Showing solidarity with and taking inspiration from the French uprising that defeated a fuel tax increase — and then won more concessions from the Macron government — New York activists held a ‘Yellow Vest’ protest on Dec. 11 against local transit fare hikes.
Activists with The People’s MTA, Rise & Resist and the NYC Peoples Power Assemblies demonstrated outside the fare hike hearing in Queens, held by the bank-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Then the protesters went inside to testify.
Placards read, “Our subways need elevators, not racist ‘broken windows’ policing,” “No fare hike for a subway that is not accessible” and “Disabled Lives Matter.”
At the hearing, the New York Yellow Vest activists made the same point as members of the French rebellion: The fare increase is the tip of the iceberg on top of a mass of inequalities. The anger over the NYC subway fare hike is anger over the daily indignities faced by the 5.5 million people who take the subway every day.
Protesters list demands
At the top of the protesters’ list of problems are the transit system’s criminal lack of elevators, racist New York Police Department harassment of riders of color, and overall chronic malfunctions and service disruptions.
Only 1 out of 4 transit stations has an elevator, and those that exist are constantly breaking down. People who use wheelchairs frequently plan trips around accessible stations, only to find out-of-service elevators when they get to those stations. That means missed appointments, canceled plans and more time spent rerouting to a different, supposedly accessible station — where the same thing can happen again.
Sometimes the elevators even malfunction with people in them, who then have to be rescued by EMS or fire department teams.
Accessibility for wheelchair users also allows accessibility for single parents or anyone with baby strollers who have to hope someone will help them carry their children up or down stairs. Older riders or anyone whose walking is impaired continually struggle up and down the steep stairs at the city’s many elevated lines.
Since the 7 train in Queens is a series of elevated lines, the location of the hearing in Queens was an opportunity for protesters to highlight the line’s daily mishaps and serious problems. The 7 train will be the one most affected by the arrival of Amazon, whose executives were actually told by MTA President Andy Byford that Queens was a “transit wonderland.”
Riders of the 7 train laugh at that. On Dec. 10, at the 7 line’s Court Square station, an elevated station with tracks on either side, the overcrowding caused by late trains became so dangerous at least one person was knocked down.
On Dec. 11, signal problems caused the Queens’ Astoria-Ditmars station to be shut down completely during morning rush hour. Hundreds of riders couldn’t get to work.
When protesters and others spoke at the hearing, all of these frustrations — the missed job interviews, the write-ups for being late, police harassment, lack of accessibility — poured out. Their anger was supercharged by the glaring hypocrisy that New York is giving Amazon $3 billion in tax credits and grants to locate in Queens.
A rider asked the wealthy MTA board members if they themselves actually used public transportation. After several meekly raised their hands, People’s MTA member Tsehai Hiwot testified at the microphone, “That’s bull. I don’t believe it. You have private cars or take taxis.”
Cops in France — and in NYC transit system
The role of cops in targeting workers, especially those of color, in the NYC transit system is another parallel to the struggle in France. There, the response of the capitalist state has been repression to the just demands of the people. With millions in the street, even as the French government has been forced to make concessions, the degree of repression has included teargas, water cannons and hundreds of violent arrests.
In the New York subway, the repression functions at a different level — though it is still potentially deadly. On Dec. 3, MTA President Byford announced that, to “save money,” the MTA would be cleaning trains less and cutting back on heat in the winter. But he also blamed the fare increase on “fare-beaters” and said he was creating “fare-evasion strike teams” backed by the NYPD.
What Byford proposed as a “fairness” measure has taken on a scary form. As of Dec. 11 the MTA has begun positioning metal detectors, complete with eight cops — some in riot gear with submachine guns — and dogs in a bogus “anti-terrorist” campaign. Right now the metal detectors are at the 42 Street Port Authority station, but the NYPD says it will station them at other stops. Bag checks are already happening at other stations.
Speakers at the Dec. 11 hearing blasted the MTA for blaming its fare increase on fare-beaters. Protesters denouncing the racist character of the plan for “strike teams” pointed out that since Amazon paid no federal taxes in 2017, the real fare-beater is Jeff Bezos.
MTA’s plan for more NYPD aggression means increased summons and arrests of riders of color in the transit system. In 2018 police issued “fare-evasion” summons to 25,000 people, with 90 percent of them people of color. The racist profiling problem became so rampant that the New York District Attorney’s office was forced to announce it would stop prosecuting fare-beating as a crime. (tinyurl.com/y84kvjuh)
But the bank-controlled MTA is pushing back. It claimed the DA’s decision caused fare evasions to spike and released a video of riders jumping over turnstiles. Of course, the MTA video provided no context for all the transit problems, delays and riders’ frustrations.
Some of the people testifying at the hearing wondered out loud: “Which is more criminal: Evading the fare? Or evading the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act for 30 years?”