The Powerful Symbolism of Shutting Down an Interstate

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STL plans the future with action today

There was a time that the Interstate highway was a symbol of freedom. There was a time when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch could use urban highways to sell ads. “ST. LOUIS Plans the future – with action TODAY!” reads a piece of civic boosterism. “St. Louisans will drive downtown in half the time with these New Multilaned Freeways.”

This was a lie sold to cities and the monied white establishment. That overcrowding, the vacancy, the people who don’t look like you? In a progressive future you can fly right past it all. Left unsaid was who would arrive in half the time – not everyone of course, that would be impossible. The highways were only for those who could afford to move.

Quite apart from the original intent of a national highway system, which included economic development by quickly moving goods between distant cities, and national defense, urban highways were sold as a tool of segregation. They have proven to be wildly successful.

In St. Louis, according to the Urban Mobility Report, congestion has decreased while commuting times continue to increase. The region with the second most Interstate lane miles in the nation (only Kansas City, MO has more) has virtually built its way out of congestion. What this has produced, or in the most charitable interpretation, failed to prevent, is economic stagnation, deep racial segregation, and vast swaths of abandonment.

Fully 20% of the City of St. Louis is vacant, empty. As the regional population has shifted ever farther west, million square foot malls have failed – only more notable than the many many small businesses because of their monolithic stance, and stubbornness against redevelopment.

More than 30% of North St. Louis City residents lack access to a car. St. Louis has a regional transit agency beholden to suburban tax payers. Its most significant transportation plan on the boards? Faux Bus Rapid Transit on Interstate highways primarily serving far flung office parks, retail strips, and outlet malls.

The astounding fact that penetrates the local psyche is that since 1970, the three central counties of St. Louis City (its own county), St. Louis County, and proudly affluent St. Charles County, have grown by a combined 1%. The raw numbers: St. Louis City -302,942, St. Louis County +47,601, St. Charles County +267,531. The highways that left behind St. Louis City, are now leaving behind St. Louis County. Places like Ferguson, created by the Interstate, are being left behind.

In St. Louis City, Interstate highways removed approximately 1.7 square miles of urban land, rendering at least a like adjacent amount devoid of development. Considering this physical displacement in isolation, urban Interstates may have removed close to 30,000 residents from the city. Urban Renewal, to serve those new highways removed more than another square mile and 20,000 residents.

St. Louis City has one of the highest rates of poverty in the nation (29.3% in 2012). In 2010 when St. Charles County was recorded by the Census as having a poverty rate of 3.6%, one of the lowest in the nation, the county executive credited residents, stating that they avoid high-risk behavior. “Those who use drugs, drop out of school, and skirt the law are more likely to end up in poverty,” Ehlmann stated in his State of the County address.

Chesterfield, a municipality is western St. Louis County across the Missouri River from St. Charles County is home to what may be the largest strip mall in the nation. Next to this, two massive outlet malls were opened last year, all in a flood plain that was inundated in 1993, but made ready for development by a tax payer funded levee.

Yet, if you believe the mayor of Chesterfield, it is his community that is being slighted. In May, he threatened that Chesterfield would look at steps to keep more sales tax revenue, augmented by the new outlet malls, challenging the current system which requires a portion be pooled with the larger county of 90 municipalities (one being Ferguson) and more than 300,000 residents in unincorporated areas.

Today, the Missouri Department of Transportation Tweeted a photo of construction progress on the Boone Bridge, which carries I-64 across the Missouri River connecting St. Louis County and St. Charles County. The next Tweet? Celebrating the opening of ramps for Phase III of MO Route 364, a $569M three-phase project to build an additional Interstate-grade connection between St. Louis and St. Charles counties.

As Twitter documented all the actions across the nation shutting down Interstate highways in protest of the grand jury’s decision Monday, Los Angeles Times reporter (recently of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) Tim Logan Tweeted: “Can’t tell if the highway shutdown protest thing says more about our nation’s systemic injustice or its automobile addiction.”

At last glance, protesters had closed portions of highways in Detroit, Atlanta, New York City, Cincinnati, Oakland, Nashville, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and elsewhere.

Shutting down Interstates is a powerful and meaningful symbolic protest. It disrupts the thing which has materially enabled self-segregation. We have sacrificed our communities to allow people to pass through, fast. The symbolism of forcing a pause is powerful. Requiring that this mechanism, the one thing drivers are universally happy to claim ownership of in our urban areas,  grind to a halt, is a powerful and meaningful statement.

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  • Larry Guinn

    There is a major problem with the protesters, as I see it, is that they don’t have a proper spokesperson defining the issue for the public. The issue to the general public is a cop shot and killed a kid who robbed a store and fought with that officer. The issue isn’t really about that one thing. It’s about an unfair social system that extends into law enforcement and the legal system. Shutting down the interstate when people think you’re upset only about a single, tragic confrontation is a real problem in that it’s working against your intention. The protesters need a voice to define the message so it appeals to a sense of fairness.

    • Tad Parsell

      This is about far more than Mike Brown. Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford Jr, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sam Dubose, Sandra Bland and many many many more. Anyone who thinks this is about one single confrontation has not been paying attention. This is about a systemic pattern of targeting black people and black communities with brutality going back to the days of Jim Crow and before that, slavery.

  • matimal

    It IS powerful. It alienates white moderates and makes political coalitions for improving opportunity more difficult. It’s counterproductive. It is SO easy for middle class whites to just not vote, rationalize a vote for the guy or issue that doesn’t support change, or to move to the next town…or to Dallas…and the protestors are simply ignored, left with the cold comfort of their sanctimonious rage… instead of with new choices and hope. Why don’t people in Detroit do this? Because there’s no one to block.

    • Adam

      because prior to the protests, white moderates were putting so much effort into “making political coalitions for improving opportunity” for black people and totally weren’t just ignoring them or taking advantage of them to fund their tiny municipalities. things were going so swimmingly until those disruptive protestors started demanding that shit get done.

      • matimal

        A very cynical perspective. You assume that ONLY racial identity politics can help poor blacks. That assumption is part of the problem, not the solution. Reactive politics is NOT the answer. Rationalizing action by highlighting previous inaction just reinforces old dynamics. It doesn’t support new dynamics; new politics that can actually get a broader base of support.

        • STLEnginerd

          I think there is no problem with protesting but the trick is making the protesters appear sympathetic. I agree that shutting down the interstate is alienating people against a valid cause, so does looting and burning down buildings. How to get the message across to suburban whites is a huge challenge and I don’t know what could do it either. The leadership of the protest movement needs to think carefully about these things. They really do need suburban whites on their side to support lasting change.

          Now if the leadership is just interested in firming up their base of support and entrenching themselves in positions of power, the current strategy is probably an effective one.

        • Adam

          i guess poor blacks in St. Louis aren’t willing to sit around for another 250 years waiting for your race-blind “new dynamics” to materialize out of the quantum foam.

          • matimal

            You’ve got the politics all wrong. Racially-focused protests have never achieved any meaningful benefits for blacks in America..other than the brief visceral pleasure of expressing rage. They HAVE gotten reactionary whites like Nixon elected. Blacks have benefitted from broad-based reform politics, not narrowly racial agendas. It was the New Deal/Wartime Economy and the civil rights movements that improved choices for blacks. Civil rights succeeded because corporate America wanted good labor relations and elite politicos saw segregation as old-fashioned and they wanted American to be more modern, not because of any actual political or economic pressure from bus boycotts or sit-ins. The moment ‘Black Power’ arrived, the movement fell apart and a political vacuum permitted Reagan and other conservatives to build a new national political movement that worked to isolate blacks until today. Martin Luther King’s efforts to build a broad social democratic movement AFTER 1965 were complete ignored because corporate interests saw no benefit in it. Blocking I-70 is the local equivalent of a black power movement. It won’t achieve anything, except to inspire St. Louis corporate elites to figure out how they can isolate those involved in racial separatist actions. Pushing poor blacks and all the problems they confront into North County and away from the central corridor will achieve that very nicely. Is that what you want?

          • Alex Ihnen

            We’ll see. I don’t think anyone has the politics right. I’d say that the only reason there has been any movement (whatever that may be) in the last year is that protesters have demanded to be heard, in many ways. Some of it may have been harmful, some helpful, but I wouldn’t trust anyone to tell me in August 2015 which is which.

          • matimal

            I’m only an historian and have no greater powers of prediction than anyone else. Yet, human nature doesn’t ever change and human societies change only slowly..even the U.S. It is these understandings that lead me to see roadblocks as part of the problem and not the solution. This may in fact be one of those rare times when something genuinely new emerges…but I doubt it.

          • Alex Ihnen

            I’m not saying that shutting down an Interstate will change things, or is part of the solution. I’m saying who knows what’s part of the solution and what isn’t? A cursory look at the Civil Rights movement finds many actions that were said to be inflammatory and counterproductive at the time, and may today be judged to have been misguided. Given the severity of the problem, I feel that being very suggestive of what protestors should and shouldn’t do, is very close to saying, “you have the right to protest as long as you don’t inconvenience anyone,” or “as a middle-aged white man I’ll support your issues if you would just protest the right way.” That can’t be right.

          • matimal

            Americans DON’T have a right to “inconvenience” others. That isn’t legitimate. Protest and inconveniencing others are two separate things. Blocking interstates isn’t inconveniencing, it’s endangering. Do you reserve the right to endanger, or inconvenience, others for yourself? I don’t. Free expression and free association are vital American principles. They extend only to the point at which they interfere with others rights. Those stopped on I-70 could very well have been on their way to freely speak and associate with others themselves. Blocking I-70 stood in their way of constitutional free expression and association. Again, I know I’m hopelessly naïve and utopian in my thinking, but two wrongs don’t make a right and they won’t improve St. Louis in any way.

          • Alex Ihnen

            I’m just struggling for an example of a protest or movement that achieved anything without inconveniencing anyone along the way.

          • matimal

            My point is that protests don’t change things in America. This isn’t France. Sit ins, boycotts, and riots didn’t work in America even though they did inconvenience some. They just led to whites fleeing to suburbs and abandoning public transportation. Even the limited success of school desegregation happened only because there were powerful interests that wanted it, not because of protests. The use of accumulated wealth and power is what changes things in the U.S., not protests. Even the AIDS movement achieved results through inside power politics, not it’s dramatic street protests. Blocking I-70 is just highlights the powerlessness of those who do it. It’s a cry for help, not a declaration of principles. Americans want to be part of something successful, not something inchoate and doomed to fail. We need leadership to offer such visions so people will then join them.

          • STLEnginerd

            “The use of accumulated wealth and power is what changes things in the U.S., not protests.”

            Now who is being cynical…

          • matimal

            Is would be cynical if it hadn’t worked to incorporate countless people into American society? The only way poor blacks will find a better place in America is through amassing wealth. You can’t find examples of black success for which this isn’t true.

          • STLEnginerd

            George Washington Carver

          • matimal

            Exactly, He didn’t engage in black power movements. He built his financial position and made common cause with other blacks who’d done the same. Black separatism will only work if it goes all the way and blacks create a Mormon-style society in some remote location for generations.

          • STLEnginerd

            I suppose that depends on how you look at it. He gave 90 percent of his discoveries away and lived a very simple life educating others.

            MLK is usually considered fairly successful and he did engage in the movement. As far as I know he wasn’t building a lot of wealth either.

            My point is even though the pursuit of wealth is a great motivator and wealth is an influential tool, it is finding ways to communicate new ideas in a way that the larger population can relate to and agree with is what changes things. Eventually the wealthy and powerful have to get on board if society at large overwhelmingly supports something if they want to maintain their position of power. That’s the great thing about America. The poor get to vote too. To say that convincing wealthy people qualifies as amassing wealth I think discounts the fact that those people convinced by ideas not coerced by money.

          • matimal

            So, Carver WASN’T powerful. MLK came from the black middle class. It was small but it existed. MLK was successful to the extent that he had the support of big national interests. The moment he went beyond what they wanted his ‘power’ quickly faded away. MLK succeeded because he was good at dealing with the representatives of political and economic power. Selma and the boycotts showed his organizational value to corporate interests who wanted to end segregation in the U.S. Corporations didn’t want segregation despite the seeming advantages it offered in allowing them to divide and conquer their workers. They wanted a unified national market that they could sell to all at once. They were sick of having to do business differently in the south. MLK understood this and used it to his advantage. He didn’t unilaterally and spontaneously seize busses just to rattle the cages of southern whites.

          • STLEnginerd

            I admit to not being a expert on MLK and black history but you are saying that MLK’s people stopped listening to him once he pushed the establishment too far and pretty much he was just spinning his wheels?

            Also that time the wealthy and powerful establishment of America WANTED to champion civil rights, not for altruistic reason mind you, but because they wanted to market to one audience instead of two separate groups, but they just couldn’t because of the ignorant racist masses?

            How is that more plausible than people don’t change their minds easily or quickly. MLK pushed America forward, but his vision outdistanced the general public willingness or ability to accept it. And that the wealthy and powerful are surprisingly human too and are subject to the same limitations.

            The easiest way (albeit the slowest) to change peoples minds is through positive interaction with the a person of that group.

            George Washington Carver was very respected for his ingenuity, and generosity. He and people like him gave people a more positive perception of blacks. Then when the time was right MLK pointed it out. Even still he didn’t convince everyone, many were still stuck but it was enough to make a difference.

            Womens rights and gay rights were won the same way. One person at a time and then all at once.

            This is also why negative interaction is so detrimental, because the process works in reverse as well.

          • matimal

            MLK was in Memphis supporting garbage workers in a strike, not the civil rights of all black people in the city when he was killed in 1968. We have to speculate about how carefully MLK was protected by the local police as a result of his turn from civil rights to social democracy. Bobby Kennedy’s assassination at about the same time was in response to his explicitly bi-racial social democratic vision. The establishment wanted segregation to end for economic, not moral, reasons, but they couldn’t afford to be seen to be working toward that end. MLK provided valuable cover. Corporate interests saw nothing in integrated social democracy. So, MLK was on his own after that.
            Women gained rights because it was in the interest of employers to have women as employees and households with two household incomes that could then buy more goods and services from then. The entrance of millions of women into work provided a huge boost to the American economy in second half of the 20th century.
            Poor and young blacks in St. Louis won’t change anything if they don’t find common cause with those that have power and money. It’s just the way our nation works. We must accept it.

          • Alex Ihnen

            I get your point about nothing changing without those with power and money being on board. I think that protesting is one way to the attention of those people and sometimes force them into action. Yes, that group will navigate its own way of supporting change, but no one will ever pay attention to these issues if they don’t feel that there’s a consequence to ignoring a call to action. This is the purpose of protest – to elevate an issue to wide public awareness. Although I think I understand where you’re coming from, simply stating that protests have never changed anything in America, doesn’t ring true. I do think, however, that capitalism and our political structure work hard to quickly co-opt any movement that seems to have a following.

          • matimal

            Bringing something to wider awareness can just as easily lead to reaction as to reform. Reform happens when those with power see ghetto can gain from that reform. Reaction is a much stronger force in St. Louis than reform.

          • STLEnginerd

            That’s not a strictly St. Louis trait, reaction is always a stronger force than reform.

            Reform is hard and more tenuous. It requires leadership, and clarity and compromise. But I don’t think it requires net economic gain. Those in power can take moral approaches to these things, and do.

            Secondly if they refuse to they or their surrogates can be removed from power via elections. Its a pretty great system.

          • matimal

            Do you have examples, particularly in St. Louis, of reform without net economic gain?

          • Alex Ihnen

            By the way, may need to bring back a nextSTL forum for discussions like this that generate from posts.

          • Alex Ihnen

            I appreciate that you hold a clear viewpoint regarding the who/what/when/where/why of reform in our nation.

          • STLEnginerd

            Call me skeptical but your scenario requires that “the powers that be” have a near omnipotent grasp of macro-economic cause and effect. The idea that some cabal in their secret volcano lair realized that women entering the workforce would result in a big boost to the economy because of dual incomes, and for that reason supported it is far-fetched backwards thinking to me. Its much more plausible that the mothers, wives and daughters were far more influential to their decision making than making money off increased buying power.

            MLK believed every fight he was involved in was a battle in the war for social justice. He also saw economic equality as integrally linked to his goal of achieving social justice. And yes MLK made enemies and ended up a martyr for his cause but that has no relation to his successes. By the way how did that strike turn out. Seems like change happens even when corporate interest walk away. The city of Memphis caved, under threats of riots no less… hmm

            And if economic equality was so advantageous for corporations that they advocated it to women why not give it to blacks working garbage collection in Memphis, for the same reason. To increase their spending power and etc. If the idea of increasing consumer spending power is so obvious why is the minimum wage increase so hard to get. They should support that too.

            Also you forgot to explain how gay rights were strictly driven by economic advantage for wealthy entrenched interests.

            Oh and what about the Americans for Disabilities Act. How about the National Park Service. Or the Animal Welfare Act. Or the Clean Air Act. There are hundreds of examples of social justice movements that resulted in a net gain for those advocates at the expense of more moneyed corporate interests.

            People make change when they collectively choose to. It’s just the way our nation works. We must accept it.

    • Alex Ihnen

      The challenge is finding something that raises awareness of the severity of human rights abuses without alienating people. The challenge is to force people who have been willfully ignoring these abuses to pause and admit they exist. There’s no perfect recipe for accomplishing this. For myself, the latitude given to the protests is proportional to the severity of the issues they address, which I believe are basic human rights. There’s a huge swath of suburbanites, white residents, and others, who will never join a political coalition that advocates for solutions to these problems – or even agree there is a problem. I don’t think the protestors should worry much about alienating them. The way forward may not be obvious, but if slowing someone’s commute by 20mins is the deal breaker, our issues may be bigger than we already imagine.

      • matimal

        This isn’t ultimately about human rights, it’s about economic opportunity. In America’s past, it was only through economic power that people have secured their share of due process and access to legal remedies. If poor blacks had economic opportunities, they wouldn’t be in the vulnerable position that allows small municipalities to take advantage of them. There are a huge swath of suburban whites who would also benefit from changes to local government, education, and transportation policies that would ALSO benefit poor blacks economically. Only when some of BOTH are brought into a political coalition will these changes happen. This may sound hopelessly utopian, but nothing will change if we don’t have some kind of unifying set of principles to which we can refer when confronted with racial-identity politics.
        For example, one of St. Louis’ problems is that his has too many interstates. Protestors aren’t just slowing commutes when they block I-70, they are sending commuters to I-64 or I-270 instead making land along I-70 that much less appealing as a place to do business at all. The protestors are symptoms of St. Louis’ problems, not a step toward any real solutions.

  • Matt B

    Although they were not intentionally built for racial segregation, you have to put yourself in the time they were built. At the time, the city’s population was centered in the city so you have to think that they were not meant for commuting all the way out to the reaches of Arnold, St. Charles, etc. daily. The city had a pretty heavy public transport system so they weren’t intended for every day work commuting. Just as Alex said, they were built to be a long distance form of travel mainly for commerce and military purposes and it was just a crappy side effect that they made it easier for people to move from the county to the city with ease for work because, let’s face it, most businesses and jobs were still heavily based in the city. Back then, soldiers didn’t wanna be in the hustle and bustle of the city after coming home from the War. They wanted peace and quiet so it was an effective way for them to seclude themselves from the hustle of the city without making it troublesome to get to their every-day jobs. It just so happens as time went on, the jobs have been moving closer to the workers. The reason it seems like it was a racial thing is the fact that, at the time, most African-American’s in the city couldn’t afford to do what the veterans and other businessmen of the city were doing and as time went on, it just got worse. The jobs moved out and they still can’t afford to follow or get to them. I’m not denying that some used it as an excuse to get away from the African-American population in the city, but it’s not right to say that’s the only reason. The reason protesters block highways is to make a statement. They’re blocking production, causing a scene, getting media attention, and the attention of all the people who are on the highways not moving!

    • Matt B

      And I forgot that I was in the blogroll section and am contributing to an 8 month old conversation… THEY CLOSED DOWN 70 SO IT’S RELEVANT!

  • In my opinion, the article gives a pretty one-sided perspective but I definitely don’t believe that the problem with the highways caused a racial strife…It is a pretty complicated matter…web site

  • rgbose

    Here’s a map showing how many jobs are within a 30 minute walk or transit ride. It shows how the thinning out of the region makes it difficult for a poor person to access work. It makes it harder for all of us to build wealth since we have to throw it away driving further and more often and pay higher tac and tility bills to pay for the extra infrastructure.

    Maps of many cities

    • STLEnginerd

      I feel like this map should have had a lower max scale. Even Washington and San Fransisco barely scored any red. Even better is if you could adjust the scale maximum and make comparisons. As it is, if you are interested in comparing St. Louis to Kansas City this map is fairly useless.

      It is it basically a very long winded way of saying ‘look how far ahead of you New York’s mass transit system is’.

      • rgbose

        Perhaps normalizing it to metro population size would be in order.

  • Be Honest

    Alex, your article and the beliefs you express about our highway system present a very childish view of the world. There are people who will always find excuses for their own failures, and I am greatly surprised by your manufactured idea that highways has caused racial strife. In fact, racial strife is not the reason why Michael Brown was stealing that day and bullying the shop owner. However, his behavior led to a tragic ending. Stay on point as to what happened. Did Michael live with his parents? Were they raising him? Many of our sons would have never attacked a police officer, leaning into the police car like Michael did; who does that? The rest of us are too busy working and raising our children to be respectful of others, and other people’s property to be misdirecting anger at others. My children all live with me, and I did not abandon them so that they feel like they need to steal from others and buy drugs. I have parented them, coached their sports teams, spent lot of time in the moment with them. Many of us only see a lot of angry, disrespectful people when we see the protesters, and they blame others instead of themselves for their problems.

    • Alex Ihnen

      I don’t believe that highways have caused racial strife – how odd to have to type that. There was racial strife before the highways (shocking), and there will be racial strife in the future (shocking too). However, it is a fact, that highways have increased the ability of people to live farther from others, and to segregate themselves into like-minded, and like-race communities. This isn’t a manufactured idea.

      You are correct, of course, that highways do not explain what happened to Michael Brown. There’s plenty to be said and considered with the killing of Michael Brown. Admittedly, I’m not addressing those issues here. I am simply trying to express one view of why protests that close highways are symbolically powerful. Thanks for reading.

      • Be Honest

        Alex, you wrote “this was a lie sold to cities and the monied white establishment.” You also wrote “Quite apart from the original intent of a national highway system, …highways were sold as a tool of segregation.” Pretty much sounds like you are blaming the highways for racial divide. Regardless, protesting and shutting down these publicly funded roadways does not promote a message of peace. These people who advocate and do this are simply trampling on the freedom of others to go about their daily lives. Your idea of a “powerful and meaningful protest” is a sophomore move that does nothing but alienate others, does nothing to promote peace, does nothing to help people who refuse to help themselves in life instead of blaming others or a “perceived” racial strife. Your message seems to me to be very judgmental of others and elitist in the sense that you toss out criticisms against people who simply live where they want to live. You seem to have a hatred and hostility toward others who exercise their freedom to not live in the city. I don’t criticize you for living in the city nor do I judge you; to each his own preference, for whatever reason, to live where they choose. Who are you to proclaim that people live where they live based on common minds and race? That is a simplistic and childish world view but even if true, who are you to judge and throw out accusations that somehow that is wrong? In this country, we have the freedom to live where we choose. As for your dissatisfaction and disapproval of some people who choose to not live in the city, perhaps the answer is to turn inward and have a real conversation about how to improve the city in ways you see appropriate, if that is your true goal. Lashing out and blaming others for your discontent on the state of the city, whatever that is, does nothing to help anyone; it only spreads hatred and strife, rather than to do things that are constructive to make the city better in your eyes, and to promote peace.

        • Alex Ihnen

          I don’t live in the city.

        • Alex Ihnen

          I don’t live in the city.

        • STLEnginerd

          “As for your dissatisfaction and disapproval of some people who choose to not live in the city, perhaps the answer is to turn inward and have a real conversation about how to improve the city in ways you see appropriate, if that is your true goal.”

          I think conversation is what this article is about. Its fair to say it brings a one-sided perspective but then again its his website. He does afford you the opportunity to publicly disagree which is very civil of him.

          I also to accuse someone of having a sophomoric view, while simultaneously stating ” In this country, we have the freedom to live where we choose”, is a bit ironic. The fact is people are driven by external factors and highways while not the only factor are certainly a valid, notable and under appreciated one.

          I also think that if we are not allowed to take the conversation BEYOND what happened to Micheal Brown in the last few hours of his life, it and his death will serve no purpose at all. I don’t think a witch hunt to smear either Micheal Brown or Officer Wilson serves the common good much at all.

        • DCWind

          I think it is quite narrow-minded to view a comment about segregation in terms of only racial segregation. There are myriad ways to segregate, with the most basic definition of the word being “to set apart.” Highways have nothing to do with racial segregation, but the socioeconomic segregation inherent in highway development and its associated sprawl, brought with it an irrefutable tendency to segregate along racial lines. The development of the highway system came at a time when it was, in fact, white people who had larger salaries, more discretionary income and the ability to move to the “idyllic settings” provided by the suburbs served by the highways. It is also incredibly sophomoric, on your part, to summarize the concept of this article by suggesting it intends to show that shutting down a highway is promoting a message of peace. Regardless of protesters intentions, this article uses the highway as a nationally accepted icon, one that promised development, mobility and efficiency to those who could follow its lanes, to show how shutting an interstate down, whatever the reason behind the protest, is a powerful and symbolic method of protesting. And finally, this article had absolutely nothing to do with people not helping themselves, blaming others over themselves, or a reflection of elitist criticisms of where someone chooses to live or not live. It was meant as a way of expressing the power of peaceful protest and how choosing particularly symbolic institutions of our everyday life, such as urban stretches of interstate highways, can leave a lasting impression. Choosing something with powerful symbolism is one of the most effective ways of creating a discussion, as it certainly has here. I am not a protester, but I will vehemently defend the right of people to peacefully assemble and protest, regardless of how I view their message. For those that feel trapped, threatened, or otherwise voiceless, protesting is their outlet, their way of being heard. There is no intent to alienate, only an intent to express. I could not disagree more with everything you have “blamed” Alex for in his article.

    • Douglas Johnson

      Funny you should tell someone to stay on point when it is the point you clearly miss. But I will use few words as possible. It is inequality in pay and in education which means less for someone.Average white household income one hundred forty four thousand dollars a year average black household income eleven thousand dollars a year. Then the poor education system books old and torn pages no or barley any resources rich school computer labs and swimming pools.Now you put these two on the same field of life. One who has less gets tired of being poor and so they say if it can`t be equal shut it down.Like to see how many of you would like to switch places and show others what they should do or do you just want to keep your one hundred forty four thousand dollar lifestyle and tell them what they should do.But on this field of life gas electric and food and housing cost the same unless you live in projects and only rent is cheaper.

  • Paul Hohmann

    Unbelievable irony: “135 miles of new limited access freeways are rapidly nearing completion, drawing the metropolitan area closer together”. Couldn’t have been farther from the truth, more like enabling explosive separation and dissemination of the region in all directions.

  • rgbose

    I agree that protesters blocking the highway next to a hospital could have resulted in some of the scenarios brought up here.

    Whet we know is the damage urban highways have done to the built environment, tax base, property values, increasing people’s transportation costs, etc. We know they create trauma situations via high-speed wrecks. Also wrecks block the interstate on a regular basis preventing others in emergency situations from reaching trauma centers. Neighborhoods like McRee Town wouldn’t have fallen as far if it hadn’t been cut off by the highway. A lot of the issues seeing new and greater light since Aug 9 would be smaller in magnitude if housing, jobs, shopping, etc weren’t so spread out forcing more people to drive farther, faster, and more often.

    I think the highway blocking by protesters was attractive to them because they know that people can wash their hands by thinking “oh well that’s not my neighborhood, I’ll never go there,” but instead “Oh no, they’re blocking my highway?!”
    More people take more ownership of the highways than anything else (maybe sports teams exceed that).

    • rgbose

      STLFD PIO @STLFireDept ·

      @STLFireDept working two MVAs EB I-44 & Vandeventer. Choose an alternate route if possible. Drive cautiously! #stlwx

    • rgbose

      STLFD PIO @STLFireDept ·

      @STLFireDept working two MVAs EB I-44 & Vandeventer. Choose an alternate route if possible. Drive cautiously! #stlwx

  • Pragmatist

    I read this website day in and day out. I find it very hard to identify with this article. First I am a person that rides their bike to work everyday in our great city of St. Louis, so not much has changed in terms of traffic for me. I also look into doing things that are constructive. Creating a petition to address some of the problems in the legal process is constructive. Identifying problems in the way that the Ferguson police department operates via a federal investigation is a constructive thing that is going on right now. I am being constructive in the community by being a tutor after school for children in poverty and bad family situations. Blocking a high speed roadway is not constructive. It is not “democracy”. It is a powerful symbol of mob mentality.

    Change the system. Vilify a process which is not working for everyone. I can agree on that. Blocking an interstate drives a wedge and fixes nothing. Furthermore, to see your comments “nearly impossible” to believe the protestors would do one thing or another is very sad to see. “Surely a tiny bit”. Even 30 seconds in a situation of trauma is priceless. People should be able to protest wherever they want. I agree on that. This is granted they don’t stand in the middle of a moving interstate where there is a potential for a trailer to jack knife and block routes to nearby hospitals. The protest mirrored an angry child. Which is yet another symbol of blocking the interstates. I was fine with what was transpiring on Grand until they broke the windows of businesses (not saying this was due to these protestors).

    I cannot not say enough about the content of this website day in and day out but this article and rebuttal from the author below is seriously putting things in doubt for me.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Thanks for reading. I continue to be amazed how many people simply find highways off limits for protest. I think that’s the point. At turns, protestors have been criticized for actions at the symphony, on our streets, and elsewhere. Protests, regardless of content, are meant to grab attention and foster awareness. What’s interesting is that highways seem to be regarded more highly, more off limits, than nearly all other venues. This doesn’t make it right or wrong, and again, I’m not advocating for people to shut down highways. But I do think it’s a fascinating issue.

      In terms of the systemic problems in STL, I believe that the severity and importance of the issues are almost impossible to overstate. In my own opinion, this is much less about Michael Brown, than about the system. Nearly whatever it takes to bring attention to, and change, the problems, is needed. This is why protests are necessary. Too many continue to ignore these issues and hope they simply go away. Now, how, when, and where protests occur, is something on which many will disagree. Again, just for me, I’m willing to give very wide latitude to protests because of the importance of changing the system. Maybe protestors are doing it wrong, maybe not.

      • Pragmatist

        Thank you for your response. Although we may disagree on latitude, I respect your opinion. I appreciate that we can have an open discussion.

        • Devin in South City

          And this right here is why, after a week of Twitter action that makes me want to vomit, I come back to nextSTL. Thank you both for giving me good, constructive things to think.

  • matthb

    One tweet during the past few months that stood out to me was one from KMOX host Mark Reardon who basically was gloating about moving out of the city when the Shaw incident occurred and there were protests.

    The protests and riots don’t make the people that live in West County, St. Charles, JeffCo. etc. uncomfortable or inconvenienced. Thus, the decision to live in these places is justified and without consequence. But, this is a regional issue, and blocking interstates brings some measure of discomfort and inconvenience to those who are otherwise, just driving through.

    • Paul D.

      The problem with protests that are intended to make people uncomfortable is that they make people mad and alienate people. That is not the way to build support for a cause. It is a good way to generate a backlash. It will surely bring about awareness of an issue, but it will not likely get the desired response.

      • Alex Ihnen

        This is the issue for anyone wanting to create change. You push hard enough to get noticed, apply pressure, gain leverage… But you can’t alienate too many people. Then again, if someone isn’t made uncomfortable, nothing will change. It’s a constant back and forth.

        It seems in St. Louis, the highway shut downs and other protests have been met with anger, but also support from those they inconvenience. I’d submit that those flipping the bird and using the n-word in West County aren’t going to change their minds.

        To be optimistic, I think change doesn’t need the majority of people to agree. There needs to be a combination of pressure on elected officials, enough loud voices to sustain the idea, and some broader consensus that things need to change. Change needs some combination of the above, not those who hate an idea to be convinced it’s great.

        • Be Honest

          Alex, listen to yourself and the other haters of people who simply choose to live in the suburbs. You and these posters should not be advocating manufactured racial strife. What do you say to the family of the white man savagely killed by
          emboldened black teenagers this past weekend? They used the crowbar end of hammers! Emboldened by the racially charged rhetoric of you, some posters here, Al Sharpton? You and others in the media ate in inciting misdirected hatred and violence.

      • matthb

        I am sure the civil rights protests in the 60’s made people even more uncomfortable than these. If you are comfortable you have no motivation for change. This has spurred more discussion of race in America than I have heard in years. Both positive and negative. But at least there is discussion. To spur a move for change I think the protests to continue, remain peaceful, grow in size, and spread nationwide as has happened thus far.

  • matimal

    I wonder what the symbolism of trucks plowing into crowds of people on interstates will be? We may find out.

  • Frank Ruzicka


    Monday night peaceful protesters blocked both directions of I 44 at Grand Avenue here in St. Louis. While it was peaceful it did prevent anyone (emergency vehicles included) from reaching 2 major medical centers (Cardinal Glennon Child. Med. Center and St. Louis University Hospital). If it was your loved one, child, parent, etc. who was in need of emergent care from one of these Level 1 trauma centers you might consider their protest less than peaceful or productive. A large percentage of the hospitals staff live in the county but choose to drive into the city to serve the needs of those who reside in the city of St. Louis. Further, they support the city which they do not reside but work by paying a 1% city earnings tax. It is difficult to find fault with a highway that simply allows people to efficiently commute to work especially when the their work saves lives.

  • Frank Ruzicka


    Monday night peaceful protesters blocked both directions of I 44 at Grand Avenue here in St. Louis. While it was peaceful it did prevent anyone (emergency vehicles included) from reaching 2 major medical centers (Cardinal Glennon Child. Med. Center and St. Louis University Hospital). If it was your loved one, child, parent, etc. who was in need of emergent care from one of these Level 1 trauma centers you might consider their protest less than peaceful or productive. A large percentage of the hospitals staff live in the county but choose to drive into the city to serve the needs of those who reside in the city of St. Louis. Further, they support the city which they do not reside but work by paying a 1% city earnings tax. It is difficult to find fault with a highway that simply allows people to efficiently commute to work especially when the their work saves lives.

    • Alex Ihnen

      To address your hypothetical – I-44 was blocked for a short period of time and it’s nearly impossible to believe that protestors would not have let an ambulance through if one had appeared. There are many, many hypotheticals, but if people only protest when and where they’re supposed to, well, it’s not much of a protest. Someone is going to be inconvenienced.

      I also think you completely misunderstand the critique of urban Interstates – of course you don’t have to agree with it at all. They’ve allowed people to self live far away. This is a problem. In general, the problem isn’t that people use them to get to jobs. No highway simply allows people to efficiently commute to work – that’s the fallacy of urban Interstates. Their impact is wide ranging and extraordinarily unequal.

      Lastly, I’m not advocating for blocking highways. I was attempting to describe why the action has symbolic power.

      • David

        Not everyone going to a hospital arrives in an ambulance. You don’t suddenly get to make all the rules for self-policing just because you are using your First Amendment rights. The fact that the most vulnerable among us (people needing to get to a hospital) are those “inconvenienced” by this targeted shut down should bother us.

        I thought of your highway argument too while watching this protest, but upon seeing people shutting down the Lincoln Tunnel in NYC, I don’t quite buy it. I think it is Tim Logan’s alternative. Our society is obsessed with cars and everything we do revolves around them. If you want to get people’s attention, you do something to their ability to move with cars.

        • Alex Ihnen

          There is zero evidence that anyone in need of medical care was prevented from getting to the hospital. Surely a very tiny percentage of all traffic at I-44 at Grand is headed to the hospital for urgent care. In fact, I’d have to look again, but I think the way I-44 was blocked actually didn’t block either eastbound or westbound traffic from reaching Grand. And the shut down only lasted a short time.

          • matimal

            Such a thing is unprovable. We can’t know either way.

          • Scott

            to say there is “zero evidence” is not the point. the point is that it very easily COULD have happened and also that those shutting down the interstate didn’t know that those in the cars were not in an emergency situation. Some using their 1st amendment right does not mean it is OK to take others’ rights away. Not only access to a hospital, but also think of the person 100 cars back talking on their cell phone not seeing the brake lights of car 99 – killing all in car 99…these are things that very well could happen by quickly shutting down an Interstate. If you’re willing to take the risk of inadvertently killing someone from this action, then you should take the responsibility of being charged with involuntary or criminally negligent manslaughter if something like that occurs.

          • Be Honest

            Alex, the actions oft the protesters were hateful and disrespectful. I am surprised you would defend such action by a dismissal such as your comment above. You have been irresponsible in your attacking comments.

        • Frank Ruzicka

          Point well taken David. This topic hits very close to home since my wife has been a transport nurse at Cardinal Glennon Medical Center for the past 20 years. When on call the standard response time to get to the hospital and report for duty is 30 min. Media reported the highway was closed for 30 min. Monday evening. IF she had been called in to respond to an emergent situation involving the transport of a critically ill child, despite best efforts she would be unable to meet that standard. The reason they use ambulances and helicopters to transport the critically ill is that time is precious. While the peaceful protesters may have not intended to obstruct access to these two level 1 trauma centers the unintended consequences could have cost lives.

      • Be Honest

        Alex, now you sound like Bill Clinton! The meaning of the word is… Lol! You are indeed advocating violence and shutting down our highways! Read the title of your article! you seem to fancy yourself a smart who likes to manipulate words, an intellectual of
        sorts.. Stop it. Admit you want violence in our city. Your message is susucceeding. Congratulations.

  • tbatts666

    Love this.

    There are a lot of layers of complexity when it comes to this stuff.

    Wilson/Brown shooting is a complicated event. Racism is a complicated problem. Segregation is a complicated problem. Police brutality is complicated problem. Suburban sprawl is a complicated problem. The reasons that these highways exist today is a complex thing. All these things are intricately related.

    It’s very difficult to talk about structural violence because it is complex and complicated… They say the english language is bad at expressing complex things, and instead makes it easy to describes things superficially.

  • tbatts666

    Love this.

    There are a lot of layers of complexity when it comes to this stuff.

    Wilson/Brown shooting is a complicated event. Racism is a complicated problem. Segregation is a complicated problem. Police brutality is complicated problem. Suburban sprawl is a complicated problem. The reasons that these highways exist today is a complex thing. All these things are intricately related.

    It’s very difficult to talk about structural violence because it is complex and complicated… They say the english language is bad at expressing complex things, and instead makes it easy to describes things superficially.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Thank you. This is very well put. Nothing I write should be considered “the” definitive answer or conclusion. I hope that’s obvious, but too many people aren’t interested in learning something, considering a tangential viewpoint, or simply reading something they may not agree with. St. Louis is complex, as is the world that created it, and shapes it today.

      I’ve written a number of times about population loss, transportation projects and funding, abandonment of the urban core, etc. As people took to the Interstates in perhaps a dozen or more cities tonight, the powerful symbolism struck me. Perhaps the headline could have been: One reason why blocking an Interstate has symbolic value.

      We can all agree that there isn’t one answer, or any simple path forward regarding race, violence, poverty, and all the issues such as education and health, connected to them. Hopefully more people speaking out (and writing) about their own little corner (or topic) of the world without the expectation that they solve anything, will foster more discussion and greater understanding of many issues.

  • joe

    great stuff … 40 and 270?

  • joe

    great stuff … 40 and 270?

    • Alex Ihnen

      The image from St. Louis is at I-44 and Grand.

      • Be Honest

        Congrats Alex! At least one white guy killed over the weekend..woot! I was almost knocked over by one protester over the weekend.