“The only way you’re going to wake people up is by inconveniencing them”
On Saturday evening, July 9, protesters overtook a section of I-94 in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, stopping traffic for several hours. Yesterday morning, 41 allies of the Black Lives Matter movement joined hands across 35W, grinding traffic to a halt during the morning rush hour.
We know these aren’t the first instances of protest interrupting highway traffic. Last fall, in the wake of the police killing of Jamar Clark, Black Lives Matter led demonstrations onto the same stretch of I-94 in Rondo and onto the segment of I-94 that cuts through North Minneapolis; for those aware of the history of the highway system in Minnesota, it was made all the more profound that they were marching through the two main historically African-American neighborhoods in the Twin Cities that were gutted by 94 construction.
(A residential section of Rondo near Dale Street that was cleared to make way for I-94; photo courtesy MNHS)
What surprised me, though, is that the history of highway protests in the Twin Cities goes back much farther than our memories may recall. In fact, disrupting highway traffic is a tactic that has been used by protesters for almost as long as the highway has existed.
The section of I-94 that bridges Minneapolis and St. Paul was opened in 1968. Just four years later, hundreds of students from the University of Minnesota walked onto the lanes of traffic in protest of the escalating Vietnam War on May 11, 1972.
This particular protest was part of a week-long series of demonstrations, marches, speeches, and concerts. The Minnesota Daily did a deep-dive on this history back in 1997.
The “Eight Days in May,” as the period of unrest from May 9-16, 1972 came to be called, witnessed the largest, most violent University demonstrations of the Vietnam War era. Beginning with a May 9 protest against the opening of a Cedar-Riverside housing development, now Riverside Plaza, protests spread to the East Bank, where confrontations between protesters and police on May 10 resulted in numerous injuries and arrests.
Minnesota National Guard units were called in that evening to monitor disturbances as demonstrators erected a barricade blocking traffic at the intersection of Washington Avenue and Church Street S.E. Both the barricade and the Guard were gone by May 13; meanwhile, bomb and fire scares sustained campus tensions, and protesters blocked traffic on Highway I-94.
The I-94 march came after a particularly tense and violent day of protest, which resulted in the National Guard being called and police spraying the protesters with mace from the ground and from a helicopter overhead.
More on the specific action on the highway, from the Minneapolis Tribune:
There was also ice cream to be had down on the interstate, thanks to a local businessman who seized the opportunity to turn a profit.
Two days after the highway protest, the Minneapolis Star asked participants to comment on why they felt their tactic was effective, despite widespread irritation and dismissal from the general population.
“I know lots of girls who think it’s funny that I won’t wear silk dresses and use makeup. Maybe it is-I don’t happen to think so. When I’m eighteen, I want to be able to enjoy the things that come with that age. And I won’t be able to do things that I do now. So I’m just living my age while I can. Then, when I’m eighteen, I’ll have all the extra thrill of dressing in grown-up clothes and doing the things that grown-up people do. I am in no hurry.” - Judy (1939)
“I almost forgot that nice, warm feeling you get when the curtains part and you hear the orchestra and then the applause. You just want to give everything you have. Of course, I don’t mean you haven’t audiences in pictures, but you never see them until you go out in person. And audiences are so responsive and so spontaneous when they like you.”- Judy (1939)
“When you get to know a lot of people you make a great discovery. You find that not one group has a monopoly on looks, brains, goodness or anything else. It takes all the people-black and white, Catholic, Jewish and Protestant, recent immigrants and Mayflower descendants-to make up America. It just wouldn’t be our kind of America without any of them”- Judy speaking for America (1946)
“They nicknamed me ‘Little Leather Lungs.’ I hated that but I loved to sing. There is something wonderful about belting a song across the footlights, clear and true, and feeling it bounce off the top balcony. I can’t explain it. There’s nothing like it.”-Judy (1960)
“I don’t remember having any birthdays as a child. My mother was always afraid the studio would decide I was too old to play child parts. So we just ignored them.”- Judy (1960)
“People think of me as a neurotic kid, full of fits and depressions, biting my fingernails to the bone, living under an eternal shadow of illness and collapse. Why do people insist on seeing an aura of tragedy around me always? My life isn’t tragic at all. I laugh a lot these days. At myself, too. Lord, if I couldn’t laugh at myself I don’t think I’d be alive.”- Judy (1960)
“I truly have a great love for an audience, and I used to want to prove it by giving them blood. But I have a funny new thing now, a real determination to make people enjoy the show. I want to give them two hours of just pow!”- Judy (1961)
“I’m a victim of the most awful stage fright. I always get sick right before I go on stage. It’s such a lonely feeling. But no matter how frightened you are, you have to do it. I figure if people have gotten in their cars and driven there and paid to see you, you just bloody well have to go on.”-Judy (1962)
“My public image isn’t anything like me. People think I’m either a breakable Dresden doll or a wide-eyed Kansas teenager. I haven’t been a teenager for a long time, and if I were breakable, I wouldn’t be here now.”- Judy (1963)
“I think life is to be enjoyed. And it’s important to be economic in your life. Don’t work too hard, don’t live too hard. But laugh an awful lot. You must laugh a lot.”-Judy (1967)
“I’ve always taken The Wizard of Oz very seriously, you know. I believe the idea of the rainbow. And I’ve spent my entire life trying to get over it.”- The one and only Judy Garland.