How the Los Angeles Metro Sabotaged Its Own Less Fair “Fareless Transportation Plan” and Reverted to Its Structural Transit Racism

An Organizer’s Analysis and Plan for Action

In its May 2021 the Los Angeles the MTA rejected demands by the Bus Riders Union and many community allies for “free public transportation for all” now. Instead, MTA Mayor Eric Garcetti and County Supervisor Janice Hahn cut a back room deal to kill the plan for free public transportation for K-12 and Community Students and its plan for a pilot project for “fareless transit” for adults. The Bus Riders Union strongly supported the free student passes but opposed the general pass plan that would have required all people to prove poverty in order to qualify, otherwise pay the regular fare that they could not afford or face tickets and arrests for “fare evasion.” If you could imagine, Garcetti and Hahn attacked even the most racist elements of their own plan from the right.

After more than 50 community groups went through the charade of public comment where they called for free public transportation for all and mentioned the Bus Riders Union often, the MTA acted as if no one had spoken—as always. Instead, the Board carried out a travesty of justice as each board member came up with “amendments” “qualifications” “delays” “postponement” “requirements”— Poison Pills. The entire board took turns introducing amendments to kill the whole idea.

As we understand it, the MTA planned to have a pilot project for “Fareless Transportation” for all K-12 and community college students in L.A. County originally scheduled to start in August. Now it’s postponed almost indefinitely. According to the new “fareless transportation motion”, the MTA does not plan to pay for it until the pilot receives new money from “philanthropy “or from state and federal institution grants. The Garcetti/Hahn motion even included a provision that it can’t use any of its existing $8 billion to find the $130 million to pay for Fareless transportation for all. The Metro will not give the students what they deserve, and instead, further demands the right to lock up, harass and criminalize their parents.

The MTA had a terrible plan to have “fareless transit” for low-income people—70% or more of its passengers—only if they could “prove” poverty. They then amended it following our letter stating blatant civil rights violations to say that low-income people could sign a form to “attest” that they were poor—a humiliating and racist proposal—but even that proposal was delayed indefinitely until they can find money and find their own bearings.
So, through the process of “death by amendment” the Metro board has NO plan for free public transportation for anybody let alone everybody. All the promises were lies.

As an organizer, how can I explain this racist catastrophe and the clear truth that except for the Bus Riders Union, very few people want to fight to the death to protect the rights of 1,00,000 bus and rail riders. This article has several objectives.

First, expose in all honesty the duplicity and mean-spirited nature of the Democratic Party liberal establishment.

Second, tell you in brutal detail the specific motions, countermotions, almost motions, and backward motions of the 13-person Metro board—focusing on reactionary role of Mayor Eric Garcetti, Supervisors Hilda Solis, Janet Hahn, and Holly Mitchell, and even City Councilman Mike Bonin, who has long been our champion on social justice at the last MTA meeting did not challenge the “low-income-self-incriminating proposal for 500,000 daily bus riders 55% of whom are Latinx, 20% Black, 65% Black and Latinx women and more than 70% of whom are profoundly poor.

Third tell you some history of the BRU’s 30-year fight, often lonely, in fighting the Transit Racism of the MTA, and yes, despite that, our many victories.

Fourth tell you about our plan to win—Going on the buses and trains as much as we can, with your help, to warn bus and train riders of the sabotage of the BRU plan for “free public transportation for all” and our efforts to stop MTA attacks on Black passengers. And secondly to develop public education and transformation campaigns to impact the policies and actions of Mayor Garcetti, Hilda Solis, Janice Hahn, Holly Mitchell, Sheila Kuehl, Mike Bonin, and all other MTA board members. (See chart below).

So, this is an organizers story and I hope you would like to go on this journey with me.

The MTA’s contempt for the “public” in “public comment.”

We feel terrible. We organized so hard. We had more than 50 people call into public comment to urge the board for free public transportation for all with no requirements, but the board treated everyone with such disrespect.

The Bus Riders Union called on the board to provide free public transportation for all. After all it is a human right, and it is not even remotely free. We pay 4 half cent sales taxes to the MTA, every time we buy anything. When you pay $100 for anything that has a sales tax, $2 goes to the Metro. Spend $1,000? Metro gets $20. Spend $10,000? $200 of your sales tax goes to the MTA. Out of their total $8 Billion dollar budget, HALF—$4 billion alone, comes from sales tax revenue that you’re spending and the MTA is stealing. But they can’t and won’t spend $130 million to give us free public transportation. They are even asking for charity from “philanthropy” because it’s the MTA board that is trying to attest to poverty—when it is their moral poverty that is the problem. We asked Board Member Mitchell to oppose any form of means testing but she said that she was comfortable with “self-attestation” which forces low-income bus/train riders to prove their poverty by declaring it. We can assure them that any form of a means test makes Black, Latinx, and women bus riders profoundly uncomfortable and is a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that says that government agencies cannot use federal funds in a racially discriminatory manner. But she and Mike Bonin, from whom we expected so much more, could not say, “The Bus Riders Union is calling for free public transportation for college students, K-12 students and free public transportation for all and is raising legitimate concerns about any forms of means testing—let alone say that they would support it. Instead, they both acted like “self-attestation” where low-income people must attest that they are poor—or if they can’t pay the fares face tickets and arrests, was a great reform. We strongly disagree.

While the MTA board will not, we want to thank Bus Riders Union members and allies who threw down to get to this point. We received 10 letters of support from allied organizations sent to the Metro Board including Inner City Struggle, Brother Sons Selves Coalition, Augustus Hawkins Teachers and Parents, Democratic Socialist of America-LA, United Teachers of Los Angeles, Food and Water Watch, Investing in Place, among others. More than 25 public comment speakers gave testimony in support of the Bus Riders Union. For each Instagram post from @FightSoulCities there was an average of 250 people engaged. For the month of May we saw a total of 70,000 people engaged in our tweets, an increase of 600% over the months prior. Just about everyone in the city acknowledged the work of the Bus Riders Union except the Metro board and some of its government inspected “community groups.”

The Bus Riders Union Program for Urban Reconstruction and Transit Justice

+ Fareless Transportation Pilot for all with no public attestation of poverty and no means testing

+ Free Public transportation must begin in August

+ End the $680 million MTA Multi Agency Policing Contract in December 2021 with no option for renewal

+ Prioritize funding from within the current Metro budget, delay and cut boondoggle rail projects, stop the MTA’s pathetic effort to seek “philanthropic” or outside funding for fareless transportation when it already has $4 billion a year in our sales taxes

+ Stop MTA Attacks on and Racial Profiling of Black Passengers who get 50% or more of all MTA tickets and arrests for doing nothing but being Black on public transportation

None of this happened, let me explain what was proposed.

Item 45 brought by Mayor Garcetti, and Board Members Holly Mitchell and Paul Krekorian calls for the implementation of a fareless transportation system in which passengers, 70% working class and 80% Black and Latinx must attest publicly that they are poor and deserve public transportation. Pilot programs for k-12 students and community college students would begin in August 2021 and all else January 2022. Further, the Metro then calls for local school districts to pay the bill for fareless transportation; even as more than 50% of the Metro’s budget is slated to build rail and highway projects that no one asked for and will serve to further exacerbate both gentrification in South LA and the ongoing climate disaster that LA cars have helped to create.

Item 46 brought by Board Members Janice Hahn, Hilda Solis, Ara Najarian, James Butts, Tim Sandoval, and Fernando Dutra, calls for a delay of any fareless transportation pilot until there is guaranteed insurance that not one cent of project budgets (rail and highway construction projects) are cut in order to pay for fareless transportation. This is a poison pill to kill any discussion of free public transportation and is tied to the rail lobby. How could board members Solis and Hahn even consider such a destructive motion?

So, what does this mean?

While we thought that item 45 on its own was unacceptable, unless the free student passes were voted on separately, because of the civil rights violations of the “low-income pass” we felt that item 46 was an especially dangerous destructive motion because it would kill all funding for any fareless projects. In the end Mayor Garcetti accepted item 46 into his motion as if it were a friendly amendment to move progress. As always, the Mayor was too clever for anyone’s good but himself. Garcetti agreed to take out specific implementation dates including the original start date of August 2021 for students and January 2022 for all other passengers. Hahn agreed to take out the word “delay” and instead implemented a “poison pill” that will create an indefinite delay in many more words.

The Metro board voted to move forward in delaying the pilot program until they can assure not one cent is taken from ongoing capital projects (50% of their $8 billion budget) and until funding is found and assured for the full 18-24-month duration of the motion, and negotiations with municipal operators are complete.

Lastly in the midnight hour of a very contentious conversation by the board, Supervisor Mitchell, seconded by Mike Bonin introduced a motion, to “maintain the current fare collection policy in perpetuity” until a Fareless transit pilot is implemented. We think that was an effort to keep collecting fares on the trains but continue to not collect them on the buses. We were not sure what this meant.

Here is what passed:

Item 45 as Amended by Janice Hahn, Holly Mitchell, Mike Bonin, and Hilda Solis. “Implement the Fareless System Initiative, subject to a final financial plan and while pursuing cost-sharing agreements.”

1) Spelled out self-attestation process

2) Cost sharing agreements and administration of the program with participating school districts

3) Philanthropic partnerships to pay for FSI

4) Report back to the board monthly on “development, launch, and performance of FSI”

5) Hahn Amendment: Fully include municipal operators with fare subsidies, No funding from existing operations or capital program, alignment w/ Metro’s Equity program.

6) Mitchell Amendment: Maintain current fare collection policy in perpetuity until Metro board is satisfied with the financial plan (non-enforcement of fares)

7) Bonin Amendment: Further details on the report back (see full motion)

8( Solis Amendment: Report back on feasibility of Federal American Rescue Plan to fund the pilot.

Garcetti’s “Non-Delay” delay motion leaves 1,000,000 bus riders in a terrible situation. Many Black and Latinx riders have been out of work for months if not the entire year due to the Covid 19 quarantine. Many, who have children, are gearing up to go back to school in person either for summer school starting now or during the fall semester beginning in August and will need to use Metro buses and trains to get to school. The rent moratorium will be lifted any day, and the federal government’s petty stimulus package will not be enough for poor Black and Latina bus riders to “recover” from the pandemic. Now, the Metro has agreed to pay another $36 Million to police to target Black and Latinx passengers, while considering an additional $15 Million for private security to extend their racial profiling power. When the Metro, with its vague “maintain the current fare enforcement” language begins to charge its $100 a month for a bus pass again, they and we will find that more than 70% of its passengers will not be able to afford the fares even if they wanted to pay out of pocket. Then Metro will move like the thieves in the night as they have done for 20+ years to use its $51 million additional genocide dollars to arrest, ticket, and brutalize Black and Latinx passengers for the non-existent crime of fare-evasion.

20+ years of retaliation by Metro Against the Bus Riders Union: The Bus Riders Union V LACMTA: The Building of a separate and unequal mass transportation system

In 1994 the Bus Riders Union brought suit against the then newly formed Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), previously the Rapid Transit District (RTD), and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC). In 1994 Members of the Bus Riders Union recognized that MTA, in stealing money from the bus system, was working to build a separate and unequal rail system. The bus system at the time, 81% Black, Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander, and 65 % women, had a ridership of 350,000 and more than 1 million boardings per day and received only a $0.3 subsidy per passenger amounting in $105 Million in operating funds, while the then existing rail system, namely the Blue and Red lines—50% white carried only 26,000 riders per day and received a $1.17 subsidy per passenger amounting in $30 Million in operations funds on top of a $700 million dollar per rail line hefty construction cost. The Bus Riders Union was able to prove that while a bus centered system was more feasible in the sprawled-out city of Los Angeles, the LACTC’s plan was to raid every possible dollar to make dreams of a white rail centered city a reality. The MTA moved to pass Measure A, an ½ cent sales tax to pay for its reactionary rail plans, then moved to raise the fares from $1.10 to $1.35 per one-way ride and .0 eliminate the monthly bus pass. In September of 1994 Federal Judge Terry Hatter issued a temporary restraining order blocking the MTA from raising the fares and eliminating the bus pass. As Eric Mann explained in A New Vision for Urban Transportation:

“This case is not just about reducing the fares or improving bus service. At stake here is the concept that in the richest nation in the world, transportation is a human right. Government cannot provide, and then withhold, transportation to determine who can look for a job or get to a job or visit a sick mother or take her kids to childcare or the park based on the ability to pay. This class action suit challenges the corporatization of government—the reactionary notion that public life should be privatized and that the city should be run ‘like a business.’ It is an effort to revitalize the civil rights movement when it is under attack and to show that a half million low-income bus riders, 81 percent of whom are Latino, African American, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Native Ameri-can, and 60 percent of whom have family incomes under $15,000, can play a role in making history.”

The duplicity and lies of MTA board staff.

Traditionally, the BRU only meets with board members and refuses to meet with staff. Why, because the staff are gatekeepers, and protectors of their bosses, “The Supervisor is very concerned about what you say, but…”. But as a new director of organizing, I felt I could have good relationships with some of their staff who in turn would set up the meetings with the principals—the actual MTA board members. I learned that I and we made a big mistake. The staff of Supervisor Mitchell stalled us and never set up the meeting we requested. While we thought we’d built a good rapport with some staffers, we’re shocked to find how dishonest many staffers were instructed to be. As one example, we met with a staff member of Supervisor Solis’ office and thought we were moving in the same direction, only to log onto the board meeting the next day to find out that Supervisor Solis was a co-author with Janice Hahn for a destructive delay the project in perpetuity motion. In this motion, the MTA cannot use any of its $8 billion a year in funds for free transportation. The Hahn/Solis motion was to protect every boondoggle rail project, every deal, every terrible use of MTA fund for everything except helping low-income bus riders finally ride for free—and encouraging a multi-class dramatically expanded transit system. We are very appreciative of Eric Bruins of city councilperson Mike Bonin who is the exception that proves the rule. We work closely with him and the councilperson, often meet with Mike Bonin as well, and when Eric is speaking he is honest and consistent with what the councilman is saying and doing. Every other staff person we met with was a gatekeeper and we will not be in touch with them again except to set up meetings with MTA board members. Not really their fault, they are only doing what their boss told them to do—“keep the Bus Riders Union away from me.”

The board of the Los Angeles Unified School District is the exact opposite of the MTA.

We are encouraged to work with LAUSD board chair Kelly Gonez, long-time ally Monica Garcia, and in coalition with Students Deserve, Inner City Struggle, BLMLA and others to defund the LA School Police by $25 million—35% and invest the money along with an additional $11 Million into Black Student Achievement. We found the LAUSD board to be many worlds of difference from the hostile barley one-minute public comment we receive at the Metro board. LAUSD board member Kelly Gonez, for example stated after hearing heartbreaking public comment from LAUSD students “we hear you, and we’re listening” then proceeded to push herself to change her vote to join in with Monica Garcia, Nick Melvoin, and Jackie Goldberg to defund the LA School Police. (see Eric Mann’s article: “The Black led defund the school police movement”). It is possible for publicly elected board members to actually represent and directly address their constituents on the spot. We have worked with the LAUSD board over the last 15 years to stop the truancy ticketing of LAUSD students, stop the non-existent, anti-Black “willful defiance,” policy. In 2013 The Strategy Center worked with selected board members and LA School Police Chief Steven Zipperman to return 1 tank, 3 grenade launchers, and 61 M-16 assault riffles, wrongfully acquired from the Department of Defense under its 1033 program. Eric Mann and Manuel Criollo worked with Zipperman to issue an apology to the Strategy Center and to the community for its civil rights violations. In the last year, through the leadership of Monica Garcia, Kelly Gonez, and Tanya Ortiz Franklin—and the active organizing of Students Deserve, Black Lives Matter, Community Coalition, Inner City Struggle, the Strategy Center’s Taking Action Social Justice Clubs, the Bus Riders Union and others—we moved the first $36 million to support Black Student Achievement and implemented a Black Student Achievement Steering Committee of which the Strategy Center is represented. Just this week, the Police Free Schools LA coalition worked with board members to move another $57 million to Black Student Achievement. Yes, it can be done, Si, se puede! But not until we change the culture and membership of the Metro board members who hates mass movements and are using the agency as an $8 billion slush fund for their own political ambitions.

Like vultures the Times and the US Gov inspected groups, and even board members all denied the BRU its due credit as history has shown.

The U.S. government inspected “transit groups” literally sell themselves to the MTA as “We are not the Bus Riders Union, we will not push you on racism”. Then we can get funding as the anti-Bus Riders Union “moderates.” (Don’t worry, many individuals and foundations support the Bus Riders Union for fighting to win! We are fine and do not want, nor would we receive, any “moderate” aka “sell out” funding anyway.) This time around some even pretended to work with the BRU in informal coalitions but quickly changed to their usual “We will say everything you do is a step forward” in their public comment to the board as the Bus Riders Union struggled with board members to defeat self-humiliation of 70% of Black and Latinx bus riders, and as we struggled for implementation Now! The MTA has for 20 years worked with many of these groups who have until lately been on the total opposite side of every debate at the MTA. When we said “50 cent fares and twenty dollar passes”, they worked with board members to pass a forever tax to cement in the MTA’s perpetual construction and development of Black and Latinx communities. Now many of these groups have caught onto the MTA’s method of co-optation as a method for a faux victory. That is to say, one day in our usual mobilization the MTA board with a sea of yellow shirts, we were met by another pond of yellow shirts, clearly organized by the Metro to speak in favor of fare increases and service cuts.

After 15 years of the Bus Riders Union Afro-Latina Super Pasajera inspiring bus riders to fight transit racism, the MTA came up with the “SuperKind” an Asian operative to encourage, we are not kidding, “transit etiquette.” In our opinion, that maneuver was created to drive apart the strong Black, Latinx, API solidarity of bus riders built by BRU, by using an Asian character to tell Black and Latinx passengers that the terrible service is their own fault—encouraging passenger to follow the MTA’s oppressive rider codes of conduct (Black codes) like not eating on the trains. So, when it came time to fight for “fareless transportation,” not only did the board members and Metro’s own CEO Phil Washington not want to give credit to the Bus Riders Union, but even one executive director gave public comment to say “Thank you Mayor Eric Garcetti” telling the Mayor that he is a visionary and that he “supports the current motion as is”, including with the new policy of self-humiliation.

The role of the L.A. Times, The L.A. Lies—since the Strategy Center has been working to change conditions on the buses we once had very honest reporters from the LA Times—Rich Simon and others who were very sympathetic to the Bus Riders Union, quoted us all the time, and every story was The MTA versus the BRU—which it was. That positive coverage by the Times was very helpful to our organizing work and did push the MTA to decide to negotiate with us more—after we won a Temporary Restraining Order against their fare increases and ending of the monthly bus pass. But for the last 15 years, beginning with reporter Kurt Streeter who was intentionally hostile to the BRU, the LA Times has reverted to its role as the LA Lies. Laura Nelson become an “embedded reporter” for the MTA and refused to quote the BRU’s charges of transit racism. Even when Cesar Rodriguez was killed Laura Nelson showed up at our press conference but would not quote the family or us. To our surprise when we joined BLMLA’s rallies in January 2021 to stop Biden’s appointment of Garcetti to national positions, we met another LA Times reporter who not only quoted the Bus Riders Union, but was surprised to learn that for the last 15 years, The Times had not properly covered the work of the Bus Riders Union. We’re pleased to have met the one reporter, but as we’ve not heard from them since, it seems confirmed to us that not only Laura Nelson, now working as an investigative reporter for the MTA, but the whole organization has found their snuggly spot in the pocket of the MTA. How do we develop a campaign to stop the LA Lies? We have to try and we need your help.

Strengthening our work with allies

We’re pleased that in the last year we have gained some important new allies as well as seen some changes in the politics of other transit groups—not sufficient but moving in the right direction. During the latest meeting as just one example, when the Metro cut me off mid-sentence, without request at least five people included the MTA’s tactic as a prominent piece of their public comment, “Notice that Channing Martinez was the only person you cut off”, “I stand in solidarity with the Bus Riders Union and how could you cut off Channing Martinez…”. We are particularly appreciative of Brothers Son Selves Coalition, of which we are members, Inner City Struggle, Community Coalition, DSA-LA, Investing in Place, and others who have been playing a very positive role in this movement. We need to create greater positive pressure on elected officials who still ignore even the entreaties of some of their closest allies.

Working to build a summer of organizing on the buses and trains to expand the base of the Bus Riders Union. The devastation of COVID 19 has also been very devastating for all movement groups who are based on direct interaction with the oppressed people directly involved. This summer we want to heavily submerge ourselves again on the MTA buses and trains to significantly increase our dues paying membership and increase our citywide presence. The citywide presence will help up keep board members accountable so that when they try to write off the BRU at their board meetings, they can expect to hear publicly from our members who happen to also be member of the neighborhood council they’re speaking at tonight. They’ll expect to hear from local cafés who support the Bus Riders Union when they come to try to just get a quick photo-op who will ask, in front of the camera’s, “by the way have you met directly with the BRU yet? Why not, don’t you care that the MTA has Anti-Black policies?”.

We need dues paying members who will bring the BRU into just about every other space they’re in. We need reporters who will properly cover the work of the Bus Riders Union. We need researchers looking into every civil rights violation of the Metro and actively delivery findings to the BRU. We need neighborhood council members who will bring in the BRU to do presentations on transit racism, and make sure to talk about the BRU when their elected officials drop in for a photo op. We need artists who will help us spread the visual representation of the campaign to a wider audience. We need musicians to help us re-instate the Bus Riders Union famous Drum and Chant crew that everyone loves. We need organizers to help us organize on the buses, at our local school sites, and in every aspect of urban life. If you’re interested in working with us to build a Black, Latinx, 3rd World United Front, join the Bus Riders Union today;

Channing Martinez is the director of Organizing, Labor/Community Strategy Center and co-chair of the Bus Riders Union with Barbara Lott-Holland. He welcomes comments at