Two Prosaic Reasons for Small(er) Protests in the U.S.: Transit and Geography

With the inspiring protests in Hong Kong, there has been the occasional remark along the lines of ‘why aren’t there larger protests’, especially in D.C. While there are lots of reasons, there are two rather boring, yet important, ones, as this report from Hong Kong shows (boldface mine):

The time and location of protests are set via social media alchemy; once you get notified about one, you descend through a spotless mall onto a bright and clean train platform, get whisked away by a train that arrives almost immediately, step out into another mall, then finally walk outside into overwhelming heat and a gathering group of demonstrators.

When it’s over, whether the demonstrators have dispersed of their own will, or are running from rubber bullets and tear gas, you duck into another mall, and another train, and within minutes are back in a land of infinite hypercommerce, tiny alleys and posh hotels with their lobby on the 40th floor of a skyscraper.

Not everyone lives in a luxury hotel, man! I get it. But my eyes are like saucers. I ask forgiveness of Hong Kongers if at times I am still that six year old kid, dazzled by what to you is ordinary. You live in a kind of city we Americans can only aspire to, and it’s no wonder you love your home so much you will take any risk to save it…

Tai Po is easily reachable by MTR, the city’s commuter train system. Everywhere except the islands is easily reachable by MTR. The MTR is the one technology the Hong Kong protests could not do without, an autonomous fiefdom that the police mostly stay out of. It is neutral territory. The train ride is uneventful until we get off at Tai Po station, where there are an unusual number of people in black, the color of the protests (lucky is the Hong Konger who started the summer as a goth or metal fan, and has some wardrobe options!)…

Finally, the decision surfaces that the position is too unfavorable. This has been another development in the protesters’ tactics since the start of the summer. Rather than standing their ground, they have found it more effective to melt away and reassemble somewhere else. The tactic is a classic one, but I am impressed with the ability of a decentralized group to adopt it so effectively.

And so, everyone makes their way back to the train station, where again things transition to normal, as if a street protest with thousands of participants hasn’t just happened. The trains absorb the extra passengers easily (the New York subway would be in flames), and we return to the heart of the city.

In D.C., I’m fortunate enough to live within walking distance of many of the places where people hold protests; I also have multiple mass transit options. But many people, within D.C. itself, as well as the surrounding metro area, are car-dependent. If there’s a protest after work, I could attend (and have). But for most people, the transportation would be a real hurdle–and transportation includes parking. There’s a reason why many impromptu/short notice demonstrations occur at Dupont Circle, Lafayette Park, or Gallery Place*: these are easy to reach Metro hubs, often with some space nearby (especially after 5pm, when office workers begin to clear out).

Which brings us to the second boring reason: geography. Cities have public spaces, both formal (e.g., parks) and informal. I’ve spent part of my life in the burbs, and, in many of them, I don’t even know where you could hold a protest. In a parcel of soccer fields? Doesn’t have quite the impact. And it’s hard to do anything en masse on traffic islands. Even in places that have ‘old centers’, you still run into the transportation issues.

It’s just a lot easier to attend protests in a city with public spaces and good mass transit.

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