and Subarus? What does it mean to regard the official laws of the street as flimsy and expendable distractions? Which visions of the future do these moments impart, and which old, commonsense realities do they make suddenly unacceptable?

When the writer Elizabeth Hardwick saw Watts after the riots of 1965, she remarked that anyone who has visited the neighborhood must “know the beauty and power of the automobile. It is the lifeline, and during the burning and looting, car lots and gasoline stations were exempt from revenge.” This type of reportage—curt, darkly romantic, liberally fictionalized—was typical of Hardwick’s generation of white intellectuals (indeed, gas stations were part of Watt’s wreckage). But the hearsay is lined with truth. Under certain times and circumstances, mobility becomes nonnegotiable. The movement of the oppressed threatens a dangerous freedom—even when it is curtailed, especially when it is outright refused.