Date: 19 May 1997 19:56:02 EST
Subject: WRN Intersect V1 N3 Section 1 Article

May 5, 1997 Volume I Number 2


Interview with a Freeway Fighter

Angela Rooney was one of the leaders in the anti-freeway movement from the early 60's to the early 70's that succeeded in preventing the construction of 1500 lane miles of freeway in the region. This included an extension of I-95 and an "inner-circulator," both of which would have, among other things, destroyed thousands of homes and small businesses in the District of Columbia. I have spoken to Ms. Rooney several times and have been deeply impressed with her courage, commitment to speaking truth to power and political savvy. Her knowledge of both the political history of transportation struggles in this region and the essentials of effective movement building are of great value to today's activists fighting current highway projects. I recently asked her how she became involved with the Freeway Fighters and how they became such an effective fighting force. Following are some excerpts of her thoughts from that conversation.— Chris Niles


"I think the first thing that struck me was the social inequality of ramming a huge freeway through a largely black section of the city which would have just ripped up neighborhood after neighborhood, community after community. It was just a massive attempt to destroy half of Washington DC. Better connected whites in Northwest simply said no way are you going to ram a freeway down Wisconsin or Connecticut Ave or anywhere else in Northwest. So the highway department went back and redrew it and said "wow, we can go through Northeast, they don't have any clout." But the idea that this was going to be imposed on the city without any real opportunity to be heard from was to me an outrage...

I quickly learned that there was no one to lead us or protect us. I heard that there was to be a hearing in Takoma Park, another community that the freeway would decimate. So, I took myself out and I watched what happened at the public hearing.. As I heard the testimony, I found the people that I wanted to work with. We started this huge network. We did not have the advantage of getting funding for anything, ever.

It began with meetings every week, meetings every day sometimes. We went to all the hearings and learned the tactics of the labor unions, by which I mean simultaneously organizing and educating, though without having the guns right in our faces. At the top of the list was educating. We realized that our job was to teach people what their rights were, to realize that the constitution guaranteed those rights, to stand up for them, and to speak out.

We were scrupulously careful in never having a meeting from which anyone was barred or never having a plan that was not within our constitutional rights to carry out, to hold a meeting, to picket, to demonstrate. Everything that we did was within the law. Still, what came down was the heavy, heavy boot of the FBI and our newspaper (the Washington Post). The Post called us everything from communists to pinkos to "that little band of discontented people..." Our job was to educate from the highest economic level to the lowest economic level and bring them all together at the same table whenever possible so that everybody was focused on the same issue. We were immensely advantaged by having a guy
named Sam Abbott who was at heart and soul a great union organizer to focus and understand what was really going on. We understood that almost all of our troubles came out of the '56 Highway Act which created an enormous lobby of asphalt and cement people, auto companies, tire makers, all the people who make money from highways. They were well-entrenched in Congress and drinking deeply from the federal trough that was set up called the Highway Trust Fund. They had little respect for anyone who got in their way and they were astonished that anybody like me, a white woman living in a largely black neighborhood would get up and testify strongly, mincing no words...

The Federal Highway Administration, was in fact breaking its own laws left and right. They would not hold the proper hearings, they would not publish advance notice of meetings. We had to force the government to obey its own laws and regulations. The more you saw of how criminally they behaved, the more you learned the importance of learning what they
were up to all the time. You tracked the organizations that supported the highways, that greased the wheels. You also learned another important thing: Always know where the money is coming from and where it is going. We eventually succeeded in networking a large area that included the suburban areas of Maryland and Virginia and the whole of the District of Columbia. The idea was to create a political climate of understanding of what was being done so that the lawsuits that were brought and the lawyers who had joined us-there were not many but there were some brilliant ones-would be judged in a political climate that understood the social injustice and the terror that was being visited upon this city and the suburbs...De Toqueville said that the most important thing for a democracy to succeed is an educated and involved citizenry. That does not mean learning how to be a rocket scientists. I'm talking about the operations of our government in action. You need to understand why people vote the way they do and what they're interested in.. You've got to help people to see how to look at things and analyze the political situation in a generalized way, not just go along because this Democratic guy is nice or that Republican says something you want to hear. You divorce the issue from party politics, stick with the issue and learn how it plays out in the big picture as well as in your own community...

Our first rallying cry was: "No White Men's Roads Through Black Men's Homes!"  We had to do that as offensive as it was to some people because it was absolutely the truth. It was indeed Black men's homes and businesses that were being confiscated. It was a very personal kind of insult, especially in a city where many blacks worked for the Federal government the city, to find out that your home could be gone just like that. The highway proponents felt no compunction about this. I don't remember whether it was the highway lobby men or the representatives from the FHA but they would say, "yeah, we built that road and we didn't even have to give them the moving money. They didn't know they were supposed to get it...

Our other rallying cry was: "Freeways No!, Metro Yes!" That was in everything we put out to focus hard on the fact that we needed good public transportation. If they built I-95, the inner loop, the outer beltways and all the other roads, there was no hope for a Metro being built because there would be no money. So we fought long, long and hard for years to break open the trust fund for other kinds of transportation. People had no idea that they had an option...Even in the 1960's, we were calling loud and clear for a multi-modal, interdependent, complete transportation system. We discovered that there was no "transportation plan" for the United States at all. That was a euphemism they used to use: "Oh, we have to build that road, it's a part of the transportation plan.". We were very happy when we learned, after being blackmailed as a city and told we would get no federal payment if we did not take the money for the freeways, that the money had been shifted over to Metro. I truly believe that the money was shifted because the freeway people realized that they were operating in a city that made it impossible for anybody to be elected unless they were against the freeways-including Barry. At the same time, they suddenly realized that if they got Metro, and built it in their image, they could make just as much money, maybe even more because then they could enrich all those suburban developers. We did lobby for good Metro stops in the city that would not destroy the whole neighborhood with uncontrolled development around every Metro stop. Developers did not get their way around every Metro station in the District-not yet at least. But they pretty much got their way at suburban Metro stations. Look at Tyson's Corner, for example. With Metro, they have simply recreated, by and large, highway-like development pattern. If we had had our druthers, we would not have built Metro out into the cow pastures, and we would not have built so damn deep. It was, is, an overbuilt system. I mean, look at Dupont Circle. I doubt very much that they had to go that deep. It is not a well conceived system. It was never integrated properly with the buses or light rail. Further, public transportation should be available to everyone and it should be free. There is no reason it can't be.

There were always agent provocateurs that we needed to deal with. We expected them to be at mass meetings. We learned to look at the shoes to see if they were shined. We learned not to be deceived by anyone who wore fake dashikis-there were lots of those. We learned to study the people who brought unnamed camera crews. We knew our phones were tapped, all the time. We received a lot of phone calls from so-called innocent people just asking how many people did you expect to turn out, or offering to provide coffee and donuts. They would also say that they were writing books and wanted to know if we thought this country was really worth saving. We knew people who worked at the FBI and they saw our files. Sometimes, provocateurs would go to our meetings and attempt to rouse the crowd to some kind of action that would force the police to interfere. That was never our style. It was always brought on by an individual or group of people sent there to try to force the crowd into some kind of useless action.. I used to get called up by white people who thought they were looking after my good and they would ask me, "why do you associate with those people? They don't even use good grammar?" They would also say that they thought the company I kept was dangerous because they thought some of them were what they used to call "pinkos." It was very silly. I would say "why don't you stop worrying about the style of their speech and listen to the content..." Ten years later, we won a lawsuit against the FBI for harassment

We learned that it was important to distinguish the private decision making process from the public one. The private decision making process in Washington consisted of the Gold Plan, the Silver Plan and the Blue Plan. The Gold Plan was for those who will make serious money from the private decision making process. The Silver Plan was for the hangers on who receive secondary benefits from the Gold Plan. The Blue Plan is the one that the community is supposed to see...Generally speaking, you never get a look at the Gold Plan unless you paid thousands of dollars a year to belong to 'the club...'

"The media has taken over the job of the highway lobby of brainwashing the American people. We are so deep into the culture of the automobile now that we have no notion how we have been suckered into it. Children from the time they are born assume the right of the automobile. It is the biggest sex symbol in America. But our dependency on the car has backfired all over the country: air pollution is worse, traffic jams are far worse then they ever were, water runoff is worse.

Despite all this, the highway lobby continues fighting for more roads...Recently, the Post was a part of a transportation study (now reading from a recent Post editorial): "The study was conducted by a group of national and regional transportation specialists hired by the Board of Trade with funds from various member companies...including this newspaper." This study was a done deal before it was completed so it would say exactly what they wanted it to say; and what they want is to build roads that we prevented them from building in the 60's..."

I think one of the most important lessons that came out of our efforts is that there is no compromise unless there are equal advantages on both sides. Otherwise it's not compromise. What are activist giving up when the compromise? Nothing. What are the highway people getting? Everything they wanted. It's really important to understand this because people are always being asked to be reasonable. There is no such thing as being reasonable when somebody is putting your head on a chopping block. People are deceived all the time: "Let's get a few of you together and talk it over, we're all reasonable people." You are dead in the water if you buy that. Never go in small groups. Take everybody. Let everybody hear what the highway proponents are up to."


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