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NY Lawmakers Say Blocking Traffic to Protest the Siege of Gaza Is Criminal. They Said the Same Thing About Civil Rights Activists in 1964

Remembering the World's Fair "stall-in," in which civil rights protesters were called "extremists," "militants," and "fanatics."

Civil rights protesters with the Congress of Racial Equality hold up signs that say "Stop housing abuses to minority groups" in Lower Manhattan in 1963.

Protesters at a Congress of Racial Equality protest in Lower Manhattan in 1963. This photo was taken by the NYPD, and is part of the collection held by the NYC Department of Records.

New Yorkers seeking to protest Israel's monthslong siege in Gaza have turned to a time honored tactic: blocking traffic and disrupting public events. In early January, pro-Palestinian demonstrators shut down the entrances to Lower Manhattan. In November, NYPD arrested dozens of protesters who attempted to glue themselves in the middle of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade route. And earlier this month, activists used cars to block the entrances to the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and the Brooklyn Bridge. 

In response, New York's state lawmakers have moved to ramp up criminal penalties for those participating in nonviolent demonstrations. One proposal classifies blocking traffic as "domestic terrorism." Another would make the "willful disturbance" of a lawful event a misdemeanor that carries jail time of up to a year. 

These same arguments were made 60 years ago against civil rights activists who planned to peacefully thwart the opening day of the 1964 World's Fair.

Frustrated by piecemeal victories and little progress against employment and housing discrimination and school segregation in the five boroughs, members of the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality called their "stall-in" for April 22. Organizers promised 2,500 cars would run out of gas and prevent New Yorkers from getting to Flushing Meadows Park to force a reckoning with racism in their own backyard.

CORE’s earlier acts of civil disobedience against discriminatory workplaces, bad landlords and segregated schools in New York targeted specific injustices by forcing businesses and political leaders to negotiate and commit to specific changes. But racial inequality persisted: In February 1964, nearly 500,000 students stayed home from City schools to protest policies that under-funded schools in Black and Latino neighborhoods. City officials and local media responded with condemnation. Board of Education President James B. Donovan called the effort a "lawless course of action"— likening it to encouraging students to burn homes, suggesting children who attended school might be harmed, and pledging not to "react one inch." The New York Times dismissed the boycott as "tragically misguided" and "pointless" and said it risked the "loss of white liberals' support."

Establishment consternation intensified ahead of the stall-in two months later. This time, the Times called protesters "extremists," "militants," and "fanatics." "Throttle the Fair—the Public Be Damned," screamed one magazine headline. D.C. liberals warned the protest threatened the passage of the Civil Rights Act. "Civil disobedience does not bring equal protection under the laws," Senators Hubert Humphrey and Thomas Kuchel said, without a hint of irony. The ACLU said the protest violated the public’s "right to movement." Even CORE’s national organization condemned the stall-in, suspending its New York City chapters when they refused to call it off.

Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr., an outspoken critic of southern racism, said Brooklyn CORE's plans did "more harm to the civil rights cause… than anything that Dixiecrat Senators can do in Washington." His police commissioner dispatched the city’s entire 24,000-strong police force—including 440 trainees—plus over 1,000 Pinkerton guards and "every police tow truck, every traffic department tow truck, as well as [the] sanitation and park departments' heavy equipment," in the words of then-Traffic Commissioner Henry Barnes.

Barnes made it illegal to run out of gas on major roads with the threat of up to 30 days in jail. The Queens District Attorney issued an injunction against protest leaders, forcing them into hiding. Organizers canceled a stall-in in New Jersey after legislators there rushed through heavy fines on April 20. City leaders advised Fair attendees to avoid driving entirely.

The front page of the afternoon edition of the New York World-Telegram on April 22, 1964 (courtesy Gene Meyer)

The overblown reaction and some rain kept away hundreds of thousands of expected attendees —along with many of the promised protesters. While cops arrested 20 demonstrators for blocking subways and a few hundred more for picketing the Fair itself, in the end, no more than 12 cars stalled out.

"I never got out of Brooklyn," CORE veteran Stan Brezenoff told Hell Gate. At the time, Brezenoff was an activist, but he would later go on to serve in several high profiles roles in City and state government. "The hype really caused more impact than any specific things that were done or even could have been done. The traffic impact, which was the immediate goal, was achieved simply by making the threat to do it."

"People got up in the morning and started reading the newspapers, heard that there were traffic jams and so on, so whatever they might have been moved to do, probably there was no reason to continue to do it," Brezenoff added. "The achievement was in calling attention in the most dramatic way to what was wrong with society."

New York's leaders bristled at being called out for their own racist policies, but others saw parallels to the Southern movement. "There is no difference between a stall-in in New York City which hampers traffic and a pray-in, keel-in, lay-in, sit-in or what-have-you-in in … South Carolina or elsewhere," remarked one segregationist senator.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. refused to condemn the protest, according to historian Jeanne Theoharis. "We do not need allies who are more devoted to order than to justice," King wrote. "What is worse—a 'stall-in' at the World’s Fair or a 'stall-in' in the U.S. Senate? The former merely ties up traffic of a single city, while the latter seeks to tie up the traffic of history and endanger the psychological lives of 20 million people."

Contrary to fears of violence promulgated in the media, the only violence on April 22, 1964 came from the state. Police injured several subway protesters, who were in their teens and early 20s, according to reports. "Five were bleeding at the head," the New York World-Telegram reported. Demonstrators reported being "kicked and beaten" by cops. Pointing to blood running down a compatriot's face, one protester remarked, "He don’t need jail, he need a doctor." 

Pro-Palestinian protesters near Columbia University on February 2, 2024 (Stephanie Keith / Hell Gate)

Today's pro-Palestinian protests also block traffic—sometimes with bodies, other times with cars. It's a tactic employed in the past by City workers, including police unions, but the NYPD has responded by dragging protesters, arresting journalists, punching activists, ripping away signs, and pledging to "flood" jails and seize cars. Protests regularly caused gridlock in New York City before October 7. Tolerance of disruption varies by cause, according to ex-Traffic Commissioner "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz. 

Schwartz has counted "two or more" street protests per week since October 7. "Probably more people are pissed at [them] than usual. I think that's driving a lot of the legislation," he said. "This is a world event much different than many of the others because we have a large Jewish population, a large Muslim and Arab population, and it is persisting as long as the war."

Tactics like blocking traffic and interrupting events are nonviolent by definition. But as with the stall-in, unsympathetic New Yorkers perceive them otherwise. It's easier to see protests as laudable and brave with geographic or historic distance.

"I think people find it easier to sort of see, 'What's violent about a school boycott? What's violent about stalling your car on the way to Flushing Meadows?' It’s somehow easier for people to ask that question in history, and then they get so bent out of shape when they're seeing it in the present," Theoharis, the historian, told Hell Gate.

"We say we want nonviolence, but then I think we forget that the point of nonviolent direct action—whether it was in Montgomery or Birmingham or in New York — was to make the status quo uncomfortable."

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