On June 16, the New Orleans chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America put on their 6th (!) Gimme a Brake Light event. We had a dozen volunteers and 19 community members who got their brake lights changed and talked to us about their lives and experiences with police. We also partnered with a comrade from Debt Collective who was available to talk to people about how to renegotiate and resist debt.
Why do we change brake lights? By changing brake lights for free, we aim to take small but significant action to protect one another from state-sanctioned violence at the hands of the police. We want the brake light clinics to open conversations in our communities about our police and prison systems and to get us thinking and organizing together for a different kind of system.
Some of the people we spoke with had recent direct experiences with the police because of broken taillights, including one who received a full dressing down by an officer simply for having a newer car with a non-functioning light. The officer then preceded to chide the man and that he’d “better have a job” to pay the ticket.
Another attendee was a construction worker from across the river who had had a taillight out for weeks but was too busy to change it, while simultaneously saying he was frequently worried about getting stopped for it. He did not know about the event in advance but saw our sign-holders and his wife convinced him to pull in and get his light changed.
We also did one headlight change, for a participant who was on a fixed income and had the headlight but couldn’t afford to take into the shop to change it. Headlights aren’t typically our purview, but we got it done thanks to the tireless efforts of a comrade.
As we come up to the one-year anniversary of the very first brake light change event, we’ve learned a lot. It was never enough to just change brake lights. This isn’t a charity project, but a way to highlight the contradictions between the capitalist police state and socialist equity. As such, we’ve worked hard to become more intentional about the ways in which we interact with people at the events – basic stuff in terms of having real conversations, inquiring and listening to other community needs and opportunities, encouraging people to learn more about democratic socialism, and making them feel welcome at our table.
We have a long way to go, but with each clinic, we become better organizers – and perhaps more importantly – better members of our communities.