The Road as Settler

by undoingborders

We’ve traveled over 4,000 miles of highway so far.  Through desert, big sky, hot sun, wild fires, cactus forest, marshland, cities that run together, red-leafed hills, distant horizon.  There are so many beautiful places we have had the opportunity to pass through.

But it is hard to ignore the highway itself.  The roads we have traveled are trucking corridors, filled with goods moving across borders much more freely than many humans ever will.  And these roads slice through the landscape with intention.  They connect sites of capitalist production and consumption while separating communities of people who have lived for generations on the land the roads now pass through.

In Phoenix, we met people from a couple of different O’odham communities who are fighting a freeway extension that would cut through the Gila River Indian Community (Akimel O’odham land).  Part of the CANAMEX transportation corridor, a NAFTA superhighway project, the freeway has two proposed routes.  One route would force the relocation of Akimel O’odham and Pee-Posh families living on the proposed 600 acres of tribal land it would take over.  The other proposed route would cut into Muadag Do’ag, a mountain sacred to the O’odham and Pee-Posh people.

Where, south of Phoenix, the US/Mexico border severs O’odham and other native communities, here, just a little further north, the tentacled arms of the same monster take the form of freeways rather than walls and checkpoints.  The displacement of people and the movement of goods and capital:  two heads of that same beast.

And just as the border wall wrecks all sorts of environmental havoc, the freeway is being built to carry tools of environmental destruction north to the tar sands, to carry oil out.  This beast survives on the exploitation of land just as much as people.

Fight for the International Hotel PosterIn Tucson, our hosts have an Arundhati Roy book in which she writes about neo-liberal economic reforms in India, like dam projects, the thousands of people made homeless in the name of “development.”  We are reminded of the ways “urban renewal” plans and eminent domain were used to “redevelop” San Francisco’s Fillmore district, pushing out thousands of black residents, to decimate the former Manilatown (made famous by the struggle around the International Hotel, which housed mostly Filipino seniors), or to build the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on top of thousands of rooms in SOMA SROs.

We remember footage that our friends from Iraq Veterans Against the War and Dialogues Against Militarism took in Hebron in 2009 as part of their film project “Occupation Has No Future.”  There, they met Palestinians sealed out of their homes by the walls, fences, barbed wire, and military presence that maintains Jewish-only roads and neighborhoods in the occupied West Bank.

For much of our journey across the southwest, the highway follows the sunset line, a major rail corridor.  Trains carrying goods from Mexican maquilas meet trains carrying oil and gas from Texas and the gulf.  We are reminded of the brutal history of railroads in North America.  The Chinese, Irish, and slave labor that laid the track.  Only decades after the railroads were laid, the Chinese Exclusion act marked the first the first legislation that substantially restricted immigration into the United States.

Poster by Kerri Flannigan, Montréal

We are reminded of the myriad ways that people have been and continue to be displaced by efforts that seek to funnel resources into the hands of a few.  The railroad barons (or plantation owners or industrialists) of the past century are the wealthy and powerful of today. Whether they run multinational corporations or huge foundations or political dynasties, they’ve had generations to perfect the consolidation of resources and power.

In New York, we stayed with friends in Red Hook, Brooklyn.  There, a highway cuts off the neighborhood from the rest of the city.  The trains don’t run there, buses are few.  The walk from the train takes you down empty and unlit streets in an industrial corridor.  But we were told that the neighborhood used to be a thriving black community, and again we see the placement of a road as a means of social control, as a mechanism for exclusion.

abandoned roadside motel, Route 66 ghost townOn the radio, one day, was a story about old Route 66.  Those interviewed reminisced about the old days, when the highway ran from town to town, connecting people from all sorts of places to one another.  What other highway has inspired so many songs, movies, so much cultural affection?  The program lamented Route 66’s demise, as it was replaced bit-by-bit by interstate that bypassed town centers, leaving some towns without even an exit.  It described the withering of bypassed places, the change in relationship to the road, to travel.

Here on the interstate, after thousands of miles of leap-frogging from one far away city to the next, we are thinking about all of the roads that connect people to one another.  What shape would our communities take if “development” wasn’t imposed from above?  If the “necessities” that capitalism creates did not dictate our relationships with one another?  If our interdependence wasn’t mediated by on-ramps & freeway exits, by city planners?