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Why protests around the world often involve public transportation

In Hong Kong, Santiago, and New York City, protesters have disrupted, delayed, or even boycotted subways.

Hundreds of protesters took over a subway platform in Brooklyn. One holds a sign that reads, “NYPD out of the subway!”
This demonstration was held in direct response to recent police-related incidents on the MTA.
Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

One by one, the protesters hopped through the turnstiles, congregating in the center of a Brooklyn subway platform that was packed to its edge.

“No NYPD in the MTA,” they chanted, repeating after a man with a megaphone. Outside, hundreds of other protesters marched through downtown Brooklyn; they yelled incendiary chants (“No justice, no peace, fuck these racist police”) and held up signs to protest New York City’s police crackdown on subway fare evasion.

The demonstration held on November 1 was a direct response to recent police-related incidents on the subway. Viral videos of subway arrests in late October directed public attention to officers’ policing tactics, generating discussion about transit policies and how low-income riders and people of color are more susceptible to fines or arrests. (Statistics released by the NYPD for the first and second quarter of 2019 show that more than half of arrested fare evaders were black.)

In one video, a black man on a full train had guns pointed at him through the glass before he was swarmed by multiple officers and arrested for hopping a turnstile. Police say the man was suspected of possessing a gun and previously fled when confronted by officers.

Another video showed a police officer punching a black teenager during a hectic subway brawl before proceeding to arrest him. The NYPD has launched an investigation and said that the video didn’t show the “entirety of the incident.”

The MTA has not yet responded to a request for comment about the protests from Vox. In an emailed statement, a NYPD spokeswoman said the department “does not interfere with Constitutionally-protected activities” and works to ensure New Yorkers can exercise their First Amendment rights.

The New York protest, prompted by the perceived injustices of city officials and the transit system, brought out hundreds of people and remained peaceful with few arrests. That’s relatively small in size and scope compared to the ongoing demonstrations in cities around the world, which have been called a “global protest wave.”

“We’re each protesting out of our own conditions,” says Amin Hussain, an activist and organizer with Decolonize This Place, one of many New York advocacy groups that planned the protest.

The social and political conditions that have bred protests in cities like Hong Kong and Santiago, Chile, are of course different from those in New York. But in each bout of unrest, public transit systems have taken on new meaning, manifesting into a locus for protest.

In acts of civic resistance, protesters have taken up space in stations, sometimes disrupting or delaying services. And since transit systems are often seen as an extension of local government and of the officials that run them, they’ve become a ripe setting for civil disobedience.

The subway is a public service and a lifeline for citizens. It’s also an extension of local government.

For people in major metropolitan areas, transit systems are vital, connecting them to jobs, schools, and social communities. They’re largely perceived as a public service, funded by taxpayer money and fares although owned and operated — either partially or completely — by the government.

And since transit systems are an extension of the local government, it’s fair to assume that specific policies (like fares, increased policing, or service hours) reflect the priorities of the state.

“Transit is a basic service that is central to citizens’ everyday life,” says Celina Su, a professor of political science at the City University of New York. “So it makes sense for it to exist as a locus of protest and mobilization, especially around fare hikes.”

An increase in subway fares or police presence can easily strike a nerve, Su adds, especially in a city dissatisfied with its public officials and socioeconomic situation.

In New York, tensions started to simmer when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted to raise fares in April. Months later, state and city officials started a campaign to curb fare evasion and assault against subway workers, deploying an additional 300 transit police and 200 NYPD officers to stations.

Similarly, a 4 percent fare hike in Chile unfurled a wave of historic unrest in its capital on October 18. Young activists encouraged widespread fare evasion on social media and Chile’s president consequently suspended the hike. But soon, the demonstrations turned chaotic: There was damage inflicted at nearly 80 metro stations, numerous stations and buses were set ablaze, and people started to loot and riot in the streets.

Mobilization occurs at a massive scale when residents are deeply unsatisfied with their public institutions. Su says outsiders might not understand the frustration over a fare hike of a few cents — or pesos, in Chile’s case — but the political message it sends is significant: “A lot of protests are about whether people feel represented. The decision-making that goes into a hike doesn’t feel transparent without proper consultation, especially when people are barely making ends meet.”

A firefighter hoses down burning buses.
A Chilean firefighter hoses down buses that have been burned during a protest.
Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

Chile’s metro network, trains, and buses became the target of protesters, who felt that the city wanted to profit at their expense, according to Juan Correa of the housing nonprofit Fundación Vivienda in CityLab.

The country is struggling with stagnant wages while the cost of living continues to rise. “This was a moment of rage, of stating that this institution was public, but they make me pay and with a hike that is unjustified,” he said.

Similarly in New York, the protest is a “refusal of the status quo,” according to Hussain. The protesters’ grievances are centered around how changes in the MTA’s policies affect vulnerable communities. And despite the fare hikes and crackdown on evasion, train service has barely improved, Hussain says.

As Andra B. Chastain, an assistant professor of history at Washington State University, writes in her explanation of how the metro system is a microcosm of Chile: “Transportation is not just about having a well-run system from the standpoint of economists or engineers, but about people’s basic dignity.”

The subway as a space for protest

In Chile and New York, the protests are, among other things, rooted in the desire for better service and treatment — in addition to serving as a call for government transparency and acknowledgment of current socioeconomic conditions. While the months-long protests in Hong Kong are not directly tied to its public transit system, the city’s Mass Transit Railway system (MTR) has been inadvertently pulled into the conflict.

The tension between the Hong Kong government and protesters began in June, when protesters rallied against an extradition bill that could bring Hong Kong residents into mainland China’s legal system. Protesters are fighting to determine the democratic future of Hong Kong, which means challenging the Beijing-backed local government and China itself.

The conflict has escalated over months, which has led to violence, major transportation shutdowns, and ongoing unrest. Subway stations have become sites of vandalization and aggressive confrontations between protesters and Hong Kong police, who have, according to camera footage, tear-gased stations and used unnecessary force against civilians.

Hong Kong police stand in front of vandalized ticket machines.
Hong Kong’s MTR system has closed some stations early in the midst of the months-long protest to enact repairs.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

It’s not that citizens are unhappy with the transit system itself. The MTR is a state-of-the-art organization that maintains a 99.9 percent on-time rate and carries an average of 5.8 million passengers daily; it’s profitable and fares are low, with trips as cheap as HK$3.5 ($0.45 USD). The subway is integral to Hong Kong citizens’ daily routines (90 percent of trips in the city are made by public transportation), and in June and July, people even took the MTR to demonstration sites.

The protesters’ discontent with the MTR began in August after the MTR Corporation filed for a court order to prevent vandalism and interference at stations, the Wall Street Journal reported. Protesters have disrupted MTR services and boycotted public transit overall out of resistance, accusing it of closing stations nearby demonstration sites and taking the side of the authorities. (The MTR is partially owned by the Hong Kong government.)

Public transit has long been a space for dissent throughout American history as well, notably in the Civil Rights era. Activists protested for the desegregation of transportation by enacting boycotts or refusing to comply with existing laws. (A number of black activists, most famously Rosa Parks, refused to sit at the back of the bus or give up their seats to white people.)

As public spaces like plazas and shopping malls become increasingly privatized, there are now fewer and fewer places people can go to interact with those unlike them, Su says. (It’s also difficult for protesters to organize and act on private property.)

People from a host of demographics, with varying levels of social privilege, interact and coexist at a subway station or bus stop. That makes it easier for people to mobilize against injustices that occur in a space they frequently occupy.

“Generally speaking, public transportation is the commons,” says Hardy Merriman, president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. “That creates a common experience that can facilitate collective action in specific situations.”

Public services are used by movements to exert pressure on “the other side” — whether that be a corporation or public officials. “A service like the subway depends on widespread compliance and cooperation,” Merriman says. It’s costly for the government to enforce laws when a large number of people are protesting a service by turnstile-hopping, for example. That’s one of the tactics New York’s protesters mimicked from Chile, but on a much smaller scale.

Public transit protests impact commuters. That could change how they think about a cause.

Context matters when it comes to protests in public spaces, Merriman says. If protesters decide to slow or even briefly shut down a transit system, they run the risk of fostering backlash against the movement.

In October, the Extinction Rebellion climate activists staged a protest on the London Tube that disrupted the early-morning commute, frustrating commuters on their way to work. That runs the risk of alienating people from the protests, since “disrupting traffic or a transit system could impose costs on a lot of people,” Merriman adds.

In Chile, the most damaged subway lines — vandalized or burned down by protesters — correlate with some of the poorest neighborhoods, according to a CityLab report. Lower-income people who live in Santiago’s outskirts are more likely to experience increased commuting times and overcrowding.

Some Hong Kong residents now avoid the subway after months of conflict between demonstrators and police on trains and station ticket halls. Stations have also closed early for repairs on broken ticket machines, turnstiles, and elevators.

As Time’s Hillary Leung reports, “Many ordinary Hong Kongers are infuriated at the transport chaos caused by the attacks on the system, and the protesters have lost some support as a result.”

Whether they support, oppose, or feel politically neutral toward these movements, residents in most of these cities are reliant on public transit and are undoubtedly affected by its growing role in mass protests.

“It’s not a coincidence that all of this is coming together right now,” Su says. Citizens are inspired to mobilize, and they’re “connecting the dots” between specific incidents, like a fare hike or increased policing, to larger policies and policymakers they don’t approve of.

Public transit just happens to be a space that no one — not even public officials — can turn a blind eye to.

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