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Transit Riders Unions vs. Climate Change, White Supremacy and Disaster Capitalism

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Over the past few weeks, Portland, Oregon has been catapulted into the national spotlight as the site of clashes between antiracist and antifascist activists, on the one hand, and white supremacist and militia groups like the Prayer Patriots, Oathkeepers and American Freedom Keepers on the other. The right wing militia groups, along with other assorted Trump supporters, descended on the city in the immediate wake of the May 28th deaths of two out of three men who intervened to stop 35-year old Jeremy Joseph Christian, a self-professed white supremacist, from harassing two young Black women, one of them wearing a hijab. The attacks occurred on the city’s light rail or “Max” line on the eve of Ramadan.

Unremarked, however, in national media coverage of the attacks and their aftermath is the fact that the attack came in the midst of a growing debate in Portland about the militarization of public transportation. The attacks, in fact, came within days of a May 24 vote by the board of Trimet—the tri-county agency that manages Portland’s public transit system—to spend $9.9 million dollars to construct a new transit police facility and jail, and an additional $1.6 million to ramp up policing of public transportation.

The standing room only crowd at the May 24 Trimet Board meeting represented a cross section of Portland progressive community.  At the center of the organizing work was the people-of-color-led statewide Portland-based NGO OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, and its member organization Bus Riders Unite! (BRU).  OPAL and BRU worked to turn out a strong showing for the hearing, which included activists with union, disability rights, fossil fuel/climate justice, immigrant, houseless and renters’ rights activists, and police accountability activists from Black Lives Matter, Don’t Shoot Portland, and Portland Copwatch. Police violence became a particular flashpoint for the hearing, coming as it did on the heels of the police shooting of a 24-year-old Black man named Terrell Johnson. The shooting occurred within two months of a grand jury decision not to pursue charges against the officer who, in February, shot and killed another Black man, 17-year-old Quanice Hayes.

The shooting occurred within two months of a grand jury decision not to pursue charges against the officer who, in February, shot and killed another Black man, 17-year-old Quanice Hayes.

Barely a month earlier, OPAL activists and their allies in Oregon’s Just Transition Alliance also mobilized thousands to turn out for an April 29 march, part of the global People of Color’s Climate March, calling attention to the disproportionate impacts of climate change on frontline communities of color worldwide. On the same day, white supremacists and Trump supporters held a march down 82nd street, in a neighborhood that has increasingly become home to immigrants and people of color, many of whom have been forced out of the city’s urban core by decades of gentrification. As the Reverend Joseph Santos-Lyons, a long time OPAL board member and Executive Director of APANO (the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon) wrote in an op-ed in the Oregonian, “The sight left me with a feeling of deja vu. I was born and raised in Oregon and I had heard these chants before: ‘Go home,’ ‘Get out of our country,’ ‘You do not belong here.’ Only there was a key difference. The white supremacists were more confident, less ashamed. And perhaps for good reason. Their views are amplified nationally.” . Present on the scene at the April 29th march was Jeremy Joseph Christian, who would go on to slash the throats of three men on the city’s light rail, killing 53-year-old Ricky John Best, and 23-year-old Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, of Southeast Portland, and severely injuring 21-year-old Micah Fletcher.

With OPAL activists and their allies regrouping from the April 29 marches and mobilizing to turn out activists for the May Trimet board meeting and budget vote, Portland’s Willamette Week newspaper published a front page story headlined “Governor Kate Brown Might Sell Four Agencies to Private Bidders to Keep Oregon Afloat.” Among the state “assets” slated for sale, as a subheading indicated, is “Portland’s light rail system.” A primary impediment to the sale, the article indicated, however, would be “TriMet’s union employees [who], reporter Nigel Jaquis noted, “exert enormous power and would oppose a sale of any TriMet functions.”

Nationwide, state and local governments are facing increasing pressures in the wake of the manufactured debt crisis, to include public transportation among “assets” to be liquidated in corporate fire sales. The Willamette Week story, and the prospect of the Democratic governor selling off state agencies met with a predictably celebratory response in the conservative Weekly Standard, which responded gleefully to the prospect of the governor “burning the [state’s] household furniture to say warm” , and “rechristen[ing] the University of Oregon ‘Nike U.’” The prospect of the privatization of Portland’s light rail system is a barometer of Brown’s willingness to pursue neoliberal austerity measures, and the power that corporations like Nike and Intel exert in a state with one of the lowest corporate income taxes in the country.

The possibility of privatizing light rail ought to send shock waves throughout Portland. The city, after all, is at the forefront of the national battle to divest from fossil fuels and convert to more sustainable forms of energy.  Few cities nationwide are better situated, then, to form a united front to push back against this regressive proposal, given the intersectional organizing already at work in a city that has been profoundly shaken by the resurgence of white supremacy and creeping fascism.

Nationwide, transit riders unions represent an important new front in organizing efforts to not only preserve but strengthen and exponentially broaden investment in and access to public transportation.  Privatization of light rail would, of course, represent an incremental step toward privatization of public transportation as a whole, not to mention other public services and infrastructure. It would also deal a major blow to the fossil fuel resistance movement, and living wage jobs throughout the region, which is one of the reasons why privatization of public transportation is being modeled and vaunted by the Koch Brother-funded American Legislative Council (ALEC).  But as the broad coalition represented in the May 24 hearing reflected, transit riders unions are on the front lines of a transit justice movement that intersects with multiple organizing fronts—including labor, fossil fuel resistance, climate, food and racial justice, police accountability, immigrants rights, disability rights, and health care access.

A 2016 article in Forbes Magazine entitled “Privatizing Public Transit Lowers Costs and Saves Cities Money” represents the erosion of unions and the power of labor as a primary benefit of privatizing public transportation. Privatizing public transportation has the potential to transform local politics and expand corporate power across the board.

The arguments are based in bait and switch tactics; they promise cost savings from eliminating union wage jobs and benefits, which would ostensibly be used to shore up other public institutions, including “local roads, schools and public pension funding.” Quite clearly, however, the elimination of transit unions would substantially erode the power of labor and would mark an important step toward eliminating and draining public pensions.

In Oregon, then, and across the country, proposals to privatize public transportation should be read as part of a broader attack on public pension funds, living wage jobs, climate justice and progressive policies across the board. “The positive effects of privatization would be largest in areas where union power is strongest,” observes Adam Millsap, a fellow with the State and Local Policy Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Unions, Millsap notes, “are able to negotiate for wages above the market rate,” while “[p]rivate, competitive firms have an incentive to minimize costs and consequently will be tough negotiators.” By contrast, “public officials tend to acquiesce at the bargaining table since transit unions are a powerful constituency in local politics.” Predictably absent from Millsap’s analysis is any acknowledgment of the role that unions play in negotiating for higher wages across the board.  Privatizing public transportation is, then, an important weapon in shifting the balance toward unrestrained corporate power.

Budget strapped cities with strong labor traditions are in the cross hairs of this initiative, which attempts to pit low income transit-dependent riders against bus and light rail drivers. Millsap, for example, identifies transit riders unions such as the New York City’s Riders Alliance as impediments to this broader assault on labor. Campaigns like the Riders Alliance’s “Fair Fares” campaign, Millsap argues, “might be unnecessary if New York City officials lowered costs by privatizing more of the city’s public transit network.” A 2014 article in Labor Notes heralds the importance of bus riders unions, which “make ready allies for willing unions”. New York, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Orlando, and Pittsburgh are among a growing number of cities nationwide in which transit riders and bus drivers are forming common cause to beat back transit cut backs and attempts to privatize public transportation.

New Orleans, Long Island and San Diego number among major U.S. cities that have privatized at least parts of their public transit systems, and they provide object lessons in the dangers of doing so. In New Orleans, the privatization of public transit was among the many “shocks” administered following Hurricane Katrina that intensified inequality and racialized disparities in income and wealth. In a phone interview, Robert “Tiger” Hammond, President of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO, spoke to the impacts of privatization on labor and living wage jobs. “When you privatize a company, they want to cut jobs,” he stated. “They want to cut benefits, such as health insurance, pensions…. We’re still in a fight for our life everyday in this hostile environment.”

For taxpayers, promised cost savings of privatization routinely fail to materialize, while wages and services are both cut. As Hammond notes, the companies that take over are focused on their own profits rather than community interests. They “always have to make money for the shareholders.” An article in California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, , examines the aftermath of the privatization of bus lines in San Diego. The article notes that the cost-savings have been “quite a bit less than advertised,” while bus drivers’ wages have taken a significant hit, with starting wages dipping from “$14 to $10.50 an hour.” In New York, the Long Island Bus Riders’ Union, a project of Long Island Jobs with Justice, emerged in the wake of outsourcing of bus lines to the massive French-based multinational company Veolia Transportation, the same company that now operates the bus lines and rail lines throughout the country.

In 2011, Veolia absorbed Connex Railroad, the contractor that “provide[d] engineers to the commuter line, MetroLink,” in Los Angeles, which was implicated in a 2008 head-on train collision that killed twenty five people and injured 130. The train engineer was reportedly texting at the time of the accident.  The accident resulted in a $200 million settlement, “one of costliest rail settlements” in U.S. history.

With buses under operation by Veolia, The Long Island Bus Riders Union fought back against threatened cuts to “60% of all routes, and weekend and off-peak service cuts equaling nearly 25% cuts on certain routes.” Not surprisingly, the transit union reported that many of the proposed cuts “appear[ed] to be in low income communities where more people rely on buses to get to work and to access the few health care centers that serve their needs.” The Riders Union publication included an interview with Dr. Niev Duffy of the Center for Social Policy and Community Engagement at SUNY Old Westbury. Duffy indicated that it was “’very difficult or impossible to evaluate the full economic consequences of the cuts,’” given “people los[ing] access to employment” and “cuts forc[ing] more people to use emergency rooms for their health care.” Among several health care facilities slated to lose access in the wake of cuts proposed in 2012 were the Nassau County Department of Health, and the Nassau County Department of Social Services.

The Portland-based Trimet’s proposed $12.9 million dollar expenditure, funded largely by a bond measure, was particularly galling to OPAL, BRU and their allies, given OPAL’s campaign to secure passes for the city’s low income riders at the nearly equivalent cost of $12 million. OPAL organizers note, moreover, that the city is in the process of implementing a flashy new electronic fare card system, the “Hop Fastpass,” the total costs of which are estimated at $35.9 million. OPAL/BRU organizers see the expenditure as evidence of the Trimet Board’s insularity from community needs and interests, including those of low income transit-dependent people, who for decades have been pushed to the outskirts of a city that ranks among one of the most rapidly gentrifying cities–with one of the tightest rental markets in the U.S. OPAL organizers emphasize that “fare evasion” may at times be a necessary survival tactic for low income riders whose quest for lower rents increases the cost of their daily commutes, and who may at times be forced to choose between fare evasion and job loss from missed shifts.

The $11.5 million expenditure, OPAL and BRU contend, represents a ramping up of militarized policing. In a phone interview, BRU organizer Orlando Lopez described Trimet’s practice of conducting mass fare checks or  “sweeps.”  Riders exiting stations at what Trimet describes as “checkpoints” are met with a gauntlet of three to five armed officers, often with police dogs. Transit police officers, Lopez observed, “use sweeps as a dragnet” to look for people with outstanding warrants. According to OPAL, while sweeps are often used at events like concerts and baseball games, they seem to occur most routinely in lower income areas frequented by people of color, including recent immigrants. At the May 24th hearing, OPAL organizers noted reports of individual Trimet police inquiring not only after fare cards, but into riders’ citizenship status as well, though it’s illegal under Oregon law for local law enforcement to do so—in the absence of suspicion of criminal activity–and Trimet officials have expressly stated that such practices deviate from agency policies.

OPAL organizers cite a pattern of racial profiling that informs fare checks and sweeps. Though individuals are ostensibly selected at random for fare checks, Lopez noted, “if you’re white and wearing a suit, they don’t bother to check.” The same pattern, he noted, applies to fare checking on the city’s light rail. A single individual whose fare is being checked, and who “poses no harm to officers,” may, nonetheless,  be surrounded by three or four armed transit police. “Typically what we’ve heard from riders and members,” Lopez observed, “is that they target youth, people of color and people who look homeless or low income first to see if they’ve paid their fares.” Racial and economic disparities in fare enforcement, then, may account in part for the fact that, according to a study conducted by Brian C. Renauer with Portland State University’s Criminal Justice Policy Research Institute, African Americans comprise only 7% of Trimet ridership, but  they represent 17.7% of individuals cited for fare evasion, and 22.4% of those who are issued 90 day exclusions that are accompanied by charges of “interfering with public transit” or IPT. “Black folks in Portland,” observed Lopez, an organizer with BRU, observed have higher rates of unemployment, and poverty and lower incomes than whites. According to a 2014 Multnomah County equity report, at 15.9%, unemployment rates for African Americans are nearly double those of whites (8%). “So when [Black riders] are punished, they’re punished for living in poverty,” observed Lopez.

Until this past week, IPTs, as they’re called, qualified as Class A misdemeanors equivalent to DUIs. On June 12, the Oregon legislature voted to reduce them to a Class C misdemeanor.

While IPTs are issued for a variety of offenses from harassing riders and drivers to fare evasion, the latter accounts for 90% of IPTs issued by Trimet police. IPTs for fare evasion result in criminalization and, notes Lopez “set them back financially.” According to Portland’s Street Roots newspaper, the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission determined that, between 2010 and 2014,“in Multnomah County the average jail sentence for an IPT conviction was 15 days at a cost of $2,520 per inmate.”

And while no evidence exists to date of undocumented people being detained or deported by ICE for fare evasion, both locally and nationally, undocumented people with even decades old DUIs are now facing detention and deportation. In January, district attorneys in the counties served by Trimet announced that “their offices will no longer prosecute TriMet fare evasions or exclusions.” . “We’ve been trying to push for the complete removal of IPTs,” noted Lopez, but to date, Trimet continues to issue them. The privatization of light rail might, moreover, erode the progress that OPAL and BRU have helped forge around the issue.

In the days following the nationally publicized murders on the city’s light rail, many in Portland seemed eager to endorse Trimet’s plan for ramped up policing. Lost on some, it seems, was the fact that it was “civilians,” rather than police, who  intervened to defend the passengers against Christian’s verbal assault, and who initially chased Christian, still holding his bloody knife, from the scene of the attack. On social media, however, many honed in on the disparities in police treatment of African American Terrell Johnson and the white supremacist.  Johnson had reportedly been threatening passengers at a light rail station, but when police approached him, he ran. When Johnson reportedly brandished box cutter or  “utility knife” at officers, he was shot– multiple times in the back– and died at the scene. Christian, who reportedly threw his nearly four inch long bloody knife at a moving squad car, was allowed to finish his beer before he was taken safely into custody.

Police conduct during the subsequent showdown on June 4 between progressive, anti-racist and anti-fascist activists on the one hand, and Trump supporters and white supremacists on the other, raised troubling questions for many about the intersections of militarized policing and white supremacy. Police in full riot gear trained their weapons throughout the day exclusively on progressive and anti-fascist activists, and before the day was over, the PPB, with a complement of interagency support, including “Homeland Security,” hit activists with stun—or “flashbang”–grenades, chemical agents and rubber bullets. Homeland Security agents, meanwhile, were caught on tape enlisting the aid of a member of the American Freedom Keepers, a right wing militia group, in pinning and cuffing an antiracist protester. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is reportedly investigating the incident.

The possibility of white supremacist sympathizers within the ranks of the PPB itself, however, would hardly came as news to many in the city. A captain in the PPB was disciplined in 2010 for reportedly erecting a shrine in a local park in homage to five dead Nazi soldiers., and in 2014, then Mayor Charlie Hales signed off an agreement expunging records of the disciplinary action.

On June 6, Mat Dos Santos, Legal Director of the Oregon ACLU, issued a statement calling the June 4 showdown a “trial for the first amendment and policing” in Portland. Dos Santos took pains to note that “no other police force in America uses crowd control weapons with the regularity of the Portland Police Bureau…. these ‘less lethal’ weapons are dangerous and indiscriminate.” .  Collectively, incidents of the last few weeks have gone a long way toward undermining Portland’s “progressive” reputation. For many longtime Portlander’s the recent events are a grim reminder not only of Oregon’s roots as a “white only state,” but also of the visibility that white supremacists assumed in Portland as recently as the 1980s, that culminated in the 1988 murder of Ethiopian student Mulugeta Seraw, who was beaten to death by baseball bat wielding members of the White Aryan Resistance or WAR. A $12.5 million legal settlement by the Southern Poverty Law Center against WAR leader Tom Metzger played a significant role in breaking the regional power of WAR and curtailing white supremacist organizing in the Pacific Northwest for nearly two decades.

As the city continues to be hit on an almost daily basis with white supremacist threats—from racist leaflets to bomb scares—and Portland activists regroup and strategize ways of contending with the shifting political landscape, Trimet might be a particularly strategic focus for activist energy. At an April breakfast meeting hosted by Portland Business Alliance with sponsorship from Portland General Electric, reported on by Willamette Week, Mayor Ted Wheeler “announced his interest in welcoming driverless cars to Portland by the end of the year.”  “’My goal is to have an autonomous vehicle pilot program in Portland, working for Portlanders, by the end of the year….To the inventors, investors and innovators, I’m here to say that Portland is open for business.’”  While the development of a fleet of autonomous vehicles may serve as a boon to Portland General Electric, it also sends an ominous signal about the future of public transportation and evokes comparisons to San Francisco. In the latter city, Google’s high tech workers are shepherded to work and back in privately owned buses that not only insulate them from the realities of economically embattled service workers and but give them little reason to want to invest in public transportation.

If Wheeler hoped to lend credence to PGE’s claim to serve as the forefront of Portland’s clean energy movement, in May, regional fossil fuel resistance activists turned out in droves to speak out against PGE’s plan to build a new natural gas plant to replace an existing coal-fired plant. At the meeting, activists “raised the specter of methane leaks from [fracked] gas, unhealthy pollution from gas-plant operations, [and] uncontrolled global warming.” On June 1, the same day the Trump administration announced plans to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, Portland’s city council passed the latest in a series of resolutions affirming its commitment to a fossil fuel future. It voted to power “100 percent of community-wide energy needs with renewable energy by 2050.”

In the coming years, however, Portland’s struggle for a livable, white supremacist-free future may increasingly center on the fate of the city’s public transportation system. Around the country and around the world, the preservation and expansion of public transportation may prove a critical variable in the struggle for a “livable future.” Both nationally and globally, the stakes for frontline communities of color in the crosshairs of both climate change and disaster capitalism couldn’t be higher.

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Desiree Hellegers is a co-founder and affiliated faculty of the Collective for Social and Environmental Justice at Washington State University Vancouver, and author of No Room of Her Own of Her Own: Women’s Stories of Homelessness, Life, Death and Resistance (Palgrave, 2011).

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