We staged a mass protest against the MTA and NYPD
Here’s why their crackdown on fare evasion is inherently racist
The hint of an unforgiving winter haunted the air the day after Halloween, as we trekked through the streets of Brooklyn in search of our angry mob of kindred souls.
We would have taken the bus, but buses in the city are notoriously late and unreliable,and the protest was scheduled for 5:15 pm sharp.
“You think the cops understand why we don’t like them?”
This was my foremost question to my fellow rebels, who pondered it carefully.
“Last protest I was in, I held a sign saying Blue Klux Klan, and was gleefully chanting along with the crowd in front of Trump Tower, when one of the officers surrounding us looked at me with the strangest look in his eyes. I couldn’t tell if he was hurt or enraged. I mean, they can’t claim ignorance in this day and age, right? If you don’t know about the racist history of policing and police brutality then that makes you ignorant, but how stupid is it to be willfully ignorant in 2019? The reality is they must have picked a side.”
“Yes,” my comrade agreed. She was a long time community organizer in the Bronx. “The sad truth is that the majority of them know exactly what they’re doing and what it’s all about. They’re gleefully doing it too. The cops of color though, it’s possible they’re either misguided or have picked a side all the same.”
“ My only thing is I don’t want to get arrested today while on my period,” my other comrade remarked. She was a mild mannered white girl, and this was her first protest. “Sorry if that’s TMI. But I figure that would be particularly unpleasant.”
With that statement we each returned to pondering the risk factor involved in our support of an unpermitted march. It was a theme that would recur throughout the evening and was quickly brought up by the organizers addressing the massive crowd when we got there.
“This is an unpermitted march, meaning it is high risk!” a male voice bellowed. The crowd earnestly repeated every line, so that the message would be spread to every ear.
“If you are undocumented, if you have open warrants, if you conceal your face, the risk is higher!”
I scanned the sea of bodies. It was an extremely diverse group of mostly young people, Brooklyn’s finest. At first glance I assumed that most of us were either college students or young professionals, perhaps middle class, but privileged with education and the ability to live in New York at such a time as this. We were the ones responsible for holding the risk, our expensive educations and careers taking a backseat to the fact that this was our generation’s time to step up. Many of my activist friends are older folk, and for a while I had wondered why my generation seemed not as attuned to civil rights, even as icons such as Elijah Cummings and Toni Morrison were passing away, and injustices like mass incarceration and immigrant detention were flourishing.
Standing in that pool of fellow foot soldiers was the most encouraging thing in the world. I was not the only one who glared at the proliferation of ads in the subway urging commuters to “just pay the fare” or be fined $100. I was not the only one perturbed by the highly noticeable increased police presence in the subway, leaving the exit gate open as a trap and all that tomfoolery.
It turns out, the MTA’s grand plan to enforce the $2.75 fare by hiring a whopping 500 more police officers to patrol the subway is an epic fail, if I may use outdated millennial jargon.
Police officers recently tased two people (black, duh) over this holy $2.75, and almost killed another on the 4 train in broad daylight. As the absurd story goes, Adrian Napier, 19, black male, dashed into the subway without swiping, and was followed by a herd of 10-odd policemen, guns drawn, as other passengers scattered like terrified geese. They had of course, heard of a black male in the vicinity with a gun on him, suspected it to be Napier, pounced on their prey and upon finding no weapon, subsequently charged him with fare evasion for his troubles.
This chaos is what prompted the crowd of a thousand plus protesters to descend on the streets of Atlantic Avenue on Friday 1st November. Before we flooded the intersection to block traffic and stage the biggest fare evasion of all time, the organizers announced that Napier’s mom was with us, to thunderous applause. They carefully outlined the rules, which ranged from the banal— stay together, keep the crowd tight, don’t leave anyone behind — to the bizarre, white people stay to the back and sides, black people in the middle.
In moments like these, with police choppers whirring overhead and people writing numbers on their bodies to call in case of arrest, you realize that it all boils down to some people being safer than others. The organizers harnessed the bitter bottom line of inequality by using it as a tactic. I can’t say I fully trusted the idea of police not barging into the crowd by virtue of a white layer of protection, but I figured there was no harm in seeing if the racism could work to our benefit.
It was exhilarating, and nerve wracking, to take over those streets. Some vehicle drivers honked and cheered with us, others were less than pleased. Always we wondered at the eerie absence of the cops. At what point where they going to emerge with the orange mesh and the zip ties to round us up like cattle, or worse? Would anybody get arrested? Would anybody get shot? In spite of shared anxieties, the crowd raged on, feeding off each other’s energy, chanting our slogans.
“Black Lives Matter!”
“Whose streets? Our streets!”
“No justice, no peace! No racist police!”
There was such positivity and youthful passion in the interracial unity against white supremacy and its agents. With Dr King’s likeness plastered on so many placards, those before us watched on from above, and in our hearts and minds. But this was our fight, in our style. No more black and white photos, we’re in full color. We drop lots of F bombs and post on social media while we march. We are the new Americana, and MTA had picked their fight with us.
It all started back in early summer ’19 when Governor Andrew Cuomo cosigned the plan by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to hire 500 new officers in a bid to crackdown on “theft of service” in the subway. But the gag is, this fine heavy, punitive approach is a thinly veiled attempt to make the poorest sector of the public suffer for the MTA’s own shortcomings. The MTA is severely in debt to companies they hired to revamp the train system after decades of neglect and mismanagement, and instead of addressing their internal issues from the top down as critics suggested, they turned to reports of losing $300 million annually from fare evasion. The MTA makes $4.5 billion a year from the legions of working class people paying to ride the subway every day, but chooses to zero in on those too poor to follow the law. MTA officials raking in six and seven figures have decided that underground aggressive policing in low income communities is the solution to their financial woes.
It does not matter to them that there is a history of distrust between the urban communities and law enforcement. More police in the train stations might make fare jumpers hesitate, but the tradeoff is a more hostile public transportation environment, and increased likelihood of police violence, as we have already witnessed.
It goes without saying that these measures are classist. Those who wouldn’t bat an eyelash at the thought of paying $2.75 each way are obviously comfortable, even if not necessarily rich. But for the 1.7 million New Yorkers living below the poverty line, this could mean a choice between getting home and eating dinner.
My own realization that people did not avoid paying subway fares for fun came when I myself became broke. Earlier this year, I highkey fumbled the bag, and watched my savings dwindle as I searched for a new job. I never knew that $2.75 was so much money, till I had to pay it in coins at the MTA machine while people behind me in line huffed and puffed. Many times I ducked under, hopped over the turnstile, or went through an open exit gate. Each time I felt shame at my own poverty and indignation at the judging eyes that simply had no idea that I was an educated, morally upstanding, tax paying citizen just like them. I would get back on my feet, as I eventually did.
But there are countless people not as privileged as I am, who won’t be as lucky. They struggle to find or hold a steady, decent paying job. They have too many mouths to feed or too many bills to pay to spare an extra $2.75 each way, every day. They are predominantly black and brown people, due to the legacy of economic inequality in this country, driven by racism.
Studies show that black families have 10 times less generational wealth than their white counterparts. For people in the projects or low income communities, the situation is even more dire. They are plagued by cycles of poverty and violence, as well as over and under-policing. So it would likely follow that while they may not be the only culprits, they are the ones with the best excuse, but as always, the ones who will suffer most from this crackdown. The criminalization of poverty and the criminalization of blackness goes hand in hand. In fact, of the 148 people these officers arrested for fare evasion in the 2nd quarter of 2019, 101 of them were black.
The MTA is prepared to endanger our lives over a couple bucks, well we say our lives are worth much more than that. Our lives are invaluable, poor or rich, black or brown, Franklin Avenue or Upper East Side.
Who can sit idly by when 85% of people in cages on Riker’s Island are Black and Latinx, when neighborhoods of color are being gentrified, and when police brutality runs rampant in the city subways?
The people for whom $2.75 is no big deal.