This essay is part of the forum “Investigating Infrastructures”

January 2017 Protest at John F. Kennedy Airport in Queens, New York

 

On January 28, 2017, the chant “No Ban! No Registry! Fuck White Supremacy!” echoed through the crowd stationed in front of the John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport. The protestors were responding to President Trump’s Executive Order 13769—an attempt to freeze new refugee admissions while also banning entry for citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syrian, and Yemen. Rallies migrated from protest saturated downtown spaces to urban logistical zones (Misra and Hurley, 2017). From Detroit to Los Angeles, airports were identified as politicized sites which circulate and detain particular bodies, material spaces of border infrastructure, and as physical manifestations of Trumpism. Many described these protests as a historically unique moment that ushered in a wave of organic resistance against the newly inaugurated government (CNN Wire, 2017; Josephs, 2017; Knefel, 2017; Segura, 2017). But, there is a longer history of organizers focusing their efforts on airports. There is a richer history of activists identifying and targeting the links between different infrastructures. And there is an ongoing history of these coalitions being led by the labor of racialized communities.

This is the story of the O’Hare ‘shit-in.’

Like many American cities, Chicago was built from theft. First with the pilfering of Indigenous lands from the Bodéwadmi, Osakiwugi, and Myaamiaki (Wetzel, 2015; LaPier and Beck, 2015) followed by a second looting of Black wealth. Capital was systematically transferred from Chicago’s Black neighborhoods to the white suburbs via blockbusting, redlining, debt peonage, and exclusionary zoning (Massey and Denton, 1993). By the late 1960s, Chicago’s Black population had been systematically segregated into deteriorating inner-city tenements. These spaces were pathologized through a deficit-laden language realized with the withdrawal of municipal services and support (Coates, 2014; Marble, 2015; Massey and Denton, 1993). The City of Chicago willfully exacerbated this segregation. In 1971, Mayor Richard J. Daley torpedoed federal desegregation plans to develop 235 public housing sites scattered in white neighborhoods (Rubinowitz and Rosenbaum, 2000).

In contrast to these neighborhoods, Chicago’s O’Hare airport was constructed as an ostensible space of cosmopolitanism, hypermobility, and global connection. Originally built as part of the military-industrial apparatus of World War II, O’Hare became a hub for the global economy enabling the movement of people, objects, ideas, and capital (Cidell, 2006). Because of its embeddedness in other infrastructural networks and proximity to existing airline routes, the space morphed from a Fordist production center of military aircraft to a commercial airport (Branigan, 2011). When the international terminal opened in 1958, it revealed the desires of a government modernizing in step with a growing class of affluent travelers. Mayor Daley used the facility’s inauguration ceremony to explain that “this is another indication that Chicago is the transportation centre of the world” (Branigan, 2011: 14).

President John Kennedy attends the formal dedication of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport

 

It is against this backdrop that the Woodlawn Organization, supported by community organizer Saul Alinsky, planned a “shit-in” (Alinksy, 1971). Building on histories of sit-ins, teach-ins, and die-ins (Koren, 2014), the coalition moved to occupy the bathrooms of O’Hare International Airport. They wanted to exploit a vulnerability in the interface between biophysical processes and infrastructure.

Bishop Arthur Brazier with Woodlawn Organization (TWO) members Rosa Scott and Mary Booth outside TWO headquarters, April 25, 1963

 

Humans are regulated by our need to excrete waste. Daily social functioning depends on an architecture of commodes, urinals, faucets, and soap dispensers which allow us to move unencumbered by bodily demands. Bathrooms are infrastructure—but they also work as the plumbing needed for humans to engage with other infrastructures. They are an everyday space where our private excrement flows into the public realm amidst a politics of sanitation (Chalfin, 2014; McFarlane, 2008). Bathrooms are an intimate infrastructure which both produce—and are produced by—the junctures between gender, race, sexuality, class, (dis)ability, age, and other markers of social difference (Wilson, 2016; Cavanagh, 2010). Washroom access includes certain bodies into particular spaces while excluding others via the policing, privatization, and isolation of bodily functions (Kitchin and Law, 2001; Chalfin, 2014; Weeks, 2016). Though recent conversation around bathroom access have involved non-binary bodies, similar fearful tropes of the fecal other surface in policies prohibiting queer, (dis)abled), homeless, and Black bodies (Frank, 2015; Cavanagh, 2010; Wilson 2016; Davis, 2015). Even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Jim Crow washroom segregation haunted the toilet stalls of the southern United States as Black bodies were dehumanized within the quasi-public space of the washroom.

But infrastructures have multiple meanings (Berlant, 2015). They can be repurposed. They can be contested. And key infrastructural pieces can become sites of resistance (Cramer 2015; Estes, 2016). The Woodlawn Organization and Saul Alinsky understood this. They understood that bathrooms on planes are cramped, inaccessible, and often occupied. They understood that when flights arrive at airports people flock to bathrooms. And they understood that the inability to conduct basic bodily functions could disrupt Mayor Daley’s dream of airports, infrastructure, modernization, and the cosmopolitism specter of unencumbered circulation.

Chicago Orchard (O’Hare) Airport Sectional View

 

Woodlawn and Alinsky began by conducting reconnaissance at O’Hare. Every toilet stall and urinal was counted and mapped (Norden, 1972). The coalition recruited 2,500 people to simultaneously occupy every bathroom stall and urinal at the airport (Norden, 1972). Activists would enter O’Hare, pay for bathroom access with a dime, and seize a washroom stall. They’d bring books. They’d bring food. They’d make a day of it. Groups would form lines in front of urinals five bodies deep. Each person would spend as long as possible once in position. When finished, they’d join a line at another bathroom location and repeat the process (Alinksy, 1971; Norden, 1972).

The activists would have little fear of reprisal. Bathrooms protect anonymity. Though people are monitored by the gaps under stall doors (Wilson, 2016)—it is awkward to force entry into a stall and question people about their perceived action or inaction (Alinksy, 1971). Like a library, shared silences govern the action and space of bodily excrement. Activists could take advantage of these conventions of privacy in the public sphere.

Alinsky describes how “the consequences of this kind of action would be catastrophic” (Norden, 1972: 27). O’Hare would clog as people desperately tried to relieve basic bodily functions. Private waste would become a public concern. The shit-in would tie up runways, delay departures, and divert swaths of flights causing the action to reverberate in glitches across other times and spaces. By interfering with the link between private waste and public facilities, the occupation would stain the heel of modernization with the excrement of defiance.

But the shit-in never happened. The threat of the action alone shook the City of Chicago’s administrators. Within 48 hours of the action being leaked, representatives from Mayor Daley’s office had invited the Woodlawn Organization to city hall. By the end of the meeting, the City of Chicago had committed to addressing Woodlawn’s grievances.

January 2017 Protest at JFK Airport

 

Lessons from the O’Hare shit-in resonate as airports continue to be sites of resistance. Woodlawn and Alinsky’s actions convey three important ideas on how to—and how not to—think about occupied infrastructures.

The coalitions first lesson comes from highlighting the relationship between infrastructure and white supremacy. Although segregation in Chicago has been enacted differently than the separate but equal laws of the southern states, the insertion of Black bodies into a space of white cosmopolitanism would have transgressed Daley’s vision much like other civil rights sit-ins—especially when it came to occupying the intimate space of the washroom stall. The coalition recognized that infrastructure is racialized and exploited this knowledge.

The second lesson explains how particular pieces of infrastructure plug-in to other networks. The intensely private spaces of O’Hare’s bathroom stalls is connected with wider transportation systems. Glitches in one piece of infrastructure echo as they are heard through networks connecting different places, ideas, objects, and peoples. The January 2017 airport protests against Executive Order 13769 demonstrated this phenomenon. To access the protests, people made use of the AirTrain service linking New York with JFK airport. When the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey barred access to this service to slow incoming waves of protestors, commuters across New York were delayed (Josephs, 2017). In a show of support for the protests, State Governor Andrew Cuomo was pushed to overturn the Port Authority’s decision—compounding the reach of the action. Likewise, the work stoppage to JFK by the New York Taxi Workers Association, in protest of Executive Order 13769, morphed into algorithmic reductions in Uber’s trip fares. The company was swiftly condemned for profiting from the protests via the #DeleteUber hashtag (May, 2017). Because airports are intimately linked with logistics, mobility, and capital circulation, actions focused on these specific infrastructural fulcrums reverberate across multiple scales and networks.

The third lesson is to recognize that these infrastructural actions have depended on the labor, experiences, and knowledge of non-white bodies. The Woodlawn Organization, a collection of Black inner-city organizers, was central to the shit-in campaign. And since that action, Saul Alinsky has been charged with including racialized groups in the organizing process only until the bargaining phase, at which point he would act as a gatekeeper to negotiations (Alkalimat and Gills, 1989; Gills, 2013). This concern highlights the practice of erasing the political labor of non-white peoples.

Indeed, one popular reading of the January 2017 protests is centered on the work of white liberals living in an exceptional moment (CNN Wire, 2017; Josephs, 2017; Knefel, 2017; Segura, 2017). This view suggests that the protests materialized as an impromptu rebuke of the ‘Muslim Ban.’ They built on the energy of 2017 Women’s March as opposition coalesced against the Trump administration’s problematic agenda. But while the airport protests were crucial, they were necessitated by the liberal class’ lackadaisical response to increasing Islamophobia. And framing the airport protests as historic muted the labor of those who have been continuously organizing against Islamophobia and for the free movement of people within the United States. Certainly, Black Lives Matter has woven together narratives of racism, infrastructure, and mobility in their critiques of stop-and-frisk programs (Badger, 2016).

The danger of this erasure is that reproduces many of the same issues people seek to oppose. Placards at the January 2017 airport protests claiming that “we are all immigrants” erased the relationship between infrastructure and settler colonialism. A point highlighted by Nick Estes who repeated other Indigenous activists’ call for “No Ban on Stolen Land” (Monkman, 2017). Executive Order 13769 was not an exception to US immigration policy as many commentators argued (Bershidsky, 2017; Capehart, 2017; Khazan, 2017).

Where Woodlawn and Alinsky demonstrated how infrastructure and racism create the possibility for successful coalitions, the January 2017 airport protests underscore the danger of ignoring the labor and experiences of others.

Airports have been sites of coalitional protest in the past and infrastructure will continue to weave with tapestries of race, circulation, and resistance into the future.

The story of the O’Hare shit-in provides a tale of relief in an era of fetid politics.

 

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Andrew F Kaufman is a Doctoral Student in Urban and Economic Geography at the University of Toronto. His current research examines the relationships between finance, sovereign debt, global flows of capital, and the built environment. His past work focused on homelessness, housing market analysis, and socio-spatial inequality.