For a visceral representation of the growing class divide in American public discourse, look no further than responses to Black Lives Matter highway actions in Georgia, Tennessee and Minnesota, among other places.
As researchers who study truckers, especially as they struggle with mounting surveillance, dwindling pay and general disrespect, we hear two very different responses to the protests. Neither “side” seems invested in genuinely listening to the other. But unless they do, progress won’t happen.
On one hand are the Black Lives Matter protesters, and the academics and activists who support them. This side argues that taking over America’s highways is the most effective way to get the attention of lethargic and detached Americans. The assumption is that the American public no longer responds to polite, contained actions, and therefore needs to be literally stopped in its tracks. Further, this side believes that the American public needs to feel — to really connect with — the daily danger of being black in a police state.
When protesters muster up the guts to walk onto a highway, they are reminding us — powerfully and effectively — that this sort of risk is no different from what black Americans contend with every day as they just go about their lives. It’s an important argument, and we support it.
On the other hand, there are many people who are considerably more than inconvenienced by traffic blockades — truckers.
On Wednesday, when Interstate 35 in Minneapolis was shut down, a trucker got screamed at, threatened and scared. She posted a video in which she tearfully says that she agrees with the protesters but that “they scared the bejesus out of me.”
For truckers, highways are work sites. Truck drivers are paid by the mile, not the hour. They work often on very tight schedules, under repressive micromanaged regimes. Their trucks are also their homes, and they are personally responsible for what’s in the tractor and the trailer.
Truckers feel targeted by these protests, especially, though not only, in instances where protesters climb on top of a 53-foot trailer and use it as a platform for addressing a crowd of protesters. Truckers ask: Why should my property, safety and livelihood be forfeit?
Whatever their thoughts about the movement before, many are now frightened, angry and resentful. The response “I’ve got three clips and 13 forward gears” is not rare.
Our challenge is: How can we as a country get these groups to talk to and hear one another? When truckers complain, most protest supporters respond that risks to truckers’ property are not as valid as the loss of black people’s lives — that daily threats to the lives of black and brown bodies outweigh late deliveries by a few truckers.
Truckers respond that their own ability to feel safe and in control, in a world that gives them precious few routes to achieve that, is being sacrificed. They remember the trucker assaulted during the Rodney King riots, and they point out that their bodies, because of how and where they do their jobs, are vulnerable and exposed.
Do the people shutting down roadways know anything about — care at all about —what a trucker’s work day is like? Why does a trucker’s humanity not matter?
It’s a classic stalemate. If the point of the protests is to draw media attention and get white people to care, we ask: What white people? If Black Lives Matter protesters makes strategic decisions that get attention at the direct cost of alienating poor and working-class people (truckers, cops, service workers), that’s not progress.
Historically, Southern racists created this antagonism between freed slaves and poor whites because it advanced their own segregationist agenda. We follow in their footsteps at our peril. Instead, let’s find ways for each side to listen to, and include, the other.
We support the Black Lives Matter movement and fiercely support activism for racial justice in America. We also know how hard truckers work, and what challenges they face.
We are angry about the death of black and brown people and about the disregard for truckers that stopping traffic implies.
As a movement — as a country — we can do better.
Anne Balay is a former long-haul trucker and a visiting assistant professor of anthropology at Haverford College. She is the author of “Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers.” Mona Shattell is the chair of the department of community systems and mental-health nursing at Rush University College of Nursing.