by Noah Simon | February 24, 2014
Automobiles have been identified as tools of protest in many political and social conflicts in the past. Gene Sharp identified a motorcade as a type of procession (method number 42) in his list of 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action. Vehicles have recently been used for physical intervention to obstruct roads and make critical areas impassable, to barricade areas for greater protection, and to transport supplies and people efficiently.
Vehicles as Barricades in the 2000 UK Fuel Protests
The use of trucks, tractors, and large vehicles proved to be effective during the UK fuel protests in the late summer and early autumn of 2000. In response to rising fuel costs and taxes in the UK, truck drivers, farmers, and members of the public launched a protest in 2000 to pressure the government to take action. They argued that rising fuel costs and taxes made it challenging to remain competitive in their respective industries.
Protesters used vehicles to blockade fueling stations and prevent oil tankers from entering and leaving refinery sites. The constant blockades led to large fuel shortages, causing severe disruptions of fuel supplies throughout the UK. Just six days into the protest, approximately 3,000 gas stations were closed.
Oil companies often complained of a lack of safe routes for their tankers, as they could not get adequate protection from police to bypass blockades. Emergency services and public transportation became strained and were forced to operate below capacity.
By September 14, the majority of protesters called off their blockade after the government announced they would meet with protesters to listen to their views and demands. Protesters suggested that they could resume the blockades if the government did not revise fuel tax policies before a 60-day deadline. Six days before the deadline, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced numerous revisions that eased fuel taxes, especially for truck drivers and large vehicles.
While many protesters were not fully appeased by the tax relief, the use of vehicles to blockade oil refineries and gas stations had tremendous economic repercussions. The London Chamber of Commerce estimated that during the protests, blockades and slow-downs resulted in businesses losing up to £1 billion (£250m a day) because of fuel shortages and traffic congestion.
Ukraine, Automaidan, and Convoy Laws
Throughout the recent Euromaidan protests, vehicles were used for multiple purposes. Ukrainians formed a group committed to the use of motorcades, known as “Automaidan”. On December 29, 2013 roughly 1,000 vehicles transported protesters to President Viktor Yanukovych’s house where they shouted various demands and grievances. Automaidan protesters proceeded to drive to the residences of other government officials to hold additional demonstrations in the same afternoon.
Vehicles were also used as barricades in protest camps in the Euromaidan movement. As part of a campaign to blockade government buildings in Kiev to prevent officials from working, some protesters left their cars outside of building entrances.
It is clear the use of vehicles by protesters caused the government great concern. Among the anti-protest legislation introduced for a brief time in mid-January, the government outlawed convoys of more than five vehicles.
Ukrainian police forces also have been armed with anti-vehicle ammunition, known as ‘car stopper’ bullets. The bullets are comprised of brass or aluminum and are designed to stop vehicles by penetrating parts and mechanisms.
Taxi Drivers in France Fight for Fair Competition
Taxi drivers in Paris have recently coordinated multiple actions, blocking major roads to protest against competition with unlicensed cab drivers that work for car-service companies such as Uber.
On February 10, taxi drivers began an indefinite strike until the government agreed to reform the registration for car-service companies. Drivers began causing serious disruptions around Paris’ two main airports after they parked their cars on highways. The obstruction closed off two highway exits and caused traffic delays that spread into central Paris.
Police forces were able to ease some of the congestion by forcing cab drivers to move their cars, but the next day drivers resumed their protest. On February 11, over sixty drivers were arrested for blocking traffic, and were later released without charges. Some drivers also tried to block competing car-service companies from picking up their customers.
Taxi drivers decided to temporarily halt their strike on February 13 in response to a government decision to suspend the registration of car-service (“minicab”) vehicles for two months. While the decision does not fully resolve drivers’ demands, it has brought them closer to establishing rules addressing their concerns for fair competition with other car services.
Examining the Potential of Vehicles in Protests
As the protests during the 2000 UK fuel crisis demonstrate, using vehicles to blockade areas, or to slow down roads and create gridlocks can prove to be highly effective actions that are costly for governments or other opponents. Facing areas with up to 50 trucks blocking entrances, the UK government found it difficult to remove protesters without military or specialist police units.
Additionally, the recent protests of taxi drivers in Paris show that when police coerce motorists to move their vehicles, they can simply regroup in different locations and form new blockades.
In Ukraine, Automaidan members established safe routes to transport protesters to major rallies, coordinated the delivery of supplies, and set up blockades throughout the country. Their actions were often publicized in advance on Facebook and Twitter so that different groups within the Euromaidan movement could collaborate with them. Automaidan displays that motorists can organize the use of vehicles as a component of a larger strategy for their struggle.