Austerity’s Billy Club

The Bay Area's transit system shows that austerity and police violence go hand in hand.

"The Look of Rapid Transit," as conceived in a 1962 BART sketch. Eric Fischer / Flickr

Since Ronald Reagan’s massive assault on transportation spending in the 1980s, the “service delay” has been an integral part of the US public transit experience. Riders of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system — servicing San Francisco, Oakland, and surrounding municipalities — are certainly familiar with the groan-inducing announcement, often prompted by a case of infrastructural disrepair that can no longer be ignored.

In the weeks following the grand jury decision not to indict Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, there was rarely a day without station closures or service delays on BART. But these were not due to crumbling tracks. Protests were bringing the system to a grinding halt.

One of the most prominent was a Black Friday action in which fourteen activists shut down the entire BART system for several hours by forming a human chain through train cars, straddling the West Oakland BART station platforms.

Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, explained the reason behind the protest’s location in a recent interview: “We decided to find a target relevant to our area. Oscar Grant was murdered at the Fruitvale station on BART — that was one of the first times, in Oakland, that a police officer has been convicted of murder.”

If Grant’s 2009 slaying inextricably linked the transportation agency with the marginalization of poor and working-class people of color in the Bay Area, subsequent acts of BART police violence have only reinforced that connection.

But it’s not just the wanton shows of force that are catalyzing protests against BART.

Another crucial factor is BART’s treatment of its workers and its embrace of austerity policies. BART’s refusal in 2013 to negotiate in good faith felt like an injustice to many, given that the agency had a revenue surplus and that employees had dutifully accepted a five-year wage freeze because of the recession.

When negotiations broke down in July and again in October, employees went on strike. This had a seismic impact on life in the region, and was a litmus test for Bay Area progressives.

The BART workers’ cause ultimately transcended its local context. The strike resonated as a battle for the public sector, particularly the dissipating set of government jobs that pay living wages and permit at least a semblance of worker autonomy.

This battle was interwoven with the local fight to preserve affordable housing, an increasingly difficult task as the city gentrifies. The overlap between the two struggles stems, in part, from the recent influx of tech workers in places like San Francisco and Oakland, which has raised rents dramatically in the region and made it increasingly difficult to live in these cities even for those with public sector union salaries.

The tech workers have brought with them a culture of privatization that fetishizes start-up innovations as the best vision for humanity, while debasing collective investment in public goods, like transit systems. What has emerged is a socioeconomic divide between users of traditional public services like BART and users of “disruptive” services, like the app-driven, taxi-substitute Uber or the infamous Google bus (both of which rely on publicly funded transportation infrastructure, despite the delusions of their privatizing ethos).

While BART has never commented publicly on the split, its actions suggest an undeniable affinity with the whiter and wealthier Bay Area that the tech transformation has heralded.

BART remains a lightening rod for criticism and a frequent target of local social justice campaigns fighting privatization and race and class-based oppression. Few agencies better illustrate the approach of actually existing neoliberalism: beef up the police to force out “undesirables” and boost property values, all while slashing public investment.

“No Justice No BART”

Oscar Grant, whose death was captured on smart phone cameras and depicted in a critically acclaimed movie, is the most well known BART police victim. Locally, the episode led to an outpouring of civil unrest along with a wave of community organizing around issues of race and police brutality.

The outrage over the death of Grant and others at the hands of BART police officers gave rise to the group “No Justice No BART,” whose aim is the abolition of the public transit agency’s police department:

We are fighting for justice for Charles Hill, Oscar Grant, Fred Collins, Bruce Seward, Jerrod Hall, Robert Greer, and all victims of BART police violence and murder. . . . In general, we do not believe the police myth of ‘a few bad apples,’ and we are committed to articulating demands that address the systemic and structural causes of police violence.

In addressing the roots of police violence, the choice to focus on BART is appropriate. In addition to its record of police killings, BART’s law enforcement division commands enormous resources: its costs have increased over the last decade, both as a total sum and as a percentage of the budget.

Currently, BART allocates more of its budget to policing than the city of San Francisco does, which is odd given that agencies with exclusive policing powers in transit jurisdictions are rare across the hundreds of public transportation systems in the United States. Even Los Angeles — a city with a Metro system whose daily ridership is more than double that of BART — does not have an independent transit police department.

In light of these facts, “No Justice No BART” has targeted BART with many acts of civil disobedience, including a “Spare the Fare” protest that sought to create so much congestion around the fare gates of the Powell Street station that BART staff would be forced to let passengers in for free.

The idea of withholding fares was symbolic. One frequent criticism of BART is that it relies overwhelmingly on regressive sources, like fares and sales taxes, for revenue.

At the same time, by failing to demand compensation for its publicly funded contribution to the decades-long Bay Area real estate boom, BART essentially provides massive subsidies to corporations and large landowners, whose property values have benefited enormously from the development of BART stations.

“Land value recapture” is the economic term for taxing this rise in property value. While other transit systems around the world have pursued such a policy, BART has refused to do so, and instead has unflinchingly increased fares over the years.

The “Spare the Fare” protest was staged in the months following the death of Charles Hill, a homeless man suffering from mental illness who was gunned down by BART police as he stumbled around the Civic Center station.

Protests were so intense after the killing that BART went to great lengths to try to squelch them. In a decision that drew comparisons to the ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak, the agency shut down cell phone service in several stations in advance of a demonstration and memorial for Hill.

Criminalizing Homelessness

For organizations like the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, Hill’s death has come to illustrate the precarious status of the homeless in San Francisco, as well as BART’s obtuse response to the city’s housing crisis.

On a Saturday in November, the coalition staged a “sleep-in” inside the Powell Street station to protest a policy that allows BART police to arrest or issue citations to anyone resting or sleeping against the walls of BART stations.

The consequences of this policy for the homeless extend beyond the heavy burden of fines and incarceration. As Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, notes:

When homeless people get those citations, and cannot pay the $100 fine, they get warrants and are potentially jailed, but worse still, they are disqualified for housing. It is very common for homeless people to wait years for housing, only to be turned down before being offered a unit on a criminal justice check, which turns up a warrant.

While BART describes itself as sensitive to the needs of the homeless (e.g. the agency emphasizes its employment of a full-time crisis intervention consultant and an outreach team to match the homeless with resources), the reality is much different.

BART’s suggestion, for instance, that the homeless gravitate to stations because they prefer their accommodations to shelter-beds is specious. On the contrary, the homeless seek refuge in BART facilities because they have no other place to go.

As Lisa Marie Alatorre, a human rights organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness, said during the sleep-in, “The services that BART police are saying that they are trying to get people connected with just don’t exist.”

A recent study indicates there are around five times as many homeless people living in San Francisco as there are beds in shelters. Moreover, the number of unsheltered homeless individuals living in the city has been on the rise in recent years, with families frequently spending months on the waiting list before being admitted.

These facts lend credence to activists’ reports that the choice between sleeping in the cold or sleeping somewhere warm and potentially going to jail is one that thousands face on a daily basis in San Francisco.

The Gentrification Train

The majority of the homeless people living in San Francisco today became homeless while living in the city. This has much to do with the city’s rapid increase in the cost of living over the past decade.

As Silicon Valley’s global economic luster continues to grow,  rent in the Bay Area is skyrocketing. In San Francisco, median rents have risen 22 percent between 2000 and 2012, while public spending on affordable housing has steadily declined.

The technology boom has brought with it a wave of gentrification, displacing Bay Area residents from their homes at historically high rates — sometimes into the streets, but more often into cheaper housing in nearby suburbs. This forced relocation frequently extends the commutes of those consigned to the periphery.

In many ways, BART shares the concerns of the local developers and real estate speculators who are now planting luxury apartments in working-class neighborhoods all over the Bay Area.

Last year, it was revealed that a San Francisco neighborhood association, whose motto reflects its ostensible goal to “Clean Up the Plaza” above the Sixteenth Street and Mission BART station, had ties to a developer planning to build a glitzy market-rate apartment building across the street from the Plaza. The group claims to seek “better access to safe, clean and walkable transportation corridors,” which it would achieve — its website indicates — by ramping up the police presence in the area and cutting down on the high volume of homeless people.

This tactic of cracking down on the poor and working-class residents of a neighborhood — under the guise of “fighting crime” or “cleaning up” the community — in order to pave the way for an influx of wealthier residents has been documented again and again. It’s the repression of capitalism brought out into the open.

As Bay Area neighborhoods grow whiter and richer, BART has been honing its coercive tactics as well. Like “Clean Up the Plaza,” the public transit agency takes great pains to force undesirables out of its spaces.

BART has enacted an amalgam of “broken windows” policies to surveil and harass whomever it wants to keep from its stations and trains. This has led to the effective banning of the homeless from its facilities, the constant monitoring of patron activity with security cameras, and an aggressive, complaint-driven policing strategy, which recently produced a case of brutality tantamount to an act of torture.

Such repression, coupled with exorbitantly high fares, erects a barrier between “legitimate” BART patrons and a cohort of surplus people — expelled from BART facilities for their socioeconomic status.

Tellingly, the split between rich newcomers and the traditional, lower-income occupants in the plaza area is exemplified by the neighborhood’s dual public transportation systems.

Surveying the area around the Sixteenth Street and Mission BART station in March 2014, San Francisco-based journalist Julie Carrie Wong wrote of a schism between “the typically working-class, Latino Muni [San Francisco’s municipal railway system] riders” and “the increasingly middle-class, increasingly white BART riders who swarm the area at commute times.”

Transportation-driven development has seldom benefitted poor and working-class residents of the Bay Area. On the contrary, it has often exposed them to more police brutality, while frequently precipitating their displacement.

BART continues to give free passes to local real estate moguls, whose profits have risen enormously through their relationship to the public transit agency. Recently, BART has been diverting more and more of its fare and sales tax revenue toward capital projects, like rail expansions, rather than using it to pay for operating costs, like workers’ salaries and safety repairs. What this means is that low-income riders are not only paying way more than their fair share for BART service; they are also subsidizing BART developments, which will profit land owners far more than it will them.

The BART administration isn’t just giving a green light to gentrification. It is actively supporting it.

The Right to Transit

With the start of the new year, BART is back in the news. January 1 marked the sixth anniversary of Oscar Grant’s death — an occasion that brought out hundreds of demonstrators for a vigil at the Fruitvale BART station where he was killed.

The same day, mourners were treated to the revelation that BART’s Board of Directors applied heavy pressure on the Alameda County Deputy District Attorney to charge the fourteen black protesters who disrupted BART service on Black Friday with misdemeanor criminal trespassing. This would force them to pay BART up to $70,000 in “restitution” for lost fare revenue — a uniquely punitive response to the Black Lives Matter protests. A petition to drop the charges has more than 11,000 signatures, and there are signs the community support and solidarity have begun to pay off.

But BART’s response to strong criticism has been extremely tepid. In a statement from General Manager Grace Crunican, BART acknowledged it is “aware of the petition drive asking that the demonstrators be held harmless for their actions.” However, Crunican states, “As a public agency fully funded by riders and tax payers, we must never lose sight of the agency’s mission to provide public transportation to the citizens we serve.”

The hypocrisy of such a defense, aimed at justifying  the intimidation of a group of black activists, is apparent. After all, BART was able to afford the $400,000 it used to hire Tom Hock, a notorious union-buster, as the lead negotiator for contract negotiations in 2013.

BART also seems to find the money for the hefty and unnecessary cost of maintaining a police department. And yet, it has shamelessly decided to leech off of the Black Lives Matter movement for revenue.

If BART is desperate for $70,000, why not take it out of the hundreds of thousands of dollars allocated in the 2015 budget for an expansion in “space for the Police?” Better yet, BART could eliminate its police force altogether.

The millions in savings could be used to pay employees wages that are commensurate with the cost of living in the Bay Area. Part of the money could also be devoted to repairing what BART admits is an “aging infrastructure,” that poses a risk to its “service reliability and on-time performance.”

Given BART’s large and quickly growing revenue base, the aforementioned expenditures are already affordable even without cuts to the agency’s budget. Though entirely feasible on a budgetary level, spending on such measures goes against the logic of austerity, embraced wholeheartedly by the BART administration.

In this, BART is clearly no anomaly. Disinvesting in public goods, like transportation systems, and redistributing the savings into prisons, police departments, and other mechanisms of social control is a pillar of the neoliberal agenda adopted by governments around the world.

Any effort to halt this trend must challenge the austerity mentality that both degrades public entities and uses police repression to cudgel those who don’t fall into line. It is time to throw this malicious paradigm off the rails.