Sunday, August 13, 2017

Headlines Erase Subject in Attack by Car

Yesterday a man in Charlottesville, Virginia drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one. The driver was later arrested and charged with "one count of second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and one count of hit and run with injury."

How it appeared in the Statesman, via USA Today
Most of the headlines, both locally and nationally, treated the car gramatically as the actor, the responsible agent and grammatical subject, in a probable crime.

Yesterday's early headline on the attack by car
Daily Progress, Charlottesville, VA

via Twitter
Today, the local paper is still using this grammatically displaced actor - like, oopsie, I had an accident, my car just went crazy! - and the headline reads: "Ohio man charged with second-degree murder after car plows into crowd."

But of course a person was driving, and chose the direction and the speed for the car's movement. A person gripped and turned the steering wheel, depressed and held the accelerator, hesitated tensely (or perhaps not) over the brake pedal.* There is reason to think that the action was also intended as an instance of domestic terrorism by a white nationalist.

Here is part of the sequence captured by a local reporter (notwithstanding the LA timestamp on one of the tweets).

Speeding on the approach, via Twitter

Just a moment later, at impact - Daily Progress

via Twitter
We want to think of cars as being morally neutral mobility technology, as offering greater "freedom" to move about the city and country.

via Twitter
But in fact cars enforce unfreedom on many. The dead pay the ultimate price in unfreedom. Cars harm people directly, they are used to intimidate people, and they are used to drive people out of public spaces. It is not too much of a stretch to think of them as an invasive species, first altering transportation ecosystems and then driving everything else out in order to create and maintain a monoculture.

(There are other elements of unfreedom, too: The system of racialized policing with traffic stops and the prison system, the burdensome financial requirements for households and cities and states to service cars, etc. There is a complex network to our autoism and it intersects with other kinds of unfreedom.)

This development of unfreedom is not rare, not accidental. It was part of the way the technology was used to advantage some users of public space at the start. You might remember this clip from 100 years ago last month.

From last month
And this from three years earlier in 1914. "Automobile drivers too often imagine the earth and its fullness is theirs; that the foot passenger, whether at a crossing or elsewhere, is offensively disputing their full ownership of the highways."

July 6th, 1914 editorial
By comparison, this later view in 1937 might seem benign, but it is essentially an extension of the logic that roads are for cars only. We dress up our autoism in polite phrases about "sharing the road" and taking turns, but by our engineering standards and design speeds, our refusal to acknowledge the asymmetry in power and lethality, and our legal environment, we still encode too much of "might makes right" in the whole cultural system and infrastructure around cars.

From 1937 this remains our ideal - via NYRB
Here is it not possible to discuss all of the situation in Charlottesville. The attack was of course about far more than the use of a car. It probably should be considered an instance of domestic terrorism by a white nationalist. Race is at the center of it. Our headlines also often erase or minimize this fact, also a "subject" in the attack. There are many layers to interpret here, and one lens only can't possibly illuminate it enough.

But our prevailing culture of autoism makes attack by car all too easy and available, and tends to mystify the way cars can be weapons, both actively and passively. Already the DA apparently feels second-degree murder is the highest charge that might possibly stick. What would be the similar suite of charges if the weapon had been a gun or bomb? It seems likely the DA would have available a much greater range of charges.

The central problem here is a bad actor, but it is not a problem of a bad actor only. Our whole system of autoism enforces power and advantage, and we do everything we can to make that invisible and seemingly "natural."

Including our newspaper headlines.

* History also has a bitter irony for us. According to the Washington Post, the suspect's "father was killed by a drunk driver a few months before the boy’s birth."

Postscript, Monday

A couple of follow-up items are worth a note.

A Salem memorial and demonstration took place in downtown on the approach to the bridges (itself a contested site, it should be noted).

Peace Plaza wasn't visible enough
This is more evidence that we should consider moving Peace Plaza. Peace Plaza should be perfect for this kind of thing, but it is far from perfect for it. (More criticism of Peace Plaza here and here.)

There's no driver here! - in the SJ, via USA Today
And in a USA Today analysis of the attack, the rhetoric is still that of the autonomous car. The driver and his agency remain erased. 


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Updated with a postscript on the memorial and attack analysis.

Anonymous said...

Here's more on that, including notes on legislation at the state level...

Anonymous said...


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Ryan Kelly and the Daily Progress won a Pulitzer today for the photo of the car's impact on the protesters.

"For a chilling image that reflected the photographer’s reflexes and concentration in capturing the moment of impact of a car attack during a racially charged protest in Charlottesville, Va."