Boston-area #BlackLivesMatter protesters made national headlines today by chaining themselves to roadway railings and 1,200-lb construction barrels, bringing traffic into Boston on I-93 N and S to a halt during the morning commute.
According to a press release posted to the Black Lives Matter Boston facebook page, the diverse group of protesters sought to bring attention to the fact that systematic racism isn’t just an issue in other places, like Ferguson, MO. Similar problems happen right here, at home, and have been happening for decades.
“Today, our nonviolent direct action is meant to expose the reality that Boston is a city where white commuters and students use the city and leave, while Black and Brown communities are targeted by police, exploited, and displaced,” said Korean-American activist Katie Seitz.
In the past 15 years, law enforcement officers in Boston have killed Remis M. Andrews, Darryl Dookhran, Denis Reynoso, Ross Baptista, Burrell “Bo” Ramsey-White, Mark Joseph McMullen, Manuel “Junior” DaVeiga, Marquis Barker, Stanley Seney, Luis Gonzalez, Bert W. Bowen, Eveline Barros-Cepeda, Daniel Furtado, LaVeta Jackson, Nelson Santiago, Willie L. Murray Jr., Rene Romain, Jose Pineda, Ricky Bodden, Carlos M. Garcia, and many more people of color. We mourn and honor all these lives.
“We must remember, Ferguson is not a faraway Southern city. Black men, women, and gender-nonconforming people face disproportionately higher risk of profiling, unjust incarceration, and death. Police violence is everywhere in the United States,” said another protester Nguyen Thi Minh Thu.
I am a local resident myself, and I’ve encountered conversations about the protests everywhere today. There’s a lot to discuss about the protest and whether this act of civil disobedience was justified. Did the ends justify the means? Many people seem to argue that they did not, while others liken it to the Boston Tea Party: something causing short-term outrage but long-term good. The debate on this point is fascinating.
But today, I would like to explore a pattern that transcends whether the protest was right or wrong: the vociferous response from those who allege the protesters are endangering lives by making it more difficult for ambulances to get into the city.
The expression of such concerns started early. They were presented in a way that disparaged the protesters—calling them “foolish,” “disgusting,” “morons,” and raising the specter of hypothetical sick children and elderly people to make their case:
From my vantage point, analyzing the discourse, there are some signs that at least some of these comments aren’t really about the ambulances. Rather than critiquing the protester’s choice and asking if they considered emergency vehicles during their planning stages, they’re using the idea of emergency access to disparage and insult the protesters.
In other words, this isn’t thoughtful critique. Some are using what sounds like a legitimate concern (and in some cases may genuinely be one) as fodder against a movement they already disagree with and wish to discredit using any means possible.
Some who noticed these posts early on observed that comments in this vein seemed hypocritical:
Then, unsurprisingly and distressingly, an ambulance did indeed try to take I-93 into the city. It was unable to pass the protesters, who had chained themselves to secure objects and apparently could not move out of the way as a result:
Blocking the path of emergency vehicles is no laughing matter, and I certainly respect these concerns. The fact is that such actions are illegal, after all.
At the same time, as a Boston-area resident who commuted into and out of the city’s Longwood Medical Area for years, I think a subset of such responses are disingenuous.
Some people are using ambulances as a socially acceptable excuse to slam protesters with whom they disagree. It’s not really about the ambulances or the medical emergencies: It’s about a protest and a movement that some folks would never agree with, no matter what they do. This kind of hypocrisy is problematic.
Consider that Boston is notorious for its traffic coming to a complete standstill on major thoroughfares. Our roads are too small for the volume of traffic that enters and exits the city daily. Driving in the breakdown lanes is legal on some Boston-area highways during commute hours as a way to alleviate the back-ups, which the locals are now used to but which positively terrifies out-of-towners. Traffic is so bad here that we were subjected to the Big Dig, a massive, unbelievably expensive, and hugely inconvenient construction megaproject that placed a stretch of the I-93 corridor beneath the city. It was the most expensive highway project in the USA, went terribly over budget, and lasted for 16 awful years…. and it hardly made a dent in the traffic situation.
In addition to the problems we have during rush hour, anytime there is a Red Sox game, traffic from I-93 onto Storrow Drive and onto Commonwealth Avenue, Beacon Street, Brookline Avenue, and other major roads comes to a standstill. These are the roads used to access the Longwood Medical Area, which is in easy walking distance of Fenway Park. (The gridlock is not confined to Yawkey Way, as some who haven’t worked in Longwood might believe.)
Major hospitals in the Longwood Medical Area include:
- Children’s Hospital
- Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
- Brigham and Women’s Hospital
- Dana Farber Cancer Institute
- The Joslin Diabetes Center
It is home to Harvard Medical School, as well.
During baseball season, ambulances are routinely prevented from reaching major Boston hospitals in an efficient manner. I wonder whether the people who are attempting to discredit the #BlackLivesMatter protest also speak out against the Red Sox and their fans for blocking traffic? After all, although the intent of the Red Sox fans and these protesters differ, the outcome is the same: Predictable though Red Sox traffic may be, emergencies are by nature unpredictable, and emergency vehicles do become stuck on their way to the Longwood Medical Area on game days.
One local mom, Nicole Aliberti, can personally attest to this. “I find it disingenuous that people keep complaining about ambulances not being able to get to Boston hospitals due to the protests,” Aliberti told me. “I once experienced being in the back of an ambulance that was transporting my critically ill baby in stopped traffic due to a Red Sox game. No one would move out of the way, and we had to find another route to the hospital.”
She asks: “Why is there outrage about the Black Lives Matter protest, when there is no outrage about this disruption of hospital traffic that happens many times a year?”
A Boston medic who asked to remain anonymous confirmed this perspective: the Black Lives Matter protest is just one of many such impediments ambulances face on a regular basis.
“Every response I drive, there are multiple people who impede my progress,” the medic said. “People not paying attention on their phones, those who try to out run me, the commuter rail train crossing the tracks, sporting events, concerts: This is not isolated to protests.”
Before playing the ambulance card, perhaps critics of #BlackLivesMatter could think about the day-to-day realities of emergency vehicle traffic in Boston. Yes, the intentions may differ, but the outcome is the same: urgent medical care is delayed, threateningly the lives of the critically ill. Critics condemning the protest and movement with vulgarities because if the ambulance that was diverted might reflect upon whether they care about comparable experiences, such as that of the Aliberti family, shared above.
In short, the Black Lives Matter protests are critically important and a locus of ongoing debates and discussion. If you disagree with the protest, come out and say so. Don’t hide behind a stance that vilifies the protesters for blocking emergency vehicles in a disingenuous way.
To be clear: I am not saying that the Boston protest was the world’s best idea. It is far from perfect (though from a PR perspective, it succeeded in reinvigorating a national conversation and bringing attention—some negative, some positive—to the cause).
To put it simply, I am troubled by those who cite concerns about ambulances hypocritically. I don’t mean that every person raising such concerns is a hypocrite; far from it. But look closely, read between the lines, and you’ll see that in many cases, it’s a cover for racism and hatred for the entire #BlackLivesMatter campaign.
Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters.