Anti-Trump protesters blocked the four northbound lanes of the 101 Freeway during rush hour on Sept. 26.EXPAND
Anti-Trump protesters blocked the four northbound lanes of the 101 Freeway during rush hour on Sept. 26.
Peter Switzer

Why Did Protesters Block Traffic on the 101 This Week?

The news cycle these days is starting to seem a lot like that eating machine that force-feeds Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. Let's start with the soup.

If you haven't heard, Los Angeles is — in the Strangelovian jargon of military experts — the most "lucrative" target for a nuclear missile launch from North Korea, according to a think piece published last month in Forbes. Reportedly the payload of a 500-kiloton bomb detonating above the L.A. Civic Center would annihilate everything within a half-mile radius — including City Hall, the Federal Building, the L.A. County Courthouse and the police headquarters in and around the Civic Center.

It would also include all of the city's tallest commercial buildings in the adjacent financial district and Bunker Hill neighborhood, including such iconic structures as the Wilshire Grand, U.S. Bank Tower and Aon Center. All gone within a few minutes. 

North Korea's foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, said President Trump's threat against North Korea in his Sept. 19 UN speech amounted to a declaration of war and that under international law his country can legally shoot down U.S. military planes — even if they're not in North Korea's airspace. (Of course, Pyongyang once threatened "a decisive and merciless countermeasure” as revenge for a Hollywood film about an assassination plot against Kim Jong-un by James Franco and Seth Rogen.)

For his part, Trump kept fanning the flames on Twitter:

On this and so many other fronts, the White House is coming at you fast. On Sept. 18, Homeland Security published a notice in the Federal Register that next month it will start collecting data from the Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts and "search results" accounts of all immigrants living in the country — including green-card holders and naturalized citizens. (The fate of DACA was all but sealed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Sept. 5.)

How does anyone deal with all this?

Asked why he took to the streets on Sept. 26 and joined a protest that blocked traffic on the 101 Freeway, USC film professor Perry Hoberman took a moment to recall.

Was it the result of the president's threat to "totally destroy" nuclear-armed North Korea?

Was it in response to Trump's speech in Alabama in which he advocated firing any NFL football player (aka "son of a bitch") who took a knee during the national anthem?

Was it because Trump compared hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico unfavorably to Florida and Texas, criticizing the island where millions remain without power for its "broken infrastructure & massive debts to Wall Street"?

Actually, it was before all of those things.

Hoberman, 62, an associate research professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at USC, says he made the decision to walk into traffic after Hurricane Harvey prompted Scott Pruitt, the climate-change denier tapped by Trump to head the Environmental Protection Agency, to tell CNN that it was "insensitive" to discuss man-made climate change's role in strengthening the hurricanes.

Hoberman says by the time Harvey hit, he was still reeling from Charlottesville and from leaked information that Trump's ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort was peddling influence to a Russian billionaire with close Kremlin ties.

"This is basically how fascism works," Hoberman says. "It's shock and awe. It's the big lie. It's doing things so absurd that no one knows how to react. It's impossible to keep track of what they're doing and how they're driving us all crazy."

Fascism is a go-to word for Hoberman, who is a member of the national steering committee of an ad hoc group called RefuseFascism.org. A few weeks ago he and seven other members of that group started planning to block northbound traffic on the 101 at rush hour because, he says, "They're playing with utter destruction and it's completely unconscionable to let it go on."

Hoberman's group formed after the election, and it has patronized its share of lost causes, including a last-minute appeal to members of the Electoral College to withhold their votes from Trump and full-page ads in The New York Times and Washington Post calling for a protest to prevent the inauguration.

The longer Trump pushes the envelope (and threatens to push the button), the more of a hearing a group like RefuseFascism.org is getting from the public. As Hoberman says, "We're seeing success as things get worse and worse."

The eight protesters — ranging in age, Hoberman says, from their early 20s to early 70s — parked downtown on Tuesday and rushed down the on-ramp at Alameda Street with placards, crossing into the four northbound lanes of traffic.

When they made their move, at around 8:30 a.m., the cars already were at a standstill there — something the protesters were counting on for their own safety, he says.

"I was the first guy in line and had to walk out into the middle of the freeway," he says. "The only other time I've been out of a car on the highway was with a flat tire. It's scary."

Their placards bore letters that spelled out "NOV 4 IT BEGINS." But they couldn't get enough volunteers to hold all 12 letters, so the tallest among them, the ones with the broadest wingspans, held up two letters each.  The eight people weren't enough to block the on-ramp, so some motorists were able to swerve around.

Hoberman says the protest was conceived in part to get the word out about a Nov. 4 demonstration the group is planning. He says it's being modeled on the Women's March held in January at Pershing Square and that organizers hope the action will include an encampment in a public place, à la Occupy Wall Street, or at least a prolonged series of protests over several days.

At one point on Tuesday they knelt on the freeway, which organizer Michelle Xai says was to acknowledge "black and Latino people who have been and continue to be murdered by police."

A video of the protest uploaded to the group's Facebook page has more than 700,000 views. Many of the 24,000-plus commenters ask for more information about Nov. 4. Plenty of others object to the group's inconveniencing motorists, and some appear to endorse running them over. 

Traffic on the 101 was stopped for about 20 minutes, says Roberto Gomez, public information officer for California Highway Patrol. CHP officers eventually removed the protesters and arrested them for misdemeanor trespassing.

Hoberman says he and others were held in police custody for more than 12 hours. "They told us the system was down."

"We felt like this was a necessary risk," he continues. "Calls to impeach and take back the House and Senate are fine, and we support all that. But ultimately we don't think anything will fix this but mass action by huge amounts of people gumming things up.

"This is just too serious to continue with business as usual."

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