#SwipeItForward: Brooklynites rally for transport justice
An increased presence of police at subway stations and a series of brutal crackdowns on subway fare evaders brought hundreds of Brooklynites to the streets on Friday, November 1st. The ever-increasing cost of transportation and decrease in the quality of service is a constant source of anger for many subway riders. But the recent crackdown on fare beating was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
For those who did not follow the events leading up to these protests, here is a brief sketch of what caused such a stir in the borough at the beginning of the month. In late October, several videos of police using excessive force on turnstile jumpers went viral. One showed police pointing their guns at passengers in a full subway car where one suspect sat calmly. Another shows a chaotic fistfight between policemen and a group of black teenagers who were punched repeatedly by police. One of the two teens is now suing the officer who, although known for the use of excessive force, remains on the job until the investigation is closed. This will remind many of police violence and the recent acquittal of the officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner. And if a possible exposure of New Yorkers to police brutality wasn’t problematic enough, there are a number of further issues with the recent crackdown on fare beating.
The police did not start this fight. Earlier this year, the MTA, New York City’s transport association, launched a campaign against fare evasion in its subway system. After a report by NY governor Andrew Cuomo, which stated that the MTA loses $240 million a year from fare evasions, the transport provider rolled out a campaign to cut the number of fare beaters which, for bus riders, is at a level of 1 in 5 passengers and amounts to roughly 370,000 people riding the buses without paying the fare. Rather than fixing a broken public transport system, the MTA plans to use a large investment of $40 million by the Manhattan district attorney’s office to more rigorously pursue fare evasion at 19 subway stations. They suggested, for instance, assigning additional transit workers or increasing the number of surveillance cameras at subway turnstiles, the latter of which is part of a larger strategy to address the issue of homelessness in the subway system and has frustrated many riders who have to deal with delays on an everyday basis. These measures would also provide an extra $50 million per year for an additional 500 police officers to be added to the 2,500 police already patrolling the subway.
Earlier this year, the MTA rolled out an increase in fares as well as a poster campaign against fare beating inside subway cars, on emergency exit doors as well as floors of their stations. These posters have upset paying riders and fare evaders alike. Slogans such as “We’d rather your $2.75 fare than your $100 fine” prompted criticism for being exclusive of and discriminatory against lower-income New Yorkers. An anonymous group of activists responded with a counter-campaign against the authority’s criminalization of fare beaters and further emphasized a loss of empathy among New Yorkers, of which a key feature is a struggle not between ethnic groups, but between the affluent and the rest who struggle to get by. In an interview with the Gothamist, one of the designers explained their reasoning behind the counter-campaign, “[w]hat was really upsetting about this campaign was that it seemed to be an effort to change the empathetic morale of New Yorkers. It’s normal to hold the door open when you can. We look out for each other.”
Historian Michael Ignatieff stresses that the relations between police and community are “[t]he site where the moral economy of a diverse city is most contested” (2017: 36). In addition to a moral connotation of police-community relations, history plays a major role in the recent clashes. Moreover, the practice of heavily policing minor offenses such as fare evasion is reminiscent of broken windows policing (Kelling and Coles 1997) popular in the 1990s under then-mayor Rudi Giuliani. That history in mind, the recent crackdown on fare evasion is problematic for a number of reasons. Police wait behind the turnstiles in stations, sometimes plain-clothed, write tickets, and/or arrest people. The Twitter account @unfarenyc collects and distributes alerts about officers inside stations. The majority of these posts is about stations located in low-income neighborhoods. In his unpublished master’s thesis, Brooklyn urban planner Alan Minor found that service-cuts in certain areas and increased policing of fare beating to be linked, both in the past and the present. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the MTA’s new policy disproportionately affects economic and social mobility of low-income New Yorkers, many of whom depend on public transportation but cannot afford the fare. Of the more than 1,000 fare evaders stopped between January and March of this year, 87% were black and Latinx. Data released for the ten stations with the highest number of arrests in the second quarter of 2019 shows that of the 148 people arrested by the NYPD, 68.2% were black or African-American, and another 20% were Hispanic. Seven out of those ten stations are located in Brooklyn, two in the Bronx and one is 125th St in Harlem. While the MTA claims that fare evasion only results in a $100 ticket, often times police arrest people for this offense instead of writing them a summons, thereby exposing them to the risk of police brutality, as can be seen in the videos that were shared from several of the arrests. However, district attorneys in Brooklyn and Manhattan dismiss most fare evasion cases, as NYPD spokeswoman Devora Kaye said in a statement.
A scandalously underinvested and strained transport system can of course not take a loss of $240 million per year, money which could be used for maintenance, line extensions or basic accessibility measures like elevators, which most stations lack. Yet, a transport company is not located in a vacuum. The MTA is just as dependent on its riders as they are on the service for their daily commutes – not everyone can afford ride-share services and the city certainly cannot afford an increase in vehicular traffic in their streets. So what’s the solution to this dilemma? A truly New York icon like the subway, it seems, should not be able to get away with upsetting riders and providing sub-par service, while also overtly engaging in discrimination and racial profiling – even if it cannot afford to lose money on fare evasions.
New Yorkers seem to share this view. On the first weekend of November, activists took to the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station where hundreds jumped the turnstiles as part of their protests. The activist group Decolonize This Place mobilized Brooklynites who demonstrated against the MTA’s new fare evasion politics. In like manner, and in a true NY spirit, the organization SwipeItForward has been calling attention to the legal possibility of swiping for someone else upon exiting through the turnstile, providing a loop hole and servicing fellow New Yorkers.
The case of New York and the protests following the crackdown on fare evasion is a prime example of the fact that “the modern practices and institutions of mobility have been and remain highly racialized” (Seiler 2009: 232) – but it seems New Yorkers are onto the system that is, yet again, waging a war on poverty.
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About the Author
Kristin Berberich is a doctoral researcher at the HCA’s graduate training center “Authority and Trust” (GKAT). Her project focuses on the linguistic construction of neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York. She received her BA and MA in English Philology/Linguistics from Heidelberg University and is interested in sociolinguistics, (critical) discourse analysis and all things urban.
Kristin is a regular contributor on this blog. Find out what graduates can learn from Michelle Obama’s Becoming, read her review of Hugh Ryan’s When Brooklyn Was Queer, and get up to speed on bike safety issues in Brooklyn. She’s also active on Twitter: @k_berb