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Activists, Physicists and Traffic Flow

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Almost five years ago, on November 25, 2014, hundreds of people blocked I-95 in Providence protesting a verdict in Ferguson, MO, where a grand jury refused to indict the murderers of the 18 year-old black man, Michael Brown. The root cause of the problem, systemic racism, remains: the chance that a black man is killed by police is still more than twice as big as for a white man. For women the overall risk is much smaller but the racial bias is clear.

What the data say about police shootings

Nobody was injured during the Rhode Island I-95 protest nor was there any property damage, but within months, in January of 2015, Rhode Island Representatives Canario, Edwards, Hull, Almeida, and Shekarchi retaliated by introducing a bill to make obstruction of a freeway a misdemeanor punishable with be a fine of up to $1,000, imprisonment for up to one year, or both. The bill went nowhere.

In March of 2017, Representatives Price, Chippendale, Quattrocchi, Corvese, and O’Brien proposed legislation to add a new section to Rhode Island traffic law. Price and co-sponsors’ bill and its attempt to change driver liability contained language identical to that of a bill introduced in Tennessee. It was obvious too all that ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Koch funded operation) was the origin of the Price bill. Indeed, sourcewatch.org links one of the co-sponsors, Representative Brien, to ALEC.

The Rhode Island bills were part of a nationwide torrent of bills that sought to increase punishment and liability for blocking traffic. Fortunately, many of these proposal failed to become law. Most of the bills in other states came from Republican legislators, a distinction that means little in Rhode Island.

Obviously, new legislation is not the only threat to protesters. Social media, lead by Facebook, Instagram and Twitter with their for-profit surveillance, may be an even bigger problem. But that is a whole ‘nother story in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism with its Weapons of Math Destruction. Clearly, Black Lives Matter activists, Water Protectors and pipeline protesters face serious threats from the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the privatized hired guns of the multiply connected and nine-lived cat Erik Prince. For the latest report on this see The Guardian’s Revealed: anti-terror center helped police track environmental activists.


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The worst civil rights offender is the National Security Agency (NSA) exposed by Edward Snowden. Its almost completely privatized system is run by unaccountable companies, or as Snowden puts it, “Dell or Lockheed Martin or Booz Allen Hamilton or any one of these really thousands and thousands of private companies that have become really extensions of government.” These are the same companies that fund congressional campaigns, those of our Rhode Island delegation in particular.

The attempt to suppress nonviolent protests is far from over. This is perfectly clear from the ever-growing list this web site, which tracks repressive federal and state legislation in addition to the militarization of police departments across the nation by means of surplus and methods of our perpetual imperial wars. At the same time, the fossil fuel industry knows that its days are numbered, but in its death throes it will become ever more dangerous. Activists will have to be prepared to defend themselves and partly work in the shadows.

Blocking roads has a long history often associated with the piquetero (Spanish for picketer) Argentina’s movement of impoverished, unemployed workers, the Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados (MTD). Road blocks are a highly effective tool to disrupt business as usual and, indeed, it has been used successfully by movements rejecting the top-down system of party politics. This has been described in detail by Raúl Zibechi in Territories in Resistance, and by Marina Sitrin in Horizontalism, Voices of Popular Power in Argentina. Unfortunately, in the land of perpetual presidential elections nobody has time learn from struggles in faraway places.

Recently, in the Netherlands disgruntled farmers riding tractors on the freeway to the capital, The Hague, created 1,000 miles of traffic jams.

Tractors on Dutch highway A12 on their way to the capital, The Hague

That accidents, climate activists, angry farmers, and climate activists can cause traffic jams is obvious, but physicists have long been fascinated by systems that display sudden state changes occurring without apparent outside cause. (I made my career in this field, but I also acknowledge physicists’ original sin, the development of the internal combustion engine and thermonuclear bombs, the two existential threat to life on earth.) Indeed, when traffic becomes sufficiently dense, minute, spontaneous fluctuations can blow up and form “phantom traffic jams.” Such strong susceptibility to disturbances is of interest to activists: they can cause major traffic jams without being caught in the act. With smart messaging, they may even be able to take credit for traffic jams occurring spontaneously.

There is an interesting, related phenomenon. On congested highways, cars in neighboring lanes tend undergo a transition from to a state of independent flow to one in which the lanes travel at the same speed. This so-called synchronization transition seems to be the result of lane changes of cars to the faster lane. That process continues until the speed is roughly equalized. Such synchronized flow, which is often seen near on-ramps, substantially reduces the highway capacity. It seems that jamming transitions are often preceded by a transition from free to synchronized flow.

These transitions are examples of many-body systems that display self-organization and produce patterns occuring without any apparent cause. They are a result of collective behavior. Carbon and water may freeze into crystal structures such as diamonds and snowflakes. Polymers may link together and abruptly turn a flowing fluid into a jiggling gel. Also social behavior can spontaneously transition into a collective mode such as runs on the bank and stock market crashes. Fireflies sometimes synchronize their flashes. And then there are the spectacular starling murmurations.

“Lovers of freedom, lovers of social justice, disarmers, peacekeepers, civil disobeyers, democrats, civil-rights activists, and defenders of the environment” are well aware of the 3.5% rule of nonviolent civil resistance. In sharp contrast with formal political power, it takes active participation of only 3.5% of the population to bring about major political change.

Once again, this is related to a phenomenon studied in physics. Just as fluid can only flow through a porous medium only if the pores connect from one side to the other—which is known as percolation—uprisers can bring change in society when they form what is known as a spanning cluster, a movement reaching across the nation.

For more more details on traffic jamming transition follow this link. Just remember, it takes neither tractors, nor arrests, nor Reviews of Modern Physics.

Peter Nightingale is a theoretical physicist and teaches at the University of Rhode Island. He strives to leave behind a more just, peaceful, and sustainable post-capitalist world for future generations, and for his children and grandchildren in particular.