OPINION: Riders Nationwide Have Called on Transit Agencies to Cut Ties With Police — King Co. Metro Listened

by Jason Austin

Born out of a fight against bus service cuts in 2011 the Transit Riders Union (TRU) is an independent, democratic, member-run union of transit riders organizing for mobility and transit justice in Seattle and King County. We recognize that the uprisings sweeping the nation flow from centuries of racial oppression, increasing economic inequality, and years of unheeded calls for reform and restitution. TRU stands with protesters in Seattle, Minneapolis, Louisville and many other communities across the country demanding health, safety, and freedom for Black people in America and demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless others killed by the police. Our members have spent the last three weeks using public transportation to travel to the protests. We were horrified to see our public transportation infrastructure being weaponized against the very people it was created to serve. 

On Saturday, May 30, we noticed that King County Metro buses were being used to transport a militarized police force to the protests. At the same time, bus service to downtown was rerouted and Link light rail was shut down. When Mayor Durkan announced a 5 p.m. curfew with just 15 minutes notice, she stranded protesters and others who rely on transit downtown, without transit options to leave the area or go home. This callous decision exposed community members, including children, to increasingly aggressive police tactics.

TRU spoke out, and we were quickly joined by the King County NAACP, Rooted in Rights, 350 Seattle, Sierra Club Seattle Group, Greater Redmond Transportation Management Association, The Urbanist, and Puget Sound Sage. King County Councilmembers Girmay Zahilay, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, and Joe McDermott also joined the call. 

“I was disappointed to hear that Metro had been transporting officers during a time of heightened tensions,” said King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay. “Public transit should not be used to quell movements for justice. Metro as an organization should stand in solidarity with Black people against police brutality by changing the policies that allowed this to happen.”

“It is deplorable, inhumane, and unacceptable that Metro would transport SPD to peaceful protests to beat, pepper spray, and tear gas peaceful protesters,” said King County NAACP President Carolyn Riley Payne.

After pausing police transportation on June 3 because the volume of requests had become “operationally unsustainable,” King County Metro finally took a principled stand. On Thursday June 11, Metro announced in clear terms their commitment to justice:

 “Our conversations and reflections in recent days remind us of the role that law enforcement has played historically in our nation and continues to represent for many within the communities we are most called to serve. It is within that frame that Metro strengthens its June 3 statement by clarifying that, under no circumstances including through the County’s Emergency Operations Center, will we provide buses to law enforcement traveling to demonstrations or protests,” said Rob Gannon, General Manager of King County Metro in a statement. 

We applaud the leadership of King County Metro on this issue and call upon Sound Transit and all other regional transit authorities to do the same. Public transit is public transit: It is for the people, and transit riders will not stand by while our transit system is used for repressive ends.

Seattle isn’t the only place where transit riders are demanding change. On June 12, TRU joined with other grassroots transit riders organizations across the country – the Philly Transit Riders Union, Pittsburghers for Public Transit, Detroit’s Motor City Freedom Riders, Ohio’s Columbus Association for Transit, and Buffalo Transit Riders United — to issue a joint statement:

Public Transit Is for the People, Not the Police

Over the past several weeks, a number of public transit agencies around the country have colluded with police departments, transporting militarized police forces to protests demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless other Black Americans killed by police. Some agencies have gone further, also transporting people who were arrested or detained at the protests to jail or detention.

We are organizations representing transit riders in cities across the United States. We object strenuously to this misuse of our public transit systems and resources. We stand in solidarity with transit operators and their unions that have refused to transport police, arrestees, and detainees.

 We demand of our public transit agencies:

  • A full accounting of any resources used to support police during the protests and for what specific purposes.
  • A clear public affirmation that they will not, under any circumstances, transport people who have been arrested or detained at protests.
  •  A clear public affirmation that they will no longer transport police to or from protests.

Public transit is for the people. Our transit agencies should focus on providing equitable, affordable, and accessible transportation for all members of our communities, not being an accessory to policing those communities and their protests for justice

All transit riders deserve the right to use transit free from excessive fares, free from harassment, and free from violence. In a county bearing the name and face of Martin Luther King, Jr., we must ensure that our city and county governments and our transit agencies embody his commitment to fighting oppression against the Black community and against poor people of all races. Otherwise, as Dr. King said, The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

Jason Austin is an organizer with the Transit Riders Union.

Featured image by Atomic Taco.