Sunday, February 23, 2020

Nuclear Weapons Traffic Observations

Most Thursdays I stand with a group of fellow activists to hold a large banner declaring "Abolish Nuclear Weapons" over Interstate 5 in Olympia. We take turns holding the banner but I spend 30 minutes or more watching southbound traffic pass under the Eastside Street overpass.  Traffic is steady-- about 6,000 vehicles during our time on station.  While my primary purpose is to remind my fellow Americans that nuclear weapons are so dangerous that they should be completely abolished, I watch vehicles, cargo and people that pass beneath.  My view is always fleeting.  Traffic is moving at 60 mph; whatever I see goes by fast.

Larger vehicles catch my attention simply because they stand out.  Tractor-trailers are most notable but are mostly rolling boxes so any interest comes from company logos (most are pretty pedestrian) and tractor accoutrements.  When they sound their horns in response to our banner they are very notable.  Flatbed and open trailers show off a wide variety of cargo, from brand shiny new (and often oversized load) heavy equipment to scrap metal, air gas products, building supplies and specialty items. 

RVs of any size are always notable because I am drawn to the allure of vehicle supported recreation after years of carrying everything on my back.  I can't help but notice the larger RVs--the single unit Class A motor homes and 5th wheel trailers--but the smaller units appeal to me more.  Some are tricked out with colorful designs but most display makers logos and a name like "Explorer" or "Discovery" or something else similar.

It's also kind of fun to look at whatever gear people are hauling.  I see kayaks, canoes, bicycles and car-top carriers.  Occasionally I'll see a flatbed hauling an antique vehicle.  One time I saw a civilian trucker hauling a military fighting vehicle.  Another time an Army convoy passed through; one of the drivers waved to us.

We've been bannering for over two years now, watching traffic and virtually every Thursday I've been on that overpass I've seen prison buses heading south. They are pretty distinct--all white except for the black bars covering the passenger windows and black lettering and numbers on the roof.  Most days I see two prison buses.  One is from the GEO Corporation, a private company the runs the big ICE detention center in Tacoma.  The other is marked DOC, which is the Washington Department of Corrections.  I can't tell if the buses are full or empty but they are regular and a visual reminder of the American prison-industrial complex that leads the world in prisoners per capita population.

I have some history that makes prison buses especially noticeable.  I spent a week touring Arizona prisons as part of a team conducting performance audits of the Arizona Department of Corrections.  As diligent auditors we went out to the prisons to observe operations and interview staff.  The Department arranged transportation to prisons in Tucson, Douglas and Fort Grant.  We spent a week travelling in one of the department's buses, a converted school bus with bars on the windows and a wire cage separating us from the driver and forward part of the bus.  We weren't locked in and were free to move about the bus as we travelled but even so, seeing the landscape through those bars was a sobering experience.  I always remember that experience when I see those white buses rolling down I-5 and wonder about the passengers who are definitely locked in.