Who's streets? Civil disobedience and public space

This week I finally got around to seeing Battle in Seattle, the recently released narrative film about the 1999 Seattle WTO protests. Watching this film brought me back to my sophomore year in high school, when I begged my parents to let me skip school and go, in retrospect more out of a desire to be part of a the drama of the protest than for a principled stance against free trade.
My parents agreed, on the condition that my dad chaperon my friend and me. Having been involved in the Vietnam era protests, he had the foresight to keep us away from the tear gas and anarchists. We marched squeezed between a giant Greenpeace condom and a Laborer's local, and were on our way out of town by the time the National Guard was summoned.
Seattle was first my experience reclaiming urban streets, and I loved it. From that point forward, I became a bit of a protest junkie. In the lead up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq during my freshman year at college I took the CalTran to San Franciso nearly every weekend to participate in the building anti-war demonstrations.
In the final mass mobilization before the Iraq war authorization, our affinity group occupied the intersection at 10th and Howard in SOMA. As the traffic light shifted from green to red, we moved into the middle of the street, interlaced our arms and sat. Angry motorists honked, some got out of their cars to scream at us. One particularly nasty motorist approached one of my friends and emptied a can of pepper spray in his face. Eventually, the cops arrived and arrested everyone who refused to vacate the intersection. Once traffic flow was restored, the police moved on, clearing intersection by intersection until the entire city was returning to cars.
Contrast the reaction of the authorities to the blockage of vehicular traffic in the Seattle and Iraq war protests to the typical police reaction when sidewalks are obstructed by construction or bike lanes are occupied by double-parked vehicles.
There is nothing inherent in the overwhelming primacy given to privately owned vehicles on our public streets. Rather it is the result the cumulative effect of less than a hundred years of public policy decision-making that favored automobile owners.
Imagine in the next hundred years, the potential of our bicycle and pedestrian advocacy efforts to reverse this trend by reclaiming our streets and re-engineering our communities to make car ownership less convenient.
One way to create these changes is to physically occupy the contested space. Now we can do this organized cycle events like Critical Mass or the New York Century Bike Tour, but I think we can be just as effective if we take individual action: bike to work, bike to get groceries, bike to your brunch date and to your hair appointment.
I know I have those days when it's cold or it's raining or I just don't feel like dealing with the verbal abuse and I chicken out and take the subway. But as spring finally arrives, and the MTA is potentially forced to raise subway fares, we can all make a commitment to ride as much as possible. By increasing the presence of bicycles on the street, we not only increase our safety, but we can also begin to normalize bike commuting in public opinion - look at Copenhagen for example.
Lets make this the summer that cyclists in New York became so ubiquitous that drivers got acclimated to our presence on city streets. To take inspiration from Seattle, the first mass mobilization of our generation:
Who's streets?
Our streets.

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