Is the blizzard travel ban in Massachusetts authoritarian?

8 Feb

Talk of the Nero travel ban in the Twitterverse.

Yesterday, media hit the panic button and people rushed, well-trained, to purchase merchandise.  Today, Deval L. Patrick, Governor of Massachusetts, announced a ban on motor vehicle travel beginning at 4 pm and continuing until further notice.

The proclamation, called Executive Order No. 543, cites authority “pursuant to the power provided by Chapter 639 of the Acts of 1950.” Motorists are threatened with a $500 fine and up to one year in jail if they violate the governor’s order.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone is comfortable with the travel ban.  Bet Power, an outspoken Northampton, MA resident and longtime activist, wrote on Facebook:

I live in Massachusetts where it is snowing today as it typically does in winter in New England. I have never been ordered by law not to drive my car before, not even in the Great Chicago Blizzard of 1967 where 2 feet of snow fell every hour for 8 hours! Is it just me or does anyone else (especially in the western part of MA) feel weird about the total travel ban?

The ban doesn’t apply to safety people, public works people, healthcare workers, the media and those “that provide critical services to the public, including gasoline stations, food stores and hardware stores.” 

According to Patrick, “the point is not to figure out how to come down hard on people…it is to emphasize how critical it is that non-essential travel on the roads cease during this storm and the immediate aftermath. We will be flexible.”

Bet Power opined, “I wouldn’t want a cop figuring out if he can be ‘flexible’ with me while I’m sitting in the police station…I would prefer our government advises us to stay off the road for safety reasons, plowing by the DPW, etc. but not impose jail time and a fine if we, as free citizens, choose to drive our cars.”

This comment appeared on Occupy Boston's Facebook page.

This comment appeared on Occupy Boston’s Facebook page.

The Massachusetts travel ban wouldn’t bother me so much if there weren’t so many signs that authoritarianism is encroaching on our daily lives.  Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is doing random searches on the MBTA. Obama signed NDAA 2013 with all its frightening implications.  B. Manning is still in jail.  The list goes on.

I have no special gripe against Deval Patrick.  He’s no worse than any other politician who builds their career propping up a dirty system.  When Occupy Boston was camped in Dewey Square, he came down and walked through it.  That’s more than Mayor Menino did.  I’m willing to believe Governor Patrick’s primary motivation here is to save lives and save money.

But this executive order still normalizes heavy-handed use of government power.  Over the next few years, expect more travel bans, checkpoints and other prohibitive authoritarian tactics from the people at the top.  Expect people will be fighting back, too.


10 Responses to “Is the blizzard travel ban in Massachusetts authoritarian?”

  1. William February 8, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

    I was literally just writing the same article. Kudos for beating me to it!

  2. zghortaman February 8, 2013 at 4:44 pm #

    Well, first let’s set the record straight: The statement regarding the Great Chicago Blizzard of 1967 “where 2 feet of snow fell every hour for 8 hours!” leads to the impression that two feet of snow fell every hour for something like a total of sixteen feet!

    That’s a bit of an exaggeration, to say the least.

    The reality is that the snow fell continuously for a little over 48 hours for a grand total of 23 inches accumulation. While that’s a lot of snow, it comes up short to the Northeastern Blizzard of 1978 where Boston received 27.1 inches of snow.

    Why bring up the Chicago Blizzard of ’67 when you have a perfect example of a more relevant storm similar in place and accumulation to winter storm Nemo? Believe me, there are plenty of sources right here in New England about the Blizzard of ’78 that you can interview! Why reach out to Chicago????

    Now, let’s talk about public safety. You can talk about our multi-tiered government structure becoming “more authoritarian” all you want. The reality is that keeping the roads clear during a major blizzard, or for that matter during a hurricane or any other major weather event are of paramount importance for a number of obvious reasons.

    First, it’s a matter of that public safety I mentioned. People *die* in blizzards. Their vehicles get stuck, their tailpipes get covered in snow, and they die of carbon monoxide poisoning. Or they’ll die from the hypothermia once their vehicles run out of fuel. Or their vehicles can cause accidents where…yes, people do die.

    Additionally, making it optional for people to drive places emergency personnel in danger. What’s more, while hospitals and emergency care facilities of course stay open in all kinds of weather, by necessity, they staff down to the lowest levels possible. That is, they’re in the worst shape possible to take in emergency patients. It’s best to keep those number down>

    Let’s go back to the Blizzard of ’78, which is a much better model for winter storm Nemo than the Chicago Blizzard of ’67. Were you there then? Did you *see* what happened when the roads weren’t clear? Cars by the many thousands were stuck on the highways. People were stuck inside their cars on the highways. They eventually left their cars stuck on the roads and made their way to wherever they could get warmth. Stores. Random houses. Churches.

    It was a public safety nightmare. Roads were closed for days until they could be cleared of cars, which were then, finally, plowed.

    So let’s not talk about authoritarianism. I’m a liberal Democrat and proud to be one for many, many years. But I know the difference between public safety and authoritarianism. I think you should learn it, too.

    I suggest visiting this page to see what happens when the roads aren’t cleared and people are stranded in a public emergency:


    • Merp February 8, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

      Before you make condescending remarks about definitions of terms such as Authoritarianism, maybe you should make sure YOU actually know what they mean:

      “Authoritarianism is a form of social organization characterized by submission to authority as well as the administration of said authority.”

      This PRECISELY fits what’s happening out there right now. Deval Patrick made an executive order, with no oversight or public accountability, forcing the citizens of MA to submit to his authority. But as a “liberal democrat” I can’t be surprised you’d be such an apologist.

      The fact is that no-one wants another scenario like the one you outlined from ’78, but you have to realize that this was a historic decision. This hasn’t happened before. I don’t think either storm was handled well, but the normalization of continued heavy-handed authority from the government (for our own good, right?) is very disturbing.

      • zghortaman February 8, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

        It hadn’t happened before? Time for homework, sir. There’s an old saying, “my history will beat your politics.”. You’re not doing due diligence before striking out.

        Regarding the Chicago Blizzard of ‘67,more than 50,000 vehicles were stuck on the roads because there was no road closures beforehand. More than 50 people *died*.

        So, yeah, it happened before. And it went BADLY.

        Roads in Chicago were clogged (see the 50,000 vehicle reference), and people suffered just like in New England in 1979. Times were so desperate that Mayor Daley begged the citizenry to help clear the snow from the streets. Looting was everywhere. People were getting hurt. That’s a situation of much greater seriousness than the former Chicagoan imparted to you. I suggest, with respect to him, that his memory was more anecdotal than comprehensive of the dire situation that it was. I venture to say that the emergency personnel in Chicago would have a very different response to your question than a single, anecdotal source.

        Roads that are clogged due to a misguided wish for a lack of constraints impugns on everyone’s freedoms to health and safety.

        Memes notwithstanding about losing liberty due to public safety concerns, there is indeed such a thing as public safety. The world is full of people like children, the elderly and the poor that need care and protection during times like these. Such a concern for public safety can be abused, yes. But are you *serious* saying closing roads during a once-in-thirty-years snow emergency is *tyranny*?

        I suggest you seek some easier targets for authoritarianism and tyranny!

        An elected government executive acting well within his powers during and emergency situation to protect the public is hardly an authoritarian.

        There’s also a big difference between defining liberty solely as a lack of constraints (as in “I want to drive whenever I want”) and understanding liberty in both negative and positives contexts. I think you should learn that difference too. Read some Isaiah Berlin for starters.

        It’s one thing to sit at your laptop safe and warm with snow coming down outside your window and accuse Deval Patrick (!) of authoritarianism (!). It’s another to have the weight on your shoulders -by governor’s oath- of keeping people alive, and not only alive but warm, fed, and taken care of in a weather emergency when snow may be coming down at a rate of six inches an hour. If Governor Patrick didn’t close the roads- an act well within his powers, by the way- and people died, he would not have been fulfilling his charge to keep the people of the Commonwealth safe. He would have ignored our freedoms of health and safety. Yes, there are such freedoms, which are easily impugned by people wishing to drive on roads during public emergencies.

        There is precedent as well. During the Blizzard of ‘78, the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut, for starters, closed roads for three (count’em) days. No one accused them of acting “authoritarian”.

        Or are you accusing Michael Dukakis of authoritarianism now? After all, he closed the roads for three days.

        If you think that the governor having power to close roads in an emergency is too authoritarian, then lead a charge for the Massachusetts legislature to remove that authority from the executive. Call your local legislators and complain. I don’t think you’ll get too far, though.

        Or lead an impeachment drive for Governor Patrick acting outside the bounds of his authority by closing roads during an emergency. Good luck with that. The considered judgement of our elected legislature will certainly agree with his action.

        You want to debate history, please do. But for heaven’s sake, study that history first, please?

      • Rey (@Midnight08) February 9, 2013 at 7:46 pm #

        Also – just 2-3 years ago Delaware issued driving bans for a series of bad storms. So the driving ban isnt something unheard of either…

  3. Nicole February 8, 2013 at 5:18 pm #

    I just found out that verizon customer service workers (who work the toll free line) are considered essential workers and are being made to come in to work. These are the same workers who were on strike two summers ago.

  4. Dave February 9, 2013 at 11:59 am #

    It’s very authoritarian. It assumes that the citizens of MA have become so accustomed to the government taking care of them that they are helpless to make competent decisions and take care of themselves.

  5. Bet Power February 14, 2013 at 9:13 pm #

    If indeed the main concern of the governor was public safety and not the money-savings in DPW response time (slow) and plowing (less of it) that he mentioned when he issued the executive order, then why doesn’t he issue an executive order banning the sale of assault rifles and 100-clip rounds in the state of MA? Obviously, more people are killed in the U.S. by guns each year than by snow. I’m not against issuing highway and road closures in big snow storms, but I have never before experienced in my 62 years the threat of a year in prison and a $500 fine for driving my car. THAT is what was different this time and … authoritarian, since neither the people nor our representatives had any say in those legal punishments. Here in western MA, when the driving ban started at 4:00 p.m. and up until midnight the first day, we had 2 inches of snow on the ground, yet we could not drive by law. Ridiculous! At least the governor should have checked the weather report for the western half of the state.

  6. Bet Power February 14, 2013 at 10:15 pm #

    @zghortaman: I correct myself re: amount of snowfall in the Great Chicago Blizzard of 1967. I meant that 2 inches of snow fell per hour every hour for nearly 12 hours. That, combined with 50+ mph winds formed snowdrifts of 4 to 6 feet high throughout the city. The drifts are actually what crippled travel, trapped people inside their homes, and made even walking outdoors difficult. The high drifts are what I remember most about that storm, and we had nothing like the force of that wind and the height of snow drifting here.

  7. AWC January 27, 2015 at 10:47 am #

    A few major points are being missed here…

    Someone commented that this is about safety. Well, let me say this, every authoritarian rule lorded over us will have good intentions, will alway be argued as a “generally good idea,” – it seems people are waiting for that one authoritarian law that they can say definitively is a bad, and that will never happen.

    A 9pm curfew with fines is a good idea in any city, especially where the city is bankrupt from too much “free” social spending, pensions and benefits where cutbacks have been made to the police force and the streets are unsafe. It is a drain on public services and a risk to others who need those services if they need to help you because you went out after 9, so “for your safety” and to “save money” how about a 9pm curfew?

    How about a travel ban? Perhaps certain parts of the city should be offlimits due to the crime rate? Perhaps flying to certain countries at certain times should be banned because those nations have been determined to be unsafe for Americans by whatever wizard behind the curtain makes such decisions?

    These are all “good” ideas for “our safety” so dont look at a ban on traveling during a storm as something that should be allowed to stand because then we have the other problem…someone commented that some other state already does this so whats the big deal.

    Damn right. Once a bunch of cities do this, what IS the big deal? And when they use those travel bans during heavy rainstorms, whats the big deal? And when they ban parts of cities at different times of day, whats the big deal? And when they ban crossing the border for various good reasons, whats the big deal? And when you cant book a flight to Paris due to civil unrest there or a cruise to mexico because of drug violence, whats the big deal? When there are checkpoints setup a regular basis because of a rise in drugs or guns in the city where police have the right to search your vehicle, whats the big deal? All good ideas. All for our safety. Whats the big deal? This is the problem. Tyranny happen slowly. It nibbles. It wont be a street full of stormtroopers wearing badges that say tyranny on them.

    Someone said people die in snowstorms. They sure do, and I dont care. Its not my business to care, or anyone eles. If they assume the risk, and the die, they lost. But dont take the right to take that risk away from me because a handful of people either needed to drive in those conditions or made a bad decision or took an unnecessary risk. Not my problem. Not your problem. Freedom kills. It kills every single day.

    What if i am poor and need to get to work during this ban? Or pick up my kid? Or check on my grandmother to make sure shes warm enough? People have other reasons to drive in bad weather beyond making donuts in the parking lot.

    Lastly, lets not lose sight of the scope of risk. The VAST majority of people wont drive in bad conditions. I grew up in CT and we had our share. Weather reports and warnings were enough to ground most people. To leave work early or not go in, etc… These decisions were made. So here is a law that affects EVERYONE to theoretically help a few. Democracy in action, majority rule, democratic socialism, all the same thing. Still tyranny.

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