At 9 p.m. on June 21, dozens of protesters gathered in People’s Park. With signs, whistles, 10-gallon buckets, firecrackers, and torches -- real fucking torches! -- we marched through downtown Bloomington to protest the building of Interstate 69 and the recent arrests of the Evansville and Berkeley tree sitters.
As we moved from Kirkwood to the Courthouse and past the jail, the march amassed both police and onlookers.
At the start of the event, I was carrying a banner at the front of the march. Eventually I managed to free myself up to take pictures. Unfortunately, those pictures were terrible, just awful. So I stopped taking pictures and started asking questions.
Photo Albums: I-69 March -- Martinsville Flood Damage
Truth be told, I have my doubts about the efficacy of old-timey marches. I don’t get the point of them. Is it to strike fear into the heart of The Man? To get media attention? To educate anyone who happens to see the march? I wonder if marches are the knee-jerk reaction of the left, our equivalent of the traditional conservative “mass destruction of ______” when they’re incensed (books, Beatles records, Dixie Chicks paraphernalia).
It’s just what we do when something bad happens. We march about it.
I had no way of gauging the level of media attention or scared establishment, although there were plenty of cops and photographers. However, it seemed like there was an easy way to figure out whether marches taught spectators. I could ask them. So I put on my best naive/inquisitive face and asked every person who made eye contact with me, “Hey, what’s going on?”
What follows are the answers I got. Quotations are approximate because A) putting a tape recorder in someone’s face would have blown my cover, and B) I didn’t think of it.
The police were the most clueless. Frequently they weren’t entirely sure what was being protested, although they may have been facetious. “Oh, there are some folks using their first amendment rights,” said one. When I asked them if they were going to do anything, one officer told me, “As long as they’re not wrecking up the place, it’s best to just let them get it out of their system.”
I’m sorry, are we protesters or toddlers having tantrums?
I asked people why anyone would want to protest the construction of I-69. Answers were vague at best. One cop in a squad car ventured a guess: “Cuz it kills trees? I think they think we should spend our money on something else.” Before I could ask him what tax money should go to, he drove away to catch up with the protesters. His was one of the cars bookending the march, and I had slowed him down by about a block.
Killing trees and misusing tax dollars are two of the many reasons I-69 is a bad idea. I-69 is part of the “NAFTA Highway.” It already spans from Canada to Indianapolis, and the plan is for I-69 to extend south from Indy to the Texas border and well into Mexico, with supporting roads going into Central and South America. The road would facilitate the shipment of products from outsourced factories in the south to bloated, urban sprawl shopping centers in the north.
Construction in Indiana would not only destroy woodlands, it would force the eviction of more than 400 families and businesses. More environmental damage would be wrought by the large influx of trucks through southern Indiana. And as far as the whole “misuse of tax dollars” is concerned, I-69 is conservatively estimated to cost over $3.5 billion.
On June 20, officers from the Indiana State Police, Indiana Department of Natural Resources and Gibson County Sheriff’s Department forcibly removed two protesters from their treesits along the proposed I-69 route. The protesters were living in trees set to be cut down when construction begins this summer just north of Evansville.
The arresting officers used cherry pickers to cut the support line of the treesitters, then pull them to the ground. According to the I-69 Media Office, one of the protesters was left face down in a patch of poison ivy. The people doing ground support for the treesitters were also arrested. A treesit in Berkeley, Calif., unrelated to I-69, were evicted that same day.
“I have no idea, some protest for something. I-69, I think.”
- a Bloomington Police Officer
The march on Saturday was organized as an “Emergency Protest” in response to the Evansville arrests. Shouts of “No More Roads! No More Jails!” -- as well as fliers handed out to elucidate the purpose of the protest -- didn’t get through to the people I talked to. Scientifically I know my sample was too small to make any conclusions, but I can’t help but feel slightly disheartened.
By far the most varied and downright bizarre responses I got came from a population I came to think of as “the rubberneckers.” These were the almost uniformly antiprotest people who, for reasons I could not discern, followed the march along its whole route. To the untrained eye, they looked like they were marching with us. But when I would ask these people, “Are you with the protesters?” I almost always got the same response, “Hell no! Does it look like I’m with them?” Well, yeah. That’s why I asked.
In general, the rubberneckers tended to be white, teenage boys, who wanted to take advantage of a civil disturbance to walk in the middle of the street. They were always in a group, and only one of them would ever talk to me. One little band got into the spirit of the thing, carry signs and shouting along. When I asked them if they were with the protesters, their spokesdude said, “Oh yeah! We started this thing!”
However, the majority of the rubberneckers would walk alongside the march, either in the street or on the sidewalk, and giggle quietly among their friends. When I would ask them if they were with the protesters, their response would usually involve the avowal of their love of both bathing and driving. Frequently, the rubberneckers’ ignorance of the reason for the protest made their disowning rather vague. “No, I’m not with them. I love I-69 and cars. I like driving. Driving is good.”
So why were they joining the march? Except for subtle differences in behavior, most of these people looked like protesters who showed up too late to get a sign. Why add to the ranks of people you hate?
One man, who I will now refer to as Mr. Schadenfreude (or Mr. S, because Schadenfreude takes forever to type), gave me an answer. He and his wife wanted to see the cops “bust” the march. He thought it was going to be hilarious, and he didn’t want to miss it. At one point, a fire truck came up behind us. Mr. S turned to Mrs. S and said, “That’s for the protesters. They’re gonna use the hose on them, just like in the 60s. This is just like the 60s.”
He was wrong about the fire truck. The protesters never got hosed, and from what the police told me, they never had any intention of even trying to break up the protest. The most proactive the BPD got was to situate what the I-69 Media Office called “its burliest officers” in front of One City Center, where the I-69 planning office is located.
Bloomington’s only apparent motorcycle cop also drove up and down the protesters’ rank and file. I have no idea why. The cynic in me believed his job was to wait for someone to hit him or get in his way, so they could break up the protest for assaulting a police officer. It’s also possible he wanted to pull a Top Gun and get close enough to the commies to razz ‘em good.
“I don’t know, man. I mean, I get why they don’t like I-69,
but I have no idea why they’re doing anything today.”
- Kilroy’s Sports Bar patron
In a way, though, I think Mr. S was right. The resistance to I-69 is not “just like the 60s,” but there is a resemblance. The Vietnam War was an issue that brought many groups together. Antiwar movements arose from the Civil Rights groups from the early 60s. The Vietnam War was perceived as pointless, racist and colonialist. And because of the draft, it affected the youth of the entire country. It was something the Black Panthers and pre-meds from Harvard could agree on.
I-69 is also a clusterbomb of issues. It attracts people who care about stopping globalization, racism and environmental destruction, as well as people who care about small-time farming and keeping jobs in America. And building more roads can’t help but be unpopular when gas prices are so high.
There’s potential for a lot of people to come together to fight I-69. We just need a way to get the message out. The question is: did the march on June 21 do that?
Elizabeth Squires can be reached at .