On the first commuting morning of the first full workweek of 2024, New York’s permanent “protesting” class demonstrated its tactical approach for the year: to make us miserable on our daily trips, even as the city struggles to attract pre-2020 commuting and tourism crowds. Under the rubric of “Shut it Down for Palestine,” a few hundred people on Monday managed, indeed, to shut down all three Lower Manhattan bridges to Brooklyn, as well as the Holland Tunnel to New Jersey, just after the morning rush. They created gridlock that inconvenienced tens of thousands of drivers, bus riders, bike riders, and walkers. Following months of smaller-scale actions, it was agitators’ most disruptive action yet—and organizers will continue to escalate their behavior unless Mayor Eric Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul make clear that blocking key transportation corridors is not “peaceful protest.”
Protests on all sides of any issue are a fact of urban life. But protesters are not free to obstruct movement; the First Amendment protects only speech and assembly, not unlawful obstruction of roads, transit, or sidewalks.
Such illegal obstruction is the core tactic, though, of the post-2020 left-wing shut-it-all-down movement, and it started before George Floyd summer. On the last day of January 2020, a self-styled anarchist movement called “Decolonize this Place” swarmed Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal. The few hundred masked agitators wanted to “disrupt” commuting until New York met their demands, including free transit and eliminating all policing in the subway system.
They didn’t succeed in disrupting much of anything (though they did vandalize property), and the commuters who made their way through the mob might have seen the whole thing as a one-off aggravation. Even Occupy Wall Street, the precursor movement of nearly a decade before, hadn’t regularly interrupted New Yorkers on their daily journeys to work or to run errands.
Five months after the January 2020 attempted Grand Central shutdown, though, the massive George Floyd protests turned this method of protest into an ongoing tactic. Hundreds of thousands of people with no work or school to go to during Covid-19 lockdowns regularly took over New York’s public thoroughfares, stopping drivers in traffic and taking over public parks—typically with no consequences to the protesters. Though the most violent actors faced federal charges for endangering officers and destroying government property, people who broke lower-level laws were only given “violation” summonses for disorderly conduct, trespassing, or similarly low-level infractions—charges and summonses that local DAs mostly dropped.
The good news is that today’s regular disturbances attract far smaller crowds. Most Floyd-era protesters have gone back to work or school and aren’t interested in a pro-bono career in full-time agitation. The bad news: the hard-core disrupters who have kept at it now know, thanks to the 2020 experience, that they can act with impunity. Indeed, they can do so even more aggressively than in 2020. To settle an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit brought against the NYPD over its 2020 enforcement actions, mild as they were, the Adams-era NYPD recently said that it won’t “kettle” marchers—that is, hindering their movement with metal gates to prevent them from moving, say, from a sidewalk to a street, or from a street to a major intersection. And to avoid the excessive-force charges that dogged them in 2020, police now refuse to stop people from blocking roadways, entrance ramps, and major transit centers, instead arresting them only after they’ve blocked a target, have finished with their planned action, and surrender themselves.
With such leniency, it only takes a few hundred, or perhaps even a few dozen, people coordinated on social media to inconvenience the rest of us. Monday, protesters gathered at downtown’s City Hall Park and stated their intention to blockade the bridges; without the ability to kettle them in the park, police could do nothing but observe them carry out their plan, then briefly detain them to write up low-level charges. In recent months, similarly sized groups, all calling for a “cease-fire” in Israel’s attempt to eradicate Hamas from Gaza, have, along with snarling motor-vehicle traffic, twice shut down Grand Central Terminal, blocked vehicle access to JFK Airport, and forced a Manhattan mall and museum to close their doors early to pre-holiday crowds.
It’s not just the disruptions themselves that wreak havoc, but their unpredictability. Anyone venturing into or out of a busy area of New York City, on any form of transportation, including on foot, must contend with the risk that his route will be blocked and delayed without warning. Even some “minor” inconveniences aren’t really minor—airlines had to delay flights on New Year’s Day when crew couldn’t get to their planes at JFK on time—and these blockages can cause danger, too, stalling emergency vehicles. Moreover, though there is no excuse for violence, frustrated motorists inevitably lash out at protesters, as one stranded driver did Monday, shoving a man standing in the roadway; inevitably, unless police quickly reassert order, people will try to do it themselves, with eventual tragic results.
This fresh deterrent to spending time or money in the city comes when most people still haven’t returned to four- or five-day-a-week commutes. Tourist trips, too, remain well below pre-Covid levels, with 8 percent fewer hotel rooms sold last year relative to 2019, and Broadway still missing 17 percent of its pre-2020 attendees.
New York’s elected leaders have responded to these episodes with a shrug. After Monday’s bridge-and-tunnel shutdown, the largest such action so far, the governor was nowhere to be found, rhetorically. Adams was sanguine: “The goal is to peacefully protest without doing major disruption to the city,” he observed, as if blocking three bridges and a tunnel was the unintended, unfortunate result of the “shut it down for Palestine” action—not its stated goal.
Previously, Adams’s reaction to the impediment to movement in his city was to disavow responsibility. In December, he told the press that he “did not agree” with the NYPD settlement agreeing not to “kettle” marchers, saying that he “pushed back hard” against the agreement because “it put us on a very troubling direction.” But the mayor, ultimately, was in charge of signing off on this settlement.
It’s reasonable to ask what New York should do. First, it should rescind its settlement with the ACLU, allowing the NYPD flexibility when it comes to controlling marchers’ movements. Disruptors should not be able to march together from City Hall Park to four separate bridges and tunnels with the stated goal of making river transportation impossible.
Second, the city should actually use the law. No one is saying that people obstructing roads and transit should stew in prison for years. But they should at least receive a small-scale criminal punishment for their small-scale criminal transgression. Police detained (and immediately released) more than 300 people during Monday’s traffic sabotage; instead of dropping the charges, why not pursue them this time?
Even a violation such as disorderly conduct can carry a 15-day jail sentence. A higher-level misdemeanor charge such as “criminal nuisance,” or “knowingly or recklessly creat[ing] or maintain[ing] a condition which endangers the safety or health of a considerable number of persons,” carries a potential three-month sentence. Sentences tend to get people’s attention.
Why does Adams’s NYPD not charge Monday’s arrested protesters with such offenses—and call upon the city’s district attorneys, including Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, to ask for a few days’ jail time per offense? Sure, Bragg may decline to do so, or he may say that New York state’s onerous discovery laws, enacted by the legislature in 2019, make pursuing such charges impractical.
But at least then New Yorkers would know whom to blame. If the “shut it down” crowd keeps facing no consequences, they’ll keep on shutting it down—and untrammeled low-level lawbreaking will soon become a higher-level problem, as New Yorkers, better than most, should already know.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images