Protesters wait at subway turnstiles to give out free swipes. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)
New York City activists had a city-wide day of action on November 2 where they gave away free MetroCard subway swipes to their fellow New Yorkers, as a protest against “Broken Windows” policing of fare-beating, which overwhelmingly affects poor people of color.
“Black and brown people have observed for years that the police department hides in broom closets, behind payphones and columns, to prey on us for fare-beating,” said Shannon Jones of the anti-racism and anti-police brutality group Why Accountability. “We feel that a $100 fine or an arrest for $2.75 is disrespectful and reprehensible, and we have a duty as a people to come up with better solutions.”
This campaign, which used the hashtag #SwipeItForward, seeks to encourage New Yorkers to freely swipe their fellow community members into the subway or onto the bus whenever they can and to create a general culture of resistance against racist policing and the criminalization of poverty.
“We believe that the community is powerful enough to solve their own problems,” said Najieb Isaac of Why Accountability, who participated in the Bronx action. “So when we tell people to swipe it forward, that is us as community members solving our own issues.”
The action was the eighth #SwipeItForward protest to happen in 2016, with the first one taking place back in May. Groups like Why Accountability, the Police Reform Organizing Project and the Coalition To End Broken Windows started the campaign. They were soon joined by other anti-racist and anti-police groups in New York City like Black Youth Project 100, Black Lives Matter’s NYC chapter, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Copwatch Patrol Unit, the Peoples Power Assemblies and the ANSWER coalition. On November 2, this coalition of community groups held the first city-wide #SwipeItForward action with decentralized groups of activists giving away swipes in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem and Union Square in Manhattan.
Anti-racist and anti-police activists protest Broken Windows policing of fare-beating. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)
“Today, we kind of created five, separate, independent actions — semi-coordinated, but somewhat autonomous of each other,” said Josmar Trujillo of the Coalition To End Broken Windows, who participated in the Harlem action. “Groups set up their own locations and times based on the neighborhood’s needs and what each group could do. We’ve started to decentralize to where it was a few groups in the beginning who were pushing individual actions, and now we want to really make #SwipeItForward something people can pick up and do on their own. And again, not just activist groups, but everyday people can do it.”
The Metropolitan Transit Authority, the agency in charge of New York City’s public transportation, has raised the price of a single fare three times since 2009, from $2 to now $2.75. The fare is also set to go up to $3 by next year. These hikes disproportionately affect poor people, and as usual, the policing of fare-beating overwhelmingly targets poor people of color. Earlier this year, the Police Reform Organizing Project, or PROP, reviewed data from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services and found that there were over 29,000 fare-beating arrests in 2015, making it the top arrestable offense in the city. People of color made up 92 percent of those arrests as well. In 2016, according to NY1, cops have made almost 21,000 arrests for fare-beating and handed out more than 56,000 summonses. According to PROP research, the city spends around $50 million a year arresting people for simply not being able to afford a $2.75 fare.
In a particularly absurd illustration of how wasteful and racist the policing of fare-beating can be, in June of this year, the New York City Police Department deployed a large, all-night manhunt complete with bloodhounds and helicopters to catch a 16-year-old black child who escaped after being arrested for fare-beating. The activists say that all the money that New York City spends on the police and the criminal justice system would be better spent investing in the needs of marginalized communities.
“This is yet another example of discriminatory policing,” said comedian and activist Elsa Waithe, who participated in the Brooklyn action. “And then once I was educated a little more on the numbers — knowing that all the money we spend to enforce this, to arrest people, to process people and to send them through the system — all that money could be going back into the MTA and into making the trains free and cheap for people.”
The reactions from the community were almost entirely positive, with people cheering and raising their fists in support. They expressed their gratitude that the actions were happening, telling activists about their own experiences with cops on the train and about how they already swipe people in when they can — even offering the activists their own unused MetroCards in order to swipe in more people. The police showed up to the Brooklyn action, as they’ve done at past #SwipeItForward actions, but were unable to do much besides stand and watch. Activists made sure to tell people repeatedly that it is not illegal to swipe in other people for free.
According to Waithe, the police “kept telling us to move to the side, but we had our legal observers, and we had Copwatch. So, whenever the police tried to speak to us, we just told them: ‘Speak to our attorneys or Copwatch.’ This is easy. This is effective. And it’s legal. And this is a way for everyone to be an everyday activist. Swiping someone into the train could prevent them from going to jail today. And that’s just a tiny, little thing you can do to show that black and brown lives matter to you.”
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