Lightrailing While Brown is Our Issue

Being undocumented and in public is a precarious place to be. As transit advocates, we need to step up.

A Metro Transit police officer questioning a passenger about his immigration status on May 14, 2017. Video screenshot courtesy of R. Levins Morales. Image courtesy of AJ+

I cannot speak on behalf of non-Western European immigrants. But I know this: what Ariel Vences-Lopez experienced on May 14 on the Metro Transit light rail is exactly what transit equity advocates have been fearing. This is what we anxiously talk about across laptops at our local organizations, during conference presentations, and in our research.

In this new nightmarish era, we knew it would happen at an increasing rate. Law enforcement doing the job of ICE during routine interactions with transit users.  It isn’t legal, it isn’t in their job description, and it surely isn’t ethical.  Sanctuary city or not, people who appear to be an immigrant and/or undocumented (cue racist stereotypes) run high risks of being visible on public transportation. Not to mention the horrific scene on the MAX in Portland, Oregon where another white supremacist encounter led to allies being killed for standing up to a bigot.

Being undocumented and in public is a precarious place to be. That means being a transportation advocate right now is about more than encouraging people to ride the light rail, walk, or get on their bicycle. We are tasked with figuring out how to advocate for people risking their lives everyday when they step into the train, onto the sidewalk, or push off from their apartment.

Keep in mind, data now suggest that Latinos who make less than $25,000/year are the largest demographic of bicycle commuters. And people of color have always been a large segment of public transportation riders.

Transportation advocates have a responsibility to be on the front lines of addressing this issue. We can rally to extend light rail lines, repave sidewalks (*cough* Franklin Avenue *cough*), and add milage to our protected bike lane system. But if people fear that one wrong move could land them in a private prison, then our work is wasted.

When I heard about this incident, I was surprised that it happened on the light rail.  The Metro Transit Police Department seems more aware than most law enforcement on how race and ethnicity impact who receives fare evasion citations. After all, the department did an internal audit of its citations and found racial disparities. The audit was made public and Metro Transit officials spoke with local media honestly about what needed to change.

I reached out to the department to ask about its policy on recording race/ethnicity data in its citations when I was working on the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition’s police citation project (note: the coalition just changed its name to Our Streets). I was impressed that the department made the conscious decision to record race/ethnicity data, something that the Minneapolis Police Department did not do until September 2016 (and even now it’s unclear how that data will be published).

Still, a Metro Transit officer went rogue and asked a question that is none of his gosh-darn business. He asked a question that has deep ramifications for the young man who was accused of not paying the $1.75 fare. “He should have just paid his fare,” you may be thinking. Present company included, introduce me to someone who has never skipped paying their light rail fare.

We are all criminals. Some of us are heavily surveilled for such petty crimes.

We are all human. If you have it, use your privilege to identify and stand up to any unlawful questioning by police on public transportation and towards bicyclists and pedestrians. Transportation advocates have unique sets of knowledge that allow us to see the injustices in criminalizing and escalating minor offenses. Speak up.

(Author’s Note: Ricardo Levins Morales filmed and spoke up during Vences-Lopez’s encounter with the Metro Transit police. Levins Morales is a well-known local activist/artist that works on issues such as immigration rights.)

Melody Hoffmann

About Melody Hoffmann

Bicyclist, Northside resident, in the company of two cats, mass communications instructor, volunteer at the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition

38 thoughts on “Lightrailing While Brown is Our Issue

  1. Tom Quinn

    “Present company included, introduce me to someone who has never skipped paying their light rail fare.”

    Me, my wife, my friends. I’ve missed trains in the rain because I couldn’t get the damn fare ticket out of the machine in time.

    I have little sympathy for someone caught without a fare. The world is filled with too many cheats.

    1. Jeremy B

      Hear, hear on the train fare (can’t speak for my friends, though).

      That cop was in gross violation of his duties, though. Glad he was canned (he was obviously instructed to tender his resignation). Hope he’s prosecuted.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I have a hard time thinking of something more trivial to worry about than someone getting something with zero marginal cost for free.

      That said, I don’t think I’ve ever skipped a light rail fare, or if I have, I was unaware of it.

    3. Jeb RachJeb Rach

      While I don’t disagree that someone caught without any fare should be held accountable in some way, a civil penalty or parking-ticket-level citation should be used. While it sounds like there were other forces at play that resulted in his ultimate deportation, I think in general not paying a $2 transit fare shouldn’t result in deportation (or require any inquiry into the person’s status as a US visitor/resident/citizen.)

      I’ll admit that I’ve been on the bus without a fully valid fare, usually because I’ve been running to catch the bus/light rail and I either forget to tap on/don’t have time to tap on or I quickly tap and the card doesn’t fully read before I remove it. If I realize I’ve forgotten or boarded without tapping, I’ll tap my card when I get off to ensure that I’ve fully paid, but I’m still traveling without a fully valid fare (especially if it’s rush hour, as I have the $1.75 pass + stored value instead of the $2.25 pass.) But, at most, that’d result in a citation, and I’d bet that the vast, vast majority of the time I’d either just get a verbal warning asking me to tap at the next station or maybe a written warning. That’s something that many people don’t have the privilege of despite the letter of their circumstance from a transit officer’s perspective being the same.

      1. Scott

        I’ve done the same thing…tapped on the back end instead of when I boarded. Did it the first time I tried to buy two fares (one for my wife traveling with me), and couldn’t figure it out before the train pulled in.

      1. Tom Quinn

        Jeremy, as a matter of forum policy I don’t think it’s good for you to make personal attacks.

  2. Monte Castleman

    I’ve never skipped out on fare. Nor for that matter do I (intentionally) speed, park illegally, or intentionally drive with defective equipment. I have been pulled over three times for defective lights that I did not know about, and each time I was polite, was let off with a warning. and fixed it as soon as I could run Walmart to get a new bulb. It’s not that hard to not intentionally break the law.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      GUiLTY I’ve skipped my LRT fare once or twice when faced with the choice of paying or missing the train.

      And re: bikes, this is a different point than the one Melody is making here, but at least while bicycling it is really hard not to break the law. coming to a complete stop at every stop sign would make riding a bicycle onerous to the point of absurdity, for example. Also there are a whole bunch of situations where the law is quite unclear and you might or not be breaking the law by trying to stay safe. See more here:

      1. Rosa

        I’m still not 100% sure but the first winter I had an unlimited ride student pass, I think I rode the light rail without getting it to recognize my card about half the time.

          1. Rosa

            it messes with ridership numbers. But the whole thing is so badly designed, slow, and confusing, I’m kind of suprised at how many people pay. I have been at the airport and had to coach people to the pay kiosks because they are after the signs that say you have to have paid to be there already!

            Regardless, it’s not enforced evenly and deportation is not supposed to be the punishment for nonpayment of fares. PLUS if people are afraid – either because they’re undocumented or just because they don’t want to be targeted or harassed – then they won’t ride. That’s bad for everyone.

    2. Jeb RachJeb Rach

      Considering there’s a case playing out right now in the Ramsey County court system where a person of color was pulled over for a broken light and was killed within a minute and a half of being pulled over (despite doing nothing else illegal during the traffic stop,) I don’t think it’s enough to simply try to adhere to the law, especially for people of color.

      1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

        *that’s to say, I don’t think the solution is to simply tell people to try to adhere to the law, as that doesn’t have a 100% success rate in creating good encounters with police. There’s larger problems at play.

  3. Melody HoffmannMelody Hoffmann Post author

    My comment that most people have skipped out on fare is a minor point.

    I would appreciate comments that focus on the issue of law enforcement targeting people who “look” like immigrants on mass transit and using their “power” to illegally ask about immigration status and escalate the situation.

    How as advocates are we going to focus our energy to make sure we maintain and/or increase ridership for ALL people (not just those with white privilege) and address this very real issue? The “bad apples” argument isn’t compelling to me.

    1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

      I think a lot of it is holding Metro Transit police accountable. Their statements suggest (as far as I can tell, anyways) that they want to do the right thing and not focus or inquire about immigration status, and after this incident they’ve stated that this was not how the encounter should have gone. From the sounds of it this officer is no longer on the Metro Transit police roster, which is good. The goal is to ensure that MTPD is acting on their statements and ensuring their officers are not asking about immigration status (or, really, anything other than what’s pertinent to the matter at hand.)

    2. Janelle NivensJanelle

      Melody, thank you for this important article and for redirecting the comments to the main (and important point) you are making. Also thank you, Jeb for pointing out that being polite when caught doing something illegal unintentionally does not have the same ending for everyone.

  4. Karen

    How did this guy end up in custody, thus get deported. I always figured if you got caught not paying the fare you would get a ticker/fine, not arrested.

    1. Tom Quinn

      The news link referenced in this article says the arrest was the result of “resisting an officer”, but the facts are very vague from what I’ve been able to find. He was even tased at one point.

  5. Bill Dooley

    Regarding the failure to pay, there was a news account that Mr. Vences-Lopez was robbed at gunpoint of $2,000 cash prior to this incident and apparently did not have the $1.75. The account says the robbery was not reported because the victim was afraid to approach law enforcement due to his immigration status. One of my many concerns here is the perception that Metro Transit Police do not do fare enforcement before and after Vikings and Twins games and that mostly white suburban riders feel this is a free ride.

    1. Kyle

      Metro Transit does plenty of fare enforcement after Vikings and Twins games and no one I have ever rode with or heard from was under any impression it was a free ride.

    1. Tom Quinn

      Of course it’s profiling, but given the way the system is set up, how could it be otherwise? Unless there is some mechanism for randomly selecting people to screen, like the airport does, it’s left up to the officer to select who to check. Do you pick people of a certain type? Not pick people of a certain type? Or do you type people and then go out of your way to select them in equal amounts? Every selection is based on a profile.

      I know all the arguments about not installing turnstiles, but they would go a long way toward eliminating so much unnecessary controversy.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        It could be otherwise by this officer following his department’s policy and not asking about his immigration status.

        Also, I don’t think profiling is a real issue for fare checks. They just get on the train and ask everyone for evidence that they paid the fare.

        1. Tom Quinn

          I was only referring to the fare check. I didn’t realize the policy was to check everyone on the car. I’d think it would be difficult given the short time between stops. The only time I’ve ever seen a fare check it was just for a group of young men at one end of the car which was clearly based on their profile.

          1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

            I’ve seen fare checks many times. The officers work their way from one end of the cars to the other, checking everyone. The question I have though is do they give warnings or tickets to particular kinds of people?

      2. Monte Castleman

        Maybe the way to fix this is to

        1) Have a computer randomly select cars and locations to audit, and then audit everyone on the car or persons in computer selected seats.

        2) Since it seems officers use discretion to cite minorities and warn whites, remove that discretion and require that they cite everyone caught not paying the fare, or else require they issue a warning for a first offense for everyone.

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

          I think that mandatory tickets/warning policy is the way to go, even if you’re a family visiting from Moorhead and have never been to Minneapolis before. Still it wouldn’t make the Visitor’s bureau very happy.

          1. Rosa

            There’s always the “have someone walk around the train selling tickets” option that commuter trains have in some other places.

          2. John Charles Wilson

            I propose a graduated ticket system with no warnings

            1st offence = 5 times fare owed (essentially a warning but creates a record)

            2nd offence = 100 times fare owed

            3rd offence = get taken off to jail and see the judge

            This would be based on a 4-year rolling period; offences over 4 years ago would be ignored

            If you have no ID, police would take your word for who you are but photograph you on the spot and keep the photo in their database for use as necessary

            Persons ticketed would be permitted to complete their ride since they’re already “paying” by being fined

            No more bans from using transit for fare evasion unless the person currently is behind on paying a fine

  6. Stuart

    When I’ve been checked for tickets in other countries, enforcement officers travel in multiples and spread out in the vehicle so that they can check everyone. No profiling that way.

    Also, you can’t issue a citation to a person if they don’t have some official ID. There would be no way to track the citation through the system. The only thing they can do is detain the person.

    1. Tom Quinn

      That reminds me of traveling by train through East Germany in the 70’s where the guys checking your tickets carried machine guns. Things are much kinder, fairer, and less intimidating here than most of the world.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

        My Berlin U-bahn ticket was checked by this brusque plainclothes dude and they pulled me off the train without a word. It turns out I hadn’t “stamped” the ticket. He pointed me to the machine and left me there.

        The whole thing gave me flashbacks to war movies.

  7. Nathan Roisennate

    For what it’s worth, which might not be much, I see many fare checks on my LRT rides, and have not personally witnessed transit officers doing anything less than a professional job. Quick and courteous checks, and if someone doesn’t have a fare, shuffle them off the train at the next stop without making a scene. Due to the forced interaction with a huge number of people, the transit officers doing fare checks have a difficult job and largely do it as well as can be expected.

    (Also, as an aside, *usually* the fare checks don’t produce any violations, not that you’d know it from Strib comments)

    I hesitate to jump to too many conclusions about larger issues of equity and police violence from this one incident – especially given that the officer was quickly terminated and the agency acknowledged the wrongdoing.

    It seems to me that if we’re going to have fallible humans in police roles, the best we can expect is rigorous professionalism in the vast majority of cases, and appropriate discipline when professionalism breaks down. Based on my experience, the Transit Police meet that standard.

    1. Melody HoffmannMelody

      You should remember who you are. Not everyone has your experience. There is documented proof BY Metro Transit that they give out more citations to people of color. Therefore your experience isn’t everyone’s. And it certainly isn’t the majority. Acknowledging that is the first step towards justice for all people.

      I also see a pattern in these comments that (assumed) white men are sharing all their “great” experiences on transit.

      My piece was written directly to YOU asking how YOU are going to stop this inequitable enforcement. Stories about how you are never targeted is not helpful to this issue.

      This is our issue. White people need to stand up and address this. Of course we won’t get hassled on trains–that’s my exact point. We need to help those that do.

      So how are you going to help?

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