Intervention – “Material Diagnostics: Rupture and Repair at the DSA Brake Light Clinic”

Peter Timko (peter.n.timko@gmail.com)

Writing in the online television and media studies journal Flow, media scholar Lisa Parks describes the work of Berian Menyani, a self-taught technician who makes a living repairing radios, mobile phones, and other small appliances. His open-air shop is located out on the streets of Macha, Zambia which allows passersby to stop, watch, and chat as he goes about cracking open devices and tinkering with their innards. The public, performative aspect of Menyani’s work transforms the act of material repair into something more: “repair not only extends the use value of objects but becomes a mechanism of social interaction” (Parks 2013). For Parks, Menyani’s open air workshop and salon sustains a specific culture of repair, one where the preeminence of the black box is undermined. His public work shows that with the application of effort, what appears to be broken can be remade.

The repairs taking place on the roadsides of Macha are not intended as pointed political actions, but nevertheless the technician’s engagement with the materials he mends does open important space for social interaction, space that could be oriented toward political ends. This is the logic behind “Gimme a Brake (Light)”, an ongoing project put on by multiple chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). By calling attention to the affective relationships people have to an extremely specific piece of transportation infrastructure, the Gimme a Brake (Light) brake light repair clinics instigate what Hannah Knox calls “material diagnostics“. That is, by engaging the material breakdown and repair of brake lights, these clinics allow for the “kind of questioning, interrogating, tracing, supposing, linking, storytelling, and demonstrating” necessary for political action” (Knox 2017: 368).

In a recent intervention for AntipodeFoundation.org, Johan Pries (2019) rightly declares that “a decade of third way neoliberal consensus gradually collapsing has left a vacuum that outright fascists are scrambling to fill”, and that in light of this process, it is important for geographers to move away from abstract discussion and instead examine the grounded, street-level politics taking place to counter this threat. Given the centrality of automobility in many American cities, the DSA’s clinics offer an important case of organizing from the Left – one that is worthwhile to understand as distribution and access to infrastructure becomes a more prominent issue (Anand et al. 2018). As Julie Gamble (2019: 1180) finds in her recent study of cycling actions in Quito, “[t]ransit infrastructure is a radical tool to distribute democracy“, not simply about distribution and circulation; they are the foundations of democratic politics from the onset. Thus, I would like to take a moment to critically engage with this action in the hopes of provoking discussion of how this, and other transit-oriented interventions, such as Black Lives Matter highway blockages and the #SwipeItForward campaign in NYC, may be valuable organizing tactics worth further engagement (Jilani 2017; Paynter 2017).

The DSA and Gimme a Brake (Light)

The Democratic Socialists of America is one of the largest left-wing political organizations operating in the United States. After experiencing substantial growth in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the organization has expanded to more than 50,000 members spread across nearly 200 chapters (Stockman 2018). While governed by an elected National Political Committee, each chapter is semi-autonomous and has a large leeway to organize events, protests, and direct actions to meet their locally-chosen goals. Common objectives include stronger social programs, greater labor protections, and higher minimum wages. Many chapters also place a strong emphasis on critiquing the criminal justice system and working to reduce state violence, specifically the type of police violence targeted by the #blacklivesmatter movement (DNC-NPC 2016).

In August 2017, the New Orleans chapter of the DSA hosted the first Gimme a Brake (Light) roadside pop-up clinic where DSA members help repair and replace broken tail and brake lights free of charge. The first clinic repaired 50 lights and earned such a positive response that the idea was picked up by other chapters. Within a year 45 separate chapters around the country had held similar clinics and DSA New Orleans published Gimme a Brake (Light): A DIY Guide (DSA New Orleans 2018), and instructional pamphlet and toolkit outlining the practical aspects and ideological underpinnings of the practice (Woodward 2018).

The manifesto which opens A DIY Guide argues that law enforcement often use a broken or burnt out brake light as a reason to pullover drivers, interactions that bring the risk of onerous fines or physical danger, especially for people of color, undocumented individuals, and members of other marginalized communities. It cites the examples of Walter Scott and Philando Castile, two people who were detained for broken brake lights, and killed by the police in the resulting interaction. The service provided by these brake light clinics can help mitigate the chances of having to interact with the police at all, and are therefore a potentially life-saving measure. The Gimme a Brake (Light) program is described as “occupying an interesting place between mutual aid and direct action”, and a way of “visibly declaring our intention to protect people from state violence at the hands of the police” (Kaitlin Marone, in DSA New Orleans 2018: 2). However, it can also be characterized as a specific material intervention into America’s most dominant transportation infrastructure, the system of automobility (Urry 2004).

Brake Lights: Breakdowns, Repair, and Rupture

To understand how the changing of a brake light becomes an action which opens the political imagination, we must “forge an account of political action that acknowledges how politics is experienced through engagements with material substance” (Knox 2017: 368). To do this, Knox suggests looking for moments of infrastructural and material rupture – moments where one’s embodied, affective relationship with the built environment diverge from expectations, either for better or for worse. It is in these moments – in quivers of fear and frustration; or the winding and unwinding or tensions – that one can be prompted into thinking and questioning. This is the heart of material diagnostics: foregrounding these affective engagements in ways that force an interrogation, asking how “the current situation came to be and from which a different future might be made” (Knox 2017: 378). These moments of rupture come from engagement with infrastructure in its deficiencies and its triumphs, from witnessing instances of material failure and of transcendence. In this way, in highlighting both the breakdown and repair of the automobile, the DSA brake light clinics open two spaces for material diagnostics.

The first opening for diagnostics comes from the inevitable malfunction of a car’s brake light – a small malfunction which nonetheless can be experienced as a major rupture in the affective engagement with a crucial infrastructure. In huge swaths of the United States, New Orleans included, automobility and its attendant materialities are an inexorable part of daily life. Access to and use of a car is practically a requirement for social and economic functioning; driving becomes such an intimately familiar act that the driver “feels the very extension of himself through the car as the car becomes a symbiotic extension of his own embodiedness” (Urry 2004: 31). Thus, failures of automobility such as traffic, potholes, collisions are experienced as visceral affects, ruptures in what is presented as a seamless infrastructural system.

The failure of a brake light also creates a rupture, one which is compounded by circumstance. Because of the privatization of automobility, the responsibility to rectify this failure falls on the individual. And as broken brake lights are often a pretext for law enforcement to pull over drivers – a risk disproportionately shouldered by, and particularly dangerous for, people of color – this failure can be felt especially acutely for certain groups (Woodward 2018). As one researcher puts it, the car is “a unique site of risk for African Americans”, where “driving while black … too often leads to searches, serious injury, incarceration, and death” (Thompson 2017: 93).

The affective qualities of this material breakdown are frustration, anxiety, angst, and for many people a keen sense of alienation and vulnerability. For undocumented individuals, the anxiety surrounding breakdown and the resulting scrutiny is so prevalent and looming that “many feel compelled to pray each time they leave their homes” (Stuesse and Coleman 2014: 58). These negative affects recall the sharp “sense of indignity and exclusion” experienced by marginalized communities in Casablanca as they engaged the material failure of their inferior bus system (Strava 2018: 25). In both situations, these affective ruptures bring forth questions about the status quo: Why must I rely on this faulty system? Why can I not trust the state? Is there a better way?

As these questions linger, the DSA brake light clinics provide a reciprocal form of material engagement which instigates an additional rupture. In this instance, the material engagement is characterized by repair and the positive affects that can be generated through the restoration of a device to working order. While the Gimme a Brake (Light) manifesto speaks of the symbolic power of the clinics, it is also the embodied, experiential aspect of the project that creates rupture. The ease of the experience, the lack of monetary exchange, the conviviality of the atmosphere, and the opportunity for hands-on learning all contribute to the material entanglements of the event (Wicentowski 2018). Such “rhythms and modalities of encounters” (Knox 2017: 375) engender a variety of positive affects in participants and volunteers alike. Of these, some are common for completing a technical task, such as the calm of satisfaction and accomplishment. And some are not usually associated with car maintenance: the bodily looseness of relief and warm of bonhomie.

These dual ruptures do in fact “force thinking” in the way material diagnostics describes. The combination of frustration and anxiety paired with subsequent satisfaction and relief is a potent agent for unfurling new ways of approaching situations. According to volunteers, these actions prime people to discuss their experiences: “the goal is to hear people out, and to hear what people have to say about policing and what they have to say about New Orleans in general … those conversations often start with stories about being arrested during a traffic stop, the nervousness people feel when they get behind the wheel” (in Woodward 2018). And just as with the protests regarding the Iquitos-Nauta road in Peru, once people have confronted the affects of material rupture, it is easier to begin “the mobilization of both material and conceptual resources to forge an appropriate response” (Knox 2017: 380). This, of course, is explicitly the goal of the DSA, according to organizers: “we are trying to make it more common for people to spend time imagining a world where policing is different, or nonexistent in the way we see it now” (in Woodward 2018).

Finally, just as Berian Menyani’s roadside repairs demystify the “black box” of each device he publicly dismantles and reconstructs, the Gimme a Brake (Light) clinics also demonstrate the mutability of complex systems. By demonstrating the simplicity of the repair operation – a service that requires minimal training and just a few minutes – the clinics show through material intervention that the black box of the automobility-law enforcement nexus can be disrupted. As a volunteer from a clinic in St. Louis explains:

If you ask a city, why do you have these stringent ticketing process, they’ll say, “Well, we’re concerned about traffic safety“ … Maybe they are, but then if a tiny organization like ours can fix cars, then the city of St. Louis or Ferguson or St. Louis County could easily be providing this service on a massive scale, and could greatly improve traffic safety without ruining people’s lives. (in Wicentowski 2018)

Thus, by opening a gap through rupture, the clinics show how a small malfunction is enrolled in system of surveillance, financial control, and threat of state violence, and importantly, how it could be otherwise.

Repair as a Matter of Scale

It is worthwhile to consider the multiple meanings of repair called upon by the Gimme a Brake (Light) project. An act of repair is never completely neutral or completely isolated. In their essay “Out of Order”, Graham and Thrift (2004: 4) prompt us to scrutinize what is actually the focus of any maintenance effort: “is it the thing itself, or the negotiated order that surrounds it, or some ‘larger’ entity?” While at the surface level, the “things” being repaired are small facets of a car’s anatomy, the toil of the DSA volunteers functions as repair at additional scales as well. These scales may sometimes work at cross purposes: “resilience and repair don’t necessarily neutralize the problem that generated the need for them, but might reproduce them” (Berlant 2016: 393-394).

Take a step back from the hands and tools at work changing the bulb at the rear of a car; there is a broader repair project taking place at these roadside clinics. As drivers pull up to have their brake lights repaired, they step out of their cars and speak to volunteers and other drivers, sharing an intimacy and proximity. Writing about the work carried out by farmers clearing irrigation ditches in Egypt, Barnes (2017) describes how this unpaid, communal endeavor maintains social relations between families and helps bind the community together. The DSA views the car repair clinics as working toward a similar goal.

Through engaging people and creating a social environment, organizers hoped to strengthen social relations among neighbors that may have gone fallow: “a show of solidarity and support for the community” (Marone in Marone and Peyser 2017). While explicitly not a recruitment event, such community bonds are required for the DSA’s brand of organizing and political action. Maintaining a tightly bound community is part of the social infrastructure necessary to “hail the state”. These infrastructures can help “assemble collectives, constitute political subjects, and generate social aspirations” – crucial elements for any political movement (Anand et al. 2018: 23).

Such sanguine visions of cities united as publics and polities through community repair workshops are slightly diminished when these acts of repair are considered at another scale. For as these clinics repair brake lights, they are also doing material maintenance on the wider system of automobility, a system that undermines the very community they seek to sustain. It is well-documented that the dominance of the car has remade the urban environment, fragmenting it socially and temporarily, foreclosing the possibility and promise of shared public space. Car culture produces atomized individuals, a condition where “[t]o inhabit the roads of the west is to enter of world of anonymized machines, ghostly presences moving too fast to know directly or especially to see through the eye” (Urry 2004: 30). So pernicious are the effects of ingrained automobility that the regular presence of automobile traffic on a street can curtail the formation of social relationships among close neighbors (Appleyard 1980).

On an individual level, maintaining a functioning car is a personal benefit. However, on a societal level, it is a curse. This dynamic does not change when it is viewed through the lens of racial justice used by the DSA to frame their brake light interventions. The legacy of automobility is not one of neutral mobility, but, in fact, one of entrenching inequalities. From the car’s role in enabling white flight to the destruction of black neighborhoods to make way for “white highways”, the way automobiles have shaped the landscape has consistently been motivated by and resulted in an unequal distribution of benefits and negative externalities (Seiler 2006). This continues through to the present as “secessionist automobility” continues to allow wealthy, white drivers to “travel through spaces inhabited by blacks or other minorities without having to interact with them” (Henderson 2006: 300). While mitigating racial disparities in pull-over statistics is laudable, there is a danger of reinscribing “automobility essentialism” while doing little to address these systemic issues.

It is possible to extend this critique to a global scale. The small-scale work of repairing the materials of automobility is doing maintenance on a system responsible for a large share of greenhouse gas emissions. The narrative of automobile ownership is tightly bound with the narrative of modernity: it is a narrative of freedom, individuality, and prestige (Henderson 2006). Yet, as Chakrabarty (2009: 208) puts it, the “mansion of modern freedoms stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil fuel use”. Considering the brake light intervention in light of this reality reveals the complexity of repair as and ideal. At one scale, repair protects a marginalized individual from undue harassment; at another, it facilitates a system built atop exploitative, extractive industries, the climate change-fueled repercussions of which will be felt most acutely in the Global South.

It may be unfair to pin the responsibility for solving a global-scale wicked problem on a local-level mutual aid project. Especially, as the long-term goal of the DSA is to push for aggressive climate change policy and dismantle the capitalist system – after all, “[t]here may have been coal capitalism and oil capitalism; there cannot be solar or wind capitalism” (Szeman and Boyer 2017: 7). In an optimistic sense, the social infrastructure repaired at these small clinics across the country may help build the political support needed to push these larger policies. Either way, untangling these issues redounds to the truth that there is a “politics of repair and maintenance” (Graham and Thrift 2004: 17). It is important to consider not just what is being repaired, but also what else, and for whose benefit?

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Peter Timko (peter.n.timko@gmail.com) is a recent graduate of Radboud University’s master’s programme in Human Geography. He previously worked as a public librarian and radio producer in Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD. He currently lives in the Netherlands.