Creating ‘Protest Streets’ Won’t Work Because of Cops

Tear gas, vehicle ramming by police vehicles, and other violent "riot control" tactics are traffic safety concerns in every city in America — and no amount of design can solve them.

Protestors take cover from police tear gas canisters in a "protest-friendly" plaza in Hong Kong. Source: SITU research.
Protestors take cover from police tear gas canisters in a "protest-friendly" plaza in Hong Kong. Source: SITU research.

Can good street design really “protect” protesters — and the right to protest itself — from police brutality?

To glance through the last few weeks of urbanist media, the answer might seem, at first, to be an unequivocal “yes.” The Smithsonian Magazine recently published a love letter to urban spaces like Athens and Cairo’s Tahrir Square, lauding their pedestrian-friendly boulevards “almost tailor-made for parading” and roomy agoras designed for political gatherings. An author at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune argued persuasively that the city should implement traffic calming and shade trees on the street outside of the governor’s mansion, specifically to protect protesters who have gathered there almost daily since the murder of George Floyd.

Even the National Association of City Transportation Officials — which is largely comprised of the people who run city DOTs — released a formal guide to creating “streets for protest” during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a heavy focus on physical street design features like banning parking on protest routes and using “heavy materials or fixed vehicles” as barriers to shield demonstrators from vehicle-ramming attacks by counter-protesters.

The idea that good street design can make protests safer, or even more politically impactful, is certainly seductive — especially for traffic safety advocates who recognize how many of the design changes that would protect marchers could also make cities more accessible to non-drivers.

The only problem? It’s very rarely true.

Source: NACTO
Source: NACTO

One thing is notably absent from NACTO’s design-guide mock-ups of the “ideal” protest route, or even the sunny aerial photos of the Million Mom March descending on the National Mall: the presence of militarized riot police, military-grade police vehicles, military-grade compliance weapons, and the often unphotographable chaos of the protest space created by violent police tactics.

These are not a small omissions — especially in light of recent weeks, when such tactics are being used openly against Black Lives Matter protesters in every state in the U.S. On July 4 alone, countless demonstrations across the United States were met with walls of police shields and clouds of tear gas that were every bit as impossible to penetrate as the facade of a building.

“The role of the built environment is important in the protest space, but that doesn’t mean you can design your way of out police brutality,” said Brad Samuels, director of research for SITU, a social impact-focused architecture firm and research group in New York City. “It’s about changing the culture and tactics of law enforcement.”

In practice, street design is less likely to be used to calm police violence than it is to be used by police maximize the damage of the most violent “riot” control weapons in their arsenals. SITU recently completed a report with Amnesty International on how “less-than-lethal” police weapons like tear gas can easily become very lethal, especially when deployed at close range in spatially constrained environments, like when protesters are crowded onto the side of a highway embankment.

But even the most “protest-friendly” street designs, like open public parks with multiple points of egress, don’t usually stop police from committing brutality — because a militarized police force can all-too-easily block exits with their bodies, vehicles or chemical weapons.

“If a group of protesters ends up on a street with very few ways to exit, some of the tactics that the police employ can essentially trap them in that urban space,” said Samuels. “They can block off one end of the street with tear gas, and block off the other end of the street with a tank, and easily kettle the crowd into one area where they can make arrest and shut down the demonstration. That’s where it becomes really important to understand how the features of the street environment itself are used as a weapons by the police.”

In their research, SITU has found that even the “safest” compliance weapon is not really safe. Tear gas canisters fired at close range can carry more force than a shotgun slug, Samuels said, and the chemical weapon those canisters contain can cause fatal respiratory issues and spontaneous miscarriage, which is only part of why tear gas has long been banned in battle by the United Nations. And though some argue that “pain-inducing weapons” like tear gas, pepper balls, and rubber bullets are only really dangerous if they’re “misused,” human rights advocates say there is simply no realistic way to monitor or seek justice for “improper” deployment of these weapons in a chaotic environment like a protest.

“There’s this whole conceit that, say, sponge grenades should never be fired at someone’s head, that you should ‘just’ hit people below the waist,” said Samuels. “But in practice, people are getting hit all over the place — on the neck, in the eyes. The complexity of the urban environment and the ‘best practices’ of these so-called less-lethal munitions are, on the one hand, impossible to reconcile — and on the other hand, very easy to abuse.”

Of course, chemical weapons aren’t the only tool that police use to simultaneously brutalize protesters and spontaneously re-shape even the most well-designed public spaces into tightly-constrained battlefields where only one side is armed. Police vehicles — especially deadly-yet-socially-acceptable vehicles, like SUVs — have long been used by cops asless-lethal weapons” in their own right, rather than a pure mode of transportation. The NYPD became the focus of public outrage in May when officers rammed an SUV into a crowd of Brooklyn demonstrators; Mayor Bill de Blasio defended the officer’s actions because the protesters had surrounded the car and “the officers had to get out of that situation.” Citizen videos clearly revealed that the protestors had only surrounded the vehicle on three sides.

The memory of violent events like this makes NACTO’s suggestion that cities “deploy heavy materials (or fixed vehicles) in real time along march routes to prevent motor vehicle violence” seem optimistic at best — because it fails to explicitly consider the possibility that police vehicles themselves would be used to perpetuate motor vehicle violence.

And it’s also troubling that NACTO — which compiled its guide exclusively from the “best practices” of its member cities — did not include explicit bans on tear gas and other less-lethal munitions in its policy advisements. Instead, the organization opted for disturbingly vague language, like “establish and convey clear goals for…de-escalating conflict, allowing unimpeded movement, and addressing medical/safety needs for all.”

Documents like the NACTO guide serve as a stark reminder that traditional street design and traditional traffic control policy cannot address the comprehensive safety needs of all road users — and that when street safety advocates pretend it can, they fail to address some of the most urgent safety threats disproportionately faced by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, especially in a protest context.

“For me, it’s less about the agency of the architect or planner, and more about de-escalation and real scrutiny on the tactics of the police as they relate to urban spaces,” said Samuels. “Because if it’s not done on a highway embankment, the police will think of some other way to kettle protestors. It’s a cat and mouse game; the police will always find ways to enforce the tactics that they want to exert for the ends of crowd control. And that’s an optimistic way of putting it.”

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