Amy Alexander on 6 Nov 2000 03:53:42 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] LA Public Transit and the Bus Riders Union

a lot of people have asked me about the los angeles public
transit situation; here's an article from today's LA times:
        Sunday, November 5, 2000

        The Clenched Fist
            Doctrinaire and dour, obstreperous and seething, the

        Bus Riders Union wages an endless war against the MTA.

            In six months of attempting to rally            
        passengers behind "Fare-Strike Thursdays," Dipti
        Baranwal had grown used to the drivers' reactions: a nod of
        the head, a sidelong wink, a shout of disapproval, a threat
        to call the cops. But never until this balmy afternoon at
        Rosemead and Crenshaw had the 21-year-old organizer for the
        pugnacious Bus Riders Union been caught like a mouse in a
        trap. "Get off the bus!" the driver shrieked. Baranwal's
        comrade, Olivia Udovic, had already slipped onto the bus
        and begun announcing that the union was staging its weekly
        no-pay protest. As in other BRU demonstrations, Baranwal
        and Udovic were not only trying to pressure the
        Metropolitan Transportation Authority to buy more buses for
        its often-decrepit fleet. They were proselytizing. They
        were trying to shape L.A.'s mostly poor, working-class and
        minority bus riders into a militant constituency to
        overturn what they call the MTA's "transit racism."
            Even had Baranwal been willing to back off just then,
        the driver's off-the-bus order would have been impossible
        to obey because he had slammed the 310's doors shut on the
        left side of her body and wouldn't let go. Her leg and most
        of an arm dangled inside the bus, while the rest of her
        remained on the curb. As she struggled amid the shouting,
        half-swallowed by the bus' door, Baranwal's bright yellow
        T-shirt was also shouting the BRU's populist slogan--No
        Somos Sardinas! Emblazoned across it was an open-topped
        view of a bus rolled up like a sardine can, revealing
        tightly packed riders raising fists of revolt.
            Half a minute went by, and the driver still hadn't
        released Baranwal. Then he opened the door just enough to
        let go of her limbs, slammed it shut and revved up the
        engine to take off. He'd decided to strand not only the BRU
        demonstrators but a half-dozen paying patrons who had been
        waiting for this uptown Crenshaw district bus for 20
        minutes. Martin Hernandez, a full-time BRU organizer with a
        background in performance art, bounded in front of the
        310's gargantuan windshield and flashed his valid MTA bus
        pass. Chris Jones, a high school sophomore recently
        recruited to the BRU's cause, jotted down the driver's
        badge number. "I'm writing the MTA about that!"
            The driver slammed the brakes, opened the door, and the
        three remaining BRU activists climbed on board. Over the
        next few hours, Baranwal, Udovic, Hernandez and Jones would
        approach their potential constituents with an unfailing
        concern and infinite patience so different from the persona
        the BRU displays at monthly MTA meetings. There, members
        abandon all gentleness: They are doctrinaire, dour,
        obstreperous and seething, speaking their brand of truth to
        the hated MTA board.
            "Obviously, when we're talking to riders,       
        they're the people who are suffering, who are
        going to push the organization forward," Udovic said. "And
        all of us, whether we're transit-dependent or not, have a
        lot of reasons to have a lot of anger at the MTA. The MTA
        are the people who are causing our members to suffer."
            The BRU, which claims 3,000 members, was formed eight
        years ago by people who saw L.A.'s woeful public bus
        service and gleaming subway construction plans as an
        obscene symbol of the gulf dividing L.A.'s poor and
        affluent. That view was endlessly reinforced during the
        recent MTA strike by scenes of stranded nannies, janitors,
        security guards, fast-food cashiers and garment
        workers--the bus system's main constituency.
            Early on, the union sued the MTA, demanding better bus
        service on civil-rights grounds. The suit forced the agency
        into a 1996 federal court consent decree in which the MTA
        agreed to incrementally reduce overcrowding and improve
        service, which led to the largest expansion of its bus
        fleet in two decades. The 10-year consent decree also gave
        the Bus Riders Union legal standing as the representative
        of the agency's riders--but that only served to make the
        activists even angrier: The MTA continued insisting it
        could not afford nor was legally bound to comply with the
        bus expansion deal--even though it had signed the consent
        decree to prevent the union's lawsuit from going to trial.
            It was 2:30 p.m. when the northbound 310 swallowed
        Baranwal. The bus was not as overcrowded as it would be at
        rush hour. The personalities in transit--old radicals and
        young evangelists, domestic workers and aspiring auto
        mechanics, proper matrons and smart-aleck teenagers--were
        given room enough to breathe. As Baranwal made her way
        through, some passengers greeted her as indignantly as the
        driver had, but it was undeniable: her altercation with the
        driver had captured the bus riders' attention.
            Now Baranwal made her pitch. She handed out     [Image]
        fare-strike cards bearing the same cartoon as her
        T-shirt: fists pumping through the roof of the sardine-can
        bus. So, she asked two passengers, Jasmine Garrison and
        John Johnson: What do you guys think about the MTA's
             "This bus is terrible," Garrison said. "There's
        writing all over the place, the windows are all broken. The
        seats are all torn down."
             "And you can hear the rattling," Baranwal said
        helpfully. "You know, if your car was making that kind of
        noise, you wouldn't even be able to drive it."

             On Route 207 Southbound
             To ride this Western Avenue bus was to feel its pain
        and to know that the MTA had fallen short of the consent
        decree. Two years ago, when a federal court found that the
        MTA was in massive violation of its '96 agreement to reduce
        the scores of bus riders left standing at rush hour, the
        agency voted to buy 2,095 replacement buses through 2004.
        But a year later, in what it insisted was an effort to
        protect its power to set transit priorities, the MTA
        appealed U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter's order to
        immediately purchase 248 buses. The appeal is still
             On the 207 southbound, the chattering of the windows
        set your teeth grinding; the shuddering of its loosened
        bolts, after a few blocks, caused friction in sore joints.
        As the 207 lumbered over cracks and bumps in the road, your
        lower vertebrae absorbed the impact that the bus' shocks
        could no longer take upon themselves. There was surrender
        in the postures of the passengers, only some of it
        attributable to their exhaustion. Standing or seated, their
        forms were a chiropractor's dream: sprawled, hunched,
        slumped, drooped, sunken, jostled, semi-collapsed. The bus'
        windows, grimed over with dust and scratches and graffiti,
        dulled the view of the streets outside, while the din of
        the interior made conversation a burden best abandoned
        after a few hellos.
             It is against this backdrop that the Bus Riders Union
        rages. In its worldview, the MTA's sacrifice of its bus
        system on the altar of the multibillion-dollar Red Line and
        other rail projects is part of a larger Orwellian nightmare
        where politicians of all ethnicities are revealed as
        front-people doing the bidding of corporations and
        contractors; where immigrants from Third World countries
        are oppressed by the same Yankee imperialism that caused
        many of them to flee their homelands; where a broken-down
        bus becomes a symbol of the rulers' desire to degrade the
             Perhaps, if the MTA should suddenly buy twice the
        number of new buses that the federal court has demanded,
        restore express routes in areas that have been cut off and
        add others, denounce the extension of the Blue Line into
        Pasadena and make an abject apology for the entire Red Line
        program and all its former profligacies--perhaps, then, the
        Bus Riders might consider unclenching their fists.
             "Five years ago," BRU founder Eric Mann is saying, "we
        were a figment of our own imagination, a dream in our own
             Then, as now, union activists were bodily removed from
        MTA meetings as they hurled damnation at the MTA board. But
        with the consent decree, Mann and his comrades became more
        than militant scourges. They became the court-appointed
        equivalent of legal guardians for the entire MTA ridership
        until 2006.
             The union's civil-rights lawsuit, filed with the NAACP
        Legal Defense and Educational Fund, had accused the MTA of
        giving "separate but unequal" treatment to the mostly
        minority bus riders by bleeding the bus system of money to
        build the rail system. Rather than risk trial, the MTA gave
        the activists a distinct legal standing. In the same way
        the ACLU sued Los Angeles County over jail overcrowding and
        won the legal right to monitor conditions, the BRU became a
             But don't ask Mann to abandon the inflammatory
        rhetoric of the outcast. He continues to warn of battles in
        the street, not just the courtroom. Take the monthly bus
        pass. The MTA had been set to abolish it, but the consent
        decree saved it. "Now," Mann observes with some
        satisfaction, "[if] they try to raise the monthly bus fare
        by a few dollars, they know . . . all hell is going to
        break loose."
             If Mann and his BRU comrades were secretly worried
        that legitimation by the courts might take the wind out of
        their radical sails, allowing them to get what they
        demanded through legal means, the MTA has put such fears to
        rest. In the MTA, the BRU has chosen an adversary whose
        institutional arrogance and poor judgment can always be
        relied upon. Here is an organization that built an opulent
        marble-lined $480-million headquarters for itself worthy of
        a Fortune 500 corporation while its bus service was going
        down the drain; which amassed billions of dollars in debt
        to pursue a scandal-plagued, truncated rail system; which
        last year flouted the federal court's mandate so brazenly
        that even Judge Hatter cautioned the MTA about acting like
        "former segregationists" of the South.
             During the recent strike by MTA drivers, the BRU
        activists picketed alongside bus drivers. But in the
        political realm they seem more comfortable with enemies,
        which they can find even among seemingly natural political
        allies. At a recent speech by Green Party presidential
        candidate Ralph Nader, for example, union members shouted
        out slogans questioning his commitment to fight racism and
        larded down the Q&A session with their agenda until many in
        the audience were grumbling against them. When the BRU
        determined that mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, the
        former Assembly speaker, had departed from his anti-rail
        orthodoxy, they began taunting him at public appearances.
             This passion grew out of the death of a plant that
        manufactured cars.
             The Cornell-educated Mann had worked at General
        Motors' Camaro assembly plant in Van Nuys during the '80s,
        and when the auto manufacturer decided to shut it down, a
        coalition that also included actor Ed Asner and U.S. Rep.
        Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) fought unsuccessfully to keep
        it open. The coalition survived and changed its focus to
        industrial pollution, particularly in poor neighborhoods, a
        syndrome the left calls "environmental racism." The center
        evolved into the broader Labor/Community Strategy Center.
        One of the projects the center spun off in 1992 was the Bus
        Riders Union.
             Despite the union's small membership, Mann believes
        that at least 40,000 passengers "identify" with the group,
        allowing him to claim BRU representation for nearly 10% of
        the systems' 450,000 riders. For funding, the Strategy
        Center and union have relied not so much on dues (some
        members pay only a dollar) as on grants from foundations
        such as Nathan Cummings, Jesse Smith Noyes and the
        Rockefeller. Contributions totaled $881,000 in 1998.
             There are certainly some self-defined socialists among
        BRU's leaders, but Mann, who drew a salary of $88,000 in
        1998, refuses to characterize the union that way. It is not
        anti-capitalist, he says, merely "anti-corporate. There are
        many points of view, but all [our members] see the
        privatization of public life and the profit motive as the
        greatest obstacle" to having government serve the masses
        instead of an economic elite."
             The anger that wells from this movement comes from the
        heart of Mann. It is what sets him apart from other social
        activists. You can hear it in his vow to "train organizers
        and get the poor to fight," his ready explanation for "why
        I hate liberals," his branding of the MTA's policies as
        "the most grotesque, race-based discrimination in an urban
        center right now probably in the U.S." Complex,
        self-righteous, closely reasoned yet free of apparent
        doubt, Mann does not limit himself to critiquing L.A.'s
        broken-down buses. Sit down with him at a bar and he'll
        connect the dots of oppression, from the MTA to the larger
        class struggle in the U.S., to the economic hegemony of the
        International Money Fund and World Trade Organization to
        low-wage factories in Mexico, to U.S. support of torture in
        Latin America.
             This struggle, Mann tells you, isn't the '60s, when
        the enemy was entrenched white males. This is a struggle
        against L.A.'s "multiracial corporate class." Politicians
        of all ethnicities and both genders are culpable, he says.
        "From [Mayor Richard] Riordan, who says he's trying to run
        the city like a business, from [MTA board members] Yvonne
        Brathwaite Burke [an African American] to Gloria Molina [a
        Latina], the train is a symbol of personal power." What the
        union wants to tell the poor riders it tries to organize is
        that by refusing to upgrade bus service, the MTA has
        reinforced second-class citizenship and sown the seeds of
        self-hatred. "We're trying to get poor people to realize
        that when [the powers that be] say the bus is dirty, they
        really mean: 'You are dirty.' . . . Everything they say bad
        about the buses is a code word for you. But they're the
        ones who make the buses like that. You're not dirty; the
        MTA is dirty. You're not cattle. It's the MTA that treats
        you like cattle."

             On Route 210 Limited Southbound
             After a few minutes of passing out leaflets, BRU
        activist Udovic was upstaged. By fomenting the weekly fare
        strike, she had inadvertently unleashed the creative
        talents of a gray-bearded passenger named James. Inspired
        by her talk, James raised a stumpy walking stick wrapped in
        duct tape to his lips as if it were a microphone.
             "We need more buses," James started chanting as the
        210 huffed up a commercial stretch of lower Crenshaw.
             A claque of Inglewood high school girls sitting
        opposite furnished the background vocals.
             "Boom, boom, boom boom," went the schoolgirls.
             "We don't need pretty speeches. . . ."
             "Boom, boom, boom boom."
             "We need more buses, every 15 minutes at nighttime."
             "Right now, right now, right now."
             "We're going to get more buses if we strike."
             "Every Thursday!" Udovic chimed in.
             Raised by activist parents, the 22-year-old Udovic
        already was maintaining a social-issues workload in high
        school that would burden most careerists--fighting anti-gay
        rights legislation in Oregon, doing solidarity work for
        indigenous people and laborers in Central America, and
        protesting U.S. intervention in El Salvador. At Stanford,
        she majored in comparative studies in race and ethnicity.
             When she enrolled as a trainee in the Labor/Community
        Strategy Center's National School for Strategic Organizing,
        she met Baranwal, who had grown up on the outskirts of
        Akron, Ohio. They were trainees whose 13-hour workdays for
        low pay included bus organizing--seeking out the people
        Mann calls "the opinion-makers of the oppressed." Trainees
        were also taught how to protest MTA board policies during
        public hearings. (The Wilshire leg of the Red Line
        terminates at the BRU office above the Wiltern Theatre at
        Western and Wilshire, providing clean, direct
        transportation for hectoring the MTA.) In classes, they
        were taught subjects such as "United Front Theory and
        Practice" and "Environmental Justice: Challenging the
        Corporate State Agenda." A couple months after this day on
        the bus, Baranwal would leave to finish college in Indiana;
        Udovic committed to stay on until December.
             Abruptly, gray-bearded James stopped singing.
             "Right now, every night on the bus, people's lives are
        endangered," he said. His song had been mild, but his
        speech was agitated and shrill. "I don't know what the MTA
        directors are thinking. I think it should be mandatory that
        all the MTA directors should take the bus home once a year,
        and wait like we do."
             "If they ride it," Udovic said helpfully, "they'll
        know what they have to do. Here's a card you can send to
        Gloria Molina."
             "Does she wait for the bus?" James demanded
             "No she doesn't," Udovic said, "and that's what you
        can write about, that you want her to ride the bus."
             But in a few blocks, James and his duct-taped cane
        were gone. And the postcard lay blank on an empty seat,
        bound not for Molina's office, but for the clean-up crews
        of the MTA yards.
        Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times

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