Whose Streets: Protest and Drifting

Whose Streets: Protest and Drifting

As I drove home on I-95 from the AAAs this year thinking about conversations, old friends, future projects, Honduras, and the tax bill, I heard a car swoosh by me. Immediately sitting up, I knew there would be more. I looked in the rear view mirror and found myself surrounded by fast moving vehicles, all with shaded windows, souped up engines, and a speed that made the rest of us all look like lumbering slow pokes. It was like suddenly swimming with a fast paced shoal of fish. They came in between us, weaving, crossing lanes with a deft swiftness which made the sheer grace of it overwhelming. Having experienced this in other countries, I wondered how such racing would manifest itself on a major US highway, and I could feel the I-95 collective adrenaline rising with each swooshing roar that passed.

And then I saw the smoke. And I saw the cars stopping. And I saw all the fast cars with their hazards on in a line in the front. And realized that they made and held a line for cars in motion so that the cars from their group could drift in line and in circles (in case you are interested in how to learn how to drift in a clockwise direction, there’s a video tutorial here). The smoke rising was matched by all the phones rising out of the cars. To be fair, it wasn’t just hands and phones visible, there were some classic tactics of folks sitting on windows, albeit with phones to capture the videos, which has become its own sort of classic.

The feeling of watching collective drifting is something akin to how mesmerizing murmuration can be. There’s something about how none of the birds bump into each other. Communication through motion requires such a heightened sense of self and surrounding, and to be able to allow a car to embody that, is remarkable. When these cars are working together, it’s smooth, flawless, and beautifully subversive. There are rules of the road and they are actively forcing us to question why we continue to follow without thinking. It makes me think of protest, it makes me think of how and why we stop traffic.

Such action feels like it belongs somewhere between enormous privilege or disenfranchisement as it makes us put our bodies and extensions at such clear risk. As with so many other aspects of subcultures of protest, or subversive action, taking over streets with bodies or cars is easily usurped by late capitalism and neoliberal forms of urban re-imagining, and ultimately made into genre (skateboarding would be another great example of this).

While watching the smoke and phones on I-95, I was reminded of a conversation I had earlier this year while in Dubai. I met a business man from Abu Dhabi who was, as he said, a drifting enthusiast and an avid follower of the Emirates drifting team. Our conversation focused in on how one could not think of drifting as a culturally unique phenomenon but rather a global phenomenon with local specificity to the expression – whether we think of Fast and the Furious franchise or music videos like M.I.A.’s Bad Girls (2010).

There are so many ways in which we might critically engage with this video or MIA’s oeuvre in general (such as Ronak Kapadia’s, Sonic Contagions) – but I thought of it in relation to the local specificity of drifting. There’s something culturally unique about what happens in the Arab world when it comes to contemporary drifting that highlights a different aspect of what is seen as subversive elsewhere. What reads subversive and sub-cultural in one context, can be read as heritage and privilege in the contemporary moment for another. Sitting on I-95, I felt transported to the Arab Gulf, specifically when I’ve seen such action in Dubai.


In thinking more broadly about the heritage of public political expression in the UAE and the Arab Gulf, the ways and forms one might take to the streets and how that is co-opted is interesting. The history of what is commonly called Arab Drifting/Saudi Drifting in English and Tafheet or Hajwala in Arabic, can been dated back to the 1970s as a recreational form that seemed to have provided cross class activity that engaged racing with the development of masculinity (for a specific Saudi history, see Pascal Menoret’s Joyriding in Riyadh). It has also been argued that drifting in its more contemporary form seems to have started in Japan at the turn of the millennium, and transmitted via films. As the cities of the Arab Gulf shift and change with the worlds neoliberal infrastructure, drifting shifts from being a more local variety to taking on a global audience, indexing also a shift in the ways in which drifting and racing is linked to masculinities. By 2008, drifting in the Arab world moves into genre and is packaged for consumption by companies like Red Bull, and it ‘goes pro‘. And by 2012, the UAE has it’s own drifting team, the Toyota Emirates Drifting team (the same team my interlocutor mentioned above, is an avid fan of) – which is so much more about the car then the drift. The shift from what was a history and heritage of drifting, linked to speed, roads and subversive culture, is now framed within music videos, and on race tracks. It is contained.

The drive back and forth to the AAA’s made me think about how and why we break out of these containers. How bodies and cars as extensions of bodies, negotiate the ways in which we occupy space to bring attention to an issue. How this space of the road, the street, the urban interstitial spaces of interaction as places for publics to form as moving flash mobs that force all of us to stop and recognize our own complicity in these contained spaces.  And how that recognition, that moment of witnessing urban transgression can be transformative.

Perhaps the most poignant and striking such moment within recent memory for me was hearing about the protests in Ferguson and how protesters were standing on the highway to stop motorists. I was reminded of this a couple weeks ago when I watched the documentary “Whose Streets?” (released August 2017). For all of us who have forgotten the intensity of the struggle in Ferguson, this documentary is a powerful reminder. For those of us who cannot forget, this gives us some additional on the ground context of what was happening from the standpoint of local organizers.

It was not just on my way home that my movement was stopped by the presence of other cars. The reason the drifters resonated, the reason it made me think of protest, and local varieties of subversive action is because on my drive to the AAA’s, we had come to a standstill as the roads were blocked by police cars. It was not a protest, but a funeral. For over a half hour, we all sat in collective silence in our cars and watched a procession of flashing lights driving by on I-95.

The streets were closed for a funeral procession of Delaware State Police, Sergeant Rodney Bond, Jr. who died unexpectedly (video of the procession in the evening).

He was only 40 years old.