New York — With the main rallying cry for greater subway accessibility, protesters disrupted and ultimately shut down an April 26 public appearance at the City Museum of New York by two Metropolitan Transportation Authority board members.
MTA head Joseph Lhota was unable to utter a single word. The next morning, the moderator of the event, Sarah Maslin Nir, was on a talk show on union-busting Spectrum News, complaining about the “missed opportunity” to discuss issues surrounding the subway. And the night before, when she announced from the stage that the event was being cancelled, Nir complained, “My First Amendment rights are being violated.”
As a New York Times reporter, Nir is unlikely to perceive the true character of what happened that night: the boiling mass anger about the oppressive conditions underground — which, in addition to inaccessibility, include the subways’ constant fare hikes, crumbling infrastructure and racist cop harassment of Black and Brown riders — reached a point where it had to explode above ground.
This eruption prevented the hated MTA from using a genteel $30-a-head museum forum — complete with onstage couch and glasses of wine poured by the moderator — to get a public-relations makeover.
The City Museum protest was not the only disruption that night. Across town, the Rent Guidelines Board meeting was also disrupted by tenants opposing rent increases. With signs declaring, “We are tenants, not ATMs,” protesters crashed the gathering, at which the board voted for an increase in rent-stabilized apartments. An online report of the meeting described the tenants’ intervention as the “deafening sound that had enveloped the Cooper Union Hall.”
Subways in dismal shape
The demand for transit accessibility, expressed recently by lawsuits and protests that 75 percent of subway stations lack elevators, has been amplified by the overall shockingly dismal state of the subway, which is punishing the city’s working class with maddeningly constant delays.
In addition to stations either not having elevators or having elevators that break down or are filthy, some of the stations require wheelchair users to ride along a dangerously narrow platform edge between a wall and the tracks. At the Broadway/Lafayette station, this is required three times — a total of six if a rider makes a round trip.
The rampant delays that affect all riders are inspiring neighborhood-specific Facebook pages, some of which have thousands of members sign up in a matter of days.
On April 25, the morning before the people’s shutdown, malfunctions on the 2 and 5 lines prevented Bronx subway users from getting to work in Manhattan during rush hour. That same day, the online New York City Patch reported: “Signal problems at the City Hall station delayed the N, R, Q and W lines; problems at the 9th Avenue station in Brooklyn delayed the D line; and problems at Metropolitan Avenue delayed the G line.”
In fact, the 6 train — the closest line to the museum where the phony forum was scheduled to take place — was shut down due to electrical problems mere minutes before the start of the program. After the program started, people were still arriving late, frustrated and angry, from yet another subway delay.
Knowing the mass hatred for the MTA, organizers of the event attempted to prevent the protest, which was called jointly by The People’s MTA, Rise and Resist, and the anti-police-brutality group Why Accountability. Two days before the event, the moderator sent this private Facebook message to The People’s MTA:
“This is Sarah Maslin Nir, the reporter from the Times who is hosting the Lhota talk this week. I love that you are organizing around it! Civic engagement is where it’s at! I was wondering if we could speak on the phone, perhaps there might be a better way to be heard. We could hold a listening session during the reception, or perhaps your group could bring fliers with info to be distributed afterwards? I am a firm believer in everyone’s 1st amendment rights, so if you want to protest that’s cool, but maybe there is a way to include these issues so you’d get a better platform?”
Recognizing this as a ploy to prevent a protest from interrupting her program, organizers ignored it and went ahead with their plans. This included disrupting the program right at the start by unfurling a banner with the words “Our subways need elevators, not racist Broken Windows Policing!”
Mayor’s solution? More cops
The slogan referred to Mayor de Blasio’s decision two weeks earlier to expand the bogus New York Police Department program known as “Neighborhood Policing” into the subway. “Broken Windows Policing” is the phrase used by the NYPD to describe its racist policing approach.
De Blasio’s announcement came right on the heels of the NYPD assassination of Saheed Vassell in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood.
Community activists have long described the Neighborhood Policing program, or Community Policing as it is also known, as a public relations cover for the true police program of racist harassment, occupation and killings. Activists in the Coalition to End Broken Windows have also described how its community meetings are used by cops to gather intelligence on African-American and Latinx residents.
For his part, de Blasio has solidarized himself with the police’s racist harassment of riders who can’t afford $2.75, saying that “fare-beating” is “not an economic issue” — that people who jump turnstiles “have money in their pockets.”
The banner was unfurled by People’s MTA leaders Mary Kaessinger and Teresa Gutierrez. Kaessinger, who uses a wheelchair, began the disruption with a mic check, saying, “We are here today because the subways belong to the people!”
The host then offered the microphone to the two in a phony attempt to include the protesters in the “discussion.” Knowing this would give credibility to whatever self-serving lies and justifications the MTA board members would uttered later, the protesters rejected this and addressed the crowd directly.
“We can’t afford to take cabs! This is a crisis!” said Gutierrez.
“We can’t be peaceful about this! We have to fight — we go to board meetings every month, and nothing happens. They don’t listen to us!”
After that, Nir’s many attempts to regain control of the meeting were drowned out by more shouting from the crowd, as protesters stood up, one by one, with signs that read “Elevators NOW,” “Stop the Racist Harassment of Black and Brown Riders” and “Stop the Delays.” When she got the nod from Lhota, Nir ended the meeting, informing all attendees that the museum would refund the $20 to $30 they had paid to get in.
Protesters went outside for a celebratory demonstration. Kaessinger congratulated the crowd, stating, “I think we got our point across!” Gutierrez added, “It was right to disrupt! If they don’t give us any peace on the subway, we’re not going to give them peace anywhere!”