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