When Angelenos gathered downtown to protest the murder of George Floyd, they started at City Hall and eventually made their way toward the 101. Pastor Stephen “Cue” Jn-Marie from the Row Church led the first group of protesters onto the freeway, which they occupied for roughly 30 minutes.
Ever since the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, uprisings protesting police brutality and racism have blocked freeways throughout America. The freeway and highway systems in the U.S. are part of “a long, long, long history of looting our communities, looting our lives,” Pastor Cue explains.
Nowhere is this truer than in Los Angeles, where several generations of Angelenos, mainly people of color, have been displaced or trapped by the construction of freeways in the name of progress and ease of movement for white residents, many of whom moved outward to the suburbs of L.A. and Orange counties as the postwar era dawned.
“Communities of color, or black folks, were not permitted to live in the suburbs through land covenants made between white homeowners, through racism, through redlining,” Pastor Cue says. “The whole narrative that black folks would bring down the value of the communities … that narrative is lingering in our society, even today.”
Though racially restrictive land covenants were struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 1948, years of Jim Crow policies had already institutionalized racist housing practices that relegated black people and other people of color to certain neighborhoods — and labeled those neighborhoods as slums.
Those “slums” were the first places on the chopping block when freeways began to be routed across America in earnest in 1956, the year in which construction on 41,000 miles of interstate highways were authorized at a cost of $27 billion.
In 1957, one Urban Land Institute official celebrated that “inner belt expressways” would “inevitably slice through great areas of our nation’s worst slums,” writes UCLA professor Eric Avila, in Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles.
Not just Los Angeles. Alana Samuels at The Atlantic:
The urban planner Robert Moses was one of the first to propose the idea of using highways to “redeem” urban areas. In 1949, the commissioner of the Bureau of Public Roads, Thomas MacDonald, even tried to include the idea of highway construction as a technique for urban renewal in a national housing bill. (He was rebuffed.) But in cities across America, especially those that didn’t want to—or couldn’t—spend their own money for so-called urban renewal, the idea began to take hold. They could have their highways and they could get rid of their slums. With just one surgery, they could put in more arteries, and they could remove the city’s heart.