Discrediting #BlackLivesMatter with ambulance concerns is disingenuous. Here’s why.

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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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. 

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25 Comments on “Discrediting #BlackLivesMatter with ambulance concerns is disingenuous. Here’s why.

    • Hey, Michigan, try driving in Boston for a week, and then tell us how much you know about traffic around here, ya goof!

      Why, oh why, would someone who is “anti-white” (what exactly does that mean?) and “ant-male” (a drone, I presume) be a “typical Marxist”? Marx was both white (by US standards) and male! Make up your mind, son!

  1. I spent a month working in Boston as an extern around the Fenway area and even on a non game day the ambulances trying to move through was impossible. You tried your best to move over but the reality was you weren’t going anywhere and most people didn’t even bother to try, in fact you could blatantly see that people weren’t going to attempt to move aside. Even on the outskirts of Boston where I live people don’t always move aside. But then no one notes their own hypocrisy

    • Me too. I know exactly what Rebecca is talking about. I’m in Boston too, and my FB feed is full of people who I see make racist posts and comments turning around and making this ambulance some kind of poster child. They care an awful lot about the ambulance….thanks to it giving them something concrete to say about Black Lives Matter, rather than their usual kicking and screaming that “all lives matter.” Racism and ignorance are so ugly, and even uglier when it gets hypocritical like this.

    • I found this article after I got sick of seeing fake concerns about the ambulance on Facebook all day. Thank you for writing this, you said what I couldn’t. I’m sharing this in all the threads I can find. I bet there have been 10 times as many babies whose urgent care at Children’s was delayed, but no one dares to castigate the Red Sox for not working harder to resolve the traffic issue during games. Despite it presenting a major safety hazard.

  2. This is a weak argument. There are plenty of us who are angry that idiots don’t move out of the way for ambulances. I am a black woman and I’m pissed off about the inequalities people of color still face at the hands of those in power. Honestly, we don’t need people talking and angry about a PROTEST. We need people talking and angry and enacting change about the PROBLEM. Instead of chaining yourself in the street, how about going out and DOING something useful and relevant? Instead of harming the very people you’re supposed to be helping (black folks commute on those roads as well), how about mentoring young people? Or volunteering in schools, prisons, communities? What is disingenuous to me is talking about privilege and then attempting to keep people from reaching the jobs they need to feed their families, the hospitals they need for their health, the once-in-a-lifetime vacations they worked overtime to achieve. Did this protest change a single mind for the better? Or did it push people further away? Will it make a police officer think twice before pulling a gun on an unarmed black teen? Nope. It did nothing but waste resources and piss us all off. Yes, there are plenty of people using hypocrisy to cover their apathy toward the problem. Those aren’t the people you will reach through any kind of protest. You can’t worry about those people. You change the people in the middle, not by making their lives miserable and accusing them of being callous and hypocritical when they complain, but by appealing to their humanity. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this, and enacted real change.

    • Awesome. All these people think they’re going to “help” by doing this. But I highly doubt they are going to make real changes that actually make a difference. Those are uncomfortable, actually require something of the person, and not nearly as glamorous as being arrested for self-righteous “activism.”

      It’s the people in the trenches who make the real changes. The people who don’t ever even get recognized or thanked. This is amateur “activism” if anything.

    • I think it’s pretty obvious that this article isn’t about ALL people who have mentioned the ambulance today. It’s about the subset of people who are gleeful to have something to throw in the faces of the Black Lives Matter movement because they hate the movement and would discredit it however they can.

      As an aside to that, whatever happened to our awareness that great change often is precipitated by great disruption? Boston Tea Party, anyone? Does anyone else think it’s funny that so many people think the protestors should be nicer, easier to manage, less obtrusive? LOLno.

  3. I disagree. Just because by comparison there are other situations that block traffic in Boston, doesn’t make it “right” to block the highway during a peaceful protest. They are not only stopping ambulances or other emergency vehicles from getting where they need to go, but they are also stopping your everyday citizens from getting places they need to be, who among them may be black, and their lives matter according to the message, right? These protesters are young, fiery, white liberals who want to tell the whole world what they are doing to make the world a better place- by blocking a public highway. There are other ways to be anti-racist and progressive and create change. This had the complete opposite effect of what they wanted, people are just going to be more annoyed and put off by the #blacklivesmatter movement because of antics like this. Antics of these primarily white protesters. Not to mention, all the protesters when questioned about the protest had nothing to say about what they were doing it for. Granted, there may have been more footage that we did not see, but still all the journalists I saw trying to interview people were faced with “no comment” which isn’t how a protest is supposed to work, there is supposed to be a dialogue and they are supposed to use the media in light of the arrests to garner attention-not shy away from it with their tails between their legs. This is not an effective protest in any way, shape, or form. Misled and misguided. I don’t think peoples rage about the protest is wrong at all and it’s not a discredit to Black lives matter, what is a discredit to black lives matter is this protest itself which was clearly lacking in any effective leadership because it was carried out so poorly.

    • Could you show me the part where the writer said it’s right? I must have missed something, but I didn’t see her actually leap to their defense. She’s just calling out all the hypocrites, of which there are MANY on this. Many. It’s disheartening.

  4. As a emergency doctor and former EMS director I respectfully disagree. Traffic on local roads is a fact of life in any city in America. People chained to concrete blocks on major highways is not. I send people from a suburban hospital into Boston on ambulances when they need critical trauma or specialty care. The medics and I think about the weather, the traffic conditions, etc as we weigh the decision on where to go and how to to get there–drive, fly, etc. Someone blocking a highway absolutely can be a life or death action, the opinion of one unnamed EMT not withstanding (EMTs who don’t do much interfacility tranport into Boston may not be in a position to judge the impact of a blockage of 93, the major north south highway into all our tertiary hospitials). Highways are not simply a thing of conveneince, they are a vital public utility like water and electricity. If protesters were to shut down those utilities I expect little tolerance for it. I agree with the protesters’ sentiments but not this method fo expression, it is foolish and self defeating.

    • With all due respect, the point isn’t that the two types of access blockages are identical. It’s that no one gives a fuck the rest of the year when traffic REGULARLY and ROUTINELY impedes access to major medical facilities, but *now* they’re clutching their pearls and crying “What about the ambulances!??”

      I agree with the author that that is hypocritical. And I also agree with her that the protest was far from the best idea ever. I mean please.

  5. False. The concern is not disingenuous. Sport fans and commuters do not leave the house with the sole PURPOSE of shutting down a highway. It was a conscious decision of a group to do this, thus this is where the public outrage lies. The intent to stop traffic was the problem. It was a stupid and reckless act and did nothing for their cause in terms of gaining public support. People who impede emergency vehicles for any reason (unless, of course, it’s another emergency like a car accident) should be arrested.

    • That may not be their sole purpose but if you had ever witnessed the way most Red Sox traffic refuses to move for emergency vehicles you would be amazed. No one wants to give up an inch and miss a chance at a good parking spot. And after the game it’s even worse I swear half of them are driving drunk. But yeah let’s turn a blind eye to that because we love baseball! ‘Murca!!!

    • Oh believe me. *Your* concern about this may be sincere, but for a lot of people, it’s totally and transparently disingenuous. Especially when coupled with racist BS like “ALL lives matter!”

  6. Hey doc,
    I am also a local resident and have yet to find a sympathizer for the protesters who mourn and honor the people they listed. Almost all were career criminals and committing a crime when killed. Upstanding guys like Stanley Seney, whom officers witnessed shooting another person to death. I’m stunned the BPD would take action against someone like that. Or Denis Reynoso, who wasn’t even killed by Boston PD, but we won’t let facts stand in our way. He only stole a cop’s gun, pointed it at his head, and fired the weapon just as the officer moved to save his own life. I suggest the protesters do some research and maybe think twice about honoring the drug dealers, car thieves, domestic abusers, gang members and violent offenders they hold in such high regard. Oh yeah, don’t block traffic so ambulances can get through.

    • Yeah but white criminals who commit the exact same crimes aren’t shot dead in the streets by police. No one is saying those people named in the press release were perfect angels. But why is it that police get to behave as their judge, jury and executioner when in similar situations with white guys, they de-escalate and bring them in alive? Worth thinking about.

  7. Having been in Red Sox traffic I can agree that when there’s an ambulance behind me, there’s nowhere to move. The problem with this argument, though, is that the Red Sox were not playing yesterday. Nor was there snow on the ground, or big dig construction, or some other “typical” Boston traffic problem.

    This was a deliberate disruption caused by 29 individuals, at least one of whom must have considered that they were endangering lives with this publicity stunt.

  8. Fancynancy,
    Boston Police, in similar situations with white guys, deescalate the situation and bring them in alive? Those killed named in the press release where mostly either shooting at, attempting to stab, or drive over the police when shot. I would love to read your stories about all the white criminals who commit the exact same crimes in Boston not being met with the same police tactics, but can’t seem to find the facts.

  9. The conversation over how effective this protest was or how it could have been better, I think, is very interesting.

    “Did this protest change a single mind for the better? Or did it push people further away?”

    Honestly, if it pushed someone further away, that person was never going to be an ally.

  10. This is a great analysis of the social media reaction to yesterday’s protests. I think the protests themselves are pretty stupid (halting traffic on an interstate highway is NOT ok), but. But. It has been really hard to tell which people, hiding so bravely behind their social media accounts, are genuinely distraught about ambulance access, and which are just ecstatic to be able to discredit the movement because of such an ill-planned protest.

    Let’s be honest here: the people who are condemning the movement because of one idiotic sub-group’s protest probably never were and never would be allies.

    It’s one thing for people to say, “Wow, this was a bad idea, though we understand the frustration and pain that led to it.”

    It’s another to say “These people are morons who should be thrown in the Boston Harbor and run down in the streets because AMBULANCES.”

    The former is an example of a thoughtful critique.

    The latter is racist knee-jerk reactionism at its finest.

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