Commuters Sound Off on Traffic-Blocking Rallies

Blocking traffic is the tactic of choice these days among anti-war protesters. But just how effective can it be, when it angers commuters and packs police precincts with arrested activists?

Project engineer Craig Voellmicke was on his way to work recently when he ran into gridlock around Teaneck, N.J., caused by protesters blocking traffic near the George Washington Bridge.

"I think it's more annoying," Voellmicke said, when asked if he thought the act got people to think twice about the war. "I think people know the message already. Most people were just standing with annoyed looks on their faces. I didn't hear any words of support [from onlookers]."

Similar scenes have played out in cities across the country in recent weeks, as anti-war activists step up their acts of civil disobedience. The protests include staging sit-ins or "die-ins" in public places and refusing to disband from certain areas.

The main point of these acts is to disrupt "business as usual," according to protest organizers, although most groups do not encourage illegal acts such as blocking traffic.

"In our view, there's already an illegal and immoral war going on," said Scott Lynch, communications director for Peace Action, which doesn't endorse causing traffic tie-ups but does encourage other acts of civil disobedience. "The point of view of people obstructing traffic … is that it's not OK and you shouldn't just be a happy little worker bee and a consumer going about your business while your government is going about killing hundreds or thousands of people in another country."

Many commuters disagree.

"I just think that it's a hazard to the public," said New York real-estate agent Linda Schapiro. "If an ambulance or a fire engine is trying to get though, you'd have to reroute them. "I don't see that as being very effective."

Law enforcement officials around the country have responded in various ways to traffic-blocking activists. In Pittsburgh, police used pepper spray during one weekend rally.

"All that we're concerned about is that people stay safe," said Public Information Officer Tammy Ewin. "We will allow protesters to exercise their right to meet and protest, provided they don't break the law in the process."

Ewin said she believed the public supported police efforts to keep the streets clear. "From what we've been seeing in some of the editorials, the majority of them seem to be more frustrated by the fact that they're being impeded from where they need to go."

Washington, D.C., police have been forced to restrict traffic to several blocks around the city, particularly around the White House, in order to prevent gridlock caused by protesters. Mayor Anthony Williams recently claimed such police activity is eating up his city's homeland security funds.

Protesters in San Francisco and several cities have formed human chains and joined themselves together with metal pipes that had to be cut open by police officers or firefighters, to the frustration of officials who believe they have more pressing security concerns.

"This is more than protest, more than free speech," New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told the Associated Press in a recent interview. "We're talking about violating the law."

Protesters say they don't have much choice.

"Nothing else gets attention," protestor Johannah Westmacott told the Associated Press. "It's not news when people voice their opinions."

Lynch said many groups encourage activists to stay within the bounds of the law, because  "there is a point to be made where you don't want to alienate your allies." But "there are situations as to where civil disobedience is called for."

Counter-demonstrators who support the U.S. effort in Iraq, meanwhile, say they are the ones in the majority. They cite polls showing about 70 percent of the country backing the war effort.

"We're starting to see quite a bit of it on the streets," Scott Swett, chairman of the Free Republic Network, told Fox News. "People are interested in taking a stand and having their voices heard.

Swett's group helps promote pro-troop rallies and anti-war counter-demonstrations throughout the country.

A recent Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll of 900 registered U.S. voters found 14 percent of those interviewed think anti-war protests should receive more press coverage, while 60 percent thought they already receive too much. About two-thirds said these protests are distracting law enforcement from their regular duties.