The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After rush-hour traffic disruptions, D.C. protesters look to escalate tactics

Protesters block the intersection of 16th and K streets NW with a boat during a climate protest in Washington on Sept. 23, 2019. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Blocking traffic may only be the beginning.

As protests in the District continue at a rate of about two a day, activists looking to stand out from crowds that march near the White House or the Mall have resorted to more disruptive measures in recent weeks — a tactic that experts said will probably escalate.

While demonstrators holding signs hardly get a second look in the nation’s capital, it’s not every day that Washingtonians see protesters drag a boat into the middle of K Street NW during the morning rush and chain themselves to its hull. Experts who study protest movements said activists are shifting toward more disruptive tactics that bring the issues they care about to the public in a more direct — and sometimes confrontational — way.

The boat was meant to symbolize the threat of sea-level rise to American cities and draw attention last month to an issue that organizers with Extinction Rebellion, one group responsible for organizing the demonstration, said has long been ignored or overlooked.

It was time, they said, for something more drastic.

“People have been holding permitted marches, calling members of Congress, sending elected officials letters and petitions, going to their offices, and so far, none of that has produced any change — and, in some cases, the problem has only gotten worse,” said Nick Brana, an Extinction Rebellion D.C. spokesman. “Traditional mechanisms of activism and making change in our society have failed us.”

At least four protests have taken over downtown Washington streets in the midst of commuter traffic in the past four weeks. Of those, only one — in which D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) marched with janitors amid union contract negotiations — had been granted a permit by D.C. police.

D.C. mayor joins janitors in rush-hour march through downtown Washington

When the 2017 Women’s March converged on Washington, most women in the crowd said it was their first time participating in a protest, said Dana R. Fisher, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland who surveys participants and tracks protest trends. Most had never risked arrest or engaged in civil disobedience.

But at recent Youth Climate Strike events in the District, Fisher said, 53 percent of participants surveyed said they had participated in an act of civil disobedience in the past 12 months.

“There has been a lot of discussion among people on the left who use protests as a tactic that peaceful, traditional protests may not be enough at this point,” Fisher said. “That could mean we see more people blocking traffic, causing a stir, going places without a permit. I think we’re going to see a lot more people coming into D.C. to get arrested.”

At the Shut Down DC demonstration on Sept. 23, protesters set up blockades at 15 intersections at different times throughout the morning, including 16th and K streets NW, where demonstrators chained themselves to that boat, three blocks from the White House. Police used power tools to sever activists’ chains and eventually arrested 32 people — 26 for blocking traffic elsewhere in the city and six others near the Capitol.

32 arrested as ‘climate rebels’ shut down intersections across the District

Some commuters stuck in the snarl decided to give up and go home.

Later that week, the same group of environmental activists rallied again during the morning commute. The group blocked several streets over the course of about two hours — ending with a dance party in the middle of 13th and K streets NW.

The demonstrations coincided with climate change protests in 150 countries pegged to the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York.

Commuters and pedestrians pulled out their phones to take photos and videos. Stuck in cars or buses held up by the rally, several commuters shrugged off the delay, saying they supported the group’s message.

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“One thing to consider with protests is who is the intended audience? Who are the protesters trying to reach?” said Jeremy Pressman, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut and co-founder of the Crowd Counting Consortium, which tracks protests. “Under President Trump, there have been a fair number of big-issue protests where lots of people got arrested. But most of the ones we’ve seen were directed at lawmakers — people being arrested at the Capitol or inside federal buildings. And that’s a different audience than when you’re standing in traffic, messing up people’s rush hour. You’re taking your issue directly to the people.”

Causing a public disturbance can also be an effective tool in drawing media attention, Pressman said, particularly in a city such as the District, which has a large news media presence and where protests are common.

“With all the activism we’re seeing, people have to go back to the toolbox and think, ‘How can we stand out?’ ” he said.

Extinction Rebellion D.C. demonstrators said they drew inspiration from activists in Europe, where environmental activists have staged die-ins, blockaded areas around government buildings, disrupted public transportation and super-glued themselves to structures.

Last week, protesters in London clambered to the top of a commuter train in the London Underground and unfurled a banner reading, “Business as Usual = Death,” holding up the train and countless commuters during rush hour. Eventually, commuters on the packed platform dragged the activists down.

Protest organizers have imported similarly provocative tactics to other American cities: Earlier this month, protesters held a die-in — complete with fake blood and signs pronouncing causes of death related to climate change — outside the New York Stock Exchange. About 90 people were arrested.

Washington-based organizers said they have been studying these demonstrations.

“There’s been a beautiful diversity of actions,” Brana said. “These are all things that we’re learning from and that we’re looking to bring over here. They’re really jarring.”

Of course, theatrical protests and civil disobedience are far from new. Activists have been using similar methods to get their point across for decades.

Activists with Black Lives Matter routinely took over bridges and blocked highways around the country in recent years to bring attention to the deaths of African Americans shot by police officers.

Environmental activists credit the civil rights movement in the United States, the push for women’s suffrage, the protest of apartheid in South Africa and the movement for independence in India as inspiration for their work.

About 750 First Amendment demonstrations apply for a permit with the National Park Service annually, according to the agency’s records.

Police want demonstrations that will close streets to also get a permit from the city, although unpermitted ones are common, and D.C. police spokeswoman Alaina Gertz said the agency typically allows unpermitted protests to proceed, “as long as there is no danger or crime being committed.”

Police declined to comment specifically about the agency’s tactics in dealing with Shut Down DC and other disruptive demonstrations.

“When activists don’t feel like their grievances are being heard or responded to in a meaningful way, the natural progression is to get more confrontational and, sometimes, to get more violent,” Fisher said. “I’m actually surprised it’s taken so long.”

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