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Over 220 Artists and Cultural Workers Decry Over-Policing of NYC Subways in Open Letter

More than 220 by artists and cultural workers denounce the increased police presence in New York City subways in an open letter (Photo by Patrick J. Cashin for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority/Flickr)

An open letter signed by more than 220 by artists and cultural workers denounces the increased police presence in New York City subways and calls for reform in fare policies and criminal justice. Released on February 10, the letter was penned by advocates from the grassroots cultural organizations the Black School and the Laundromat Project (LP).

“Simply put, we are greatly disappointed and disturbed by the recent surge in police presence and aggression in the subway system as a solution to the MTA’s financial challenges,” the open letter reads. “As residents of New York, artists, and members of The LP community, we are intimately aware of and concerned for the well-being of its most vulnerable citizens, including teenagers of color, vendors of color, and low-income New Yorkers, many of whom are being disproportionately targeted by the unnecessary uptick in policing of the MTA system.”

The open letter was addressed to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Police Commissioner Dermot F. Shea, MTA Chairman Patrick Foye, and the District Attorneys Cyrus Vance Jr., Eric Gonzalez, Darcel Denise Clark, Melinda Katz, Michael McMahon, and Patrick Foye.

The letter goes on to condemn the recent vote to spend nearly $250 million on the deployment of 500 additional MTA officers in the city’s subways, a decision the activists call “absurd.”

“We find the cost of maintaining these officers particularly disturbing given that the MTA reports less than $250,000,000 annual revenue loss through fare evasion,” they write in the letter. “Tasing and tackling young people for minor infractions such as fare evasion is not for the public’s benefit,” they add. “Brandishing guns in transit stations in order to collect a missing $2.75 is not for the public’s benefit.”

The last few months have seen large protests against fare evasion enforcement and the over-policing of NYC Subway stations, led by the group Decolonize This Place. In a recent op-ed published on Hyperallergic, the group broadcasted its goals of “Free transit, all cops off the subways, an end to the harassment of vendors, performers, and unhoused people, and full accessibility for those with varying abilities.”

“The increased police presence in the MTA points to a corresponding rise in surveillance of low-income people of color throughout the city,” the letter continues. “We are particularly disappointed to see a rise in semi-militaristic policing put in place by our state and local Democratic leaders, many of whom ran on platforms aimed at increasing social equity.”

The letter also draws parallels between the situation in NYC and the recent protests in Chile against a hike in transit fares, warning that such policies resulted in “a serious challenge to their government.”

Read the open letter in full below: 

ATTN:

Governor Andrew Cuomo
Mayor Bill de Blasio
Police Commissioner Dermot F. Shea
District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.
District Attorney Eric Gonzalez
District Attorney Darcel Denise Clark
District Attorney Melinda Katz
District Attorney Michael McMahon
MTA Chairman Patrick Foye

To the Aforementioned:

As we enter the New Year, we, the collective body of artists and cultural workers of The Laundromat Project’s alumni and extended communities, have co-written this letter from a place of deep commitment to the people of New York City. The Laundromat Project (The LP) is an internationally recognized organization that advances artists and neighbors as change agents in their own communities. Simply put, we are greatly disappointed and disturbed by the recent surge in police presence and aggression in the subway system as a solution to the MTA’s financial challenges.

As residents of New York, artists, and members of The LP community, we are intimately aware of and concerned for the well-being of its most vulnerable citizens, including teenagers of color, vendors of color, and low-income New Yorkers, many of whom are being disproportionately targeted by the unnecessary uptick in policing of the MTA system. We ourselves are from these segments of the population, and see them in our families and classrooms. Our proximity to vulnerable community groups alerts us to the need for substantive change to the social infrastructure of our city—rather than strategies such as fare evasion policing which do more to punish than support those who are under the most strain. Following former Mayor Bloomberg’s recent public apology about the enforcement of stop and frisk policies under his administration, it is hard to believe that yet again, policing within public spaces is directly targeting perceived people of color and immigrants. Further, we highlight and admonish the absurdity of the recent vote to devote $250,000,000 in public taxpayer dollars into the hiring of new NYPD officers to provide fare evasion enforcement for the MTA, which collects billions of dollars in revenue annually and defines itself as “public benefit institution.” We find the cost of maintaining these officers particularly disturbing given that the MTA reports less than $250,000,000 annual revenue loss through fare evasion.

Creating financial barriers through such ongoing policies as fare increases for hardworking, low-income New Yorkers who contribute to the economic, cultural, and social fabric of our city is not for the public’s benefit. Tasing and tackling young people for minor infractions such as fare evasion is not for the public’s benefit. Brandishing guns in transit stations in order to collect a missing $2.75 is not for the public’s benefit. These policies are extreme by any estimation and especially inappropriate when considered in context with the chronically underperforming public transit system that is less and less able to provide reliable service to New Yorkers.

The increased police presence in the MTA points to a corresponding rise in surveillance of low-income people of color throughout the city. We are particularly disappointed to see a rise in semi-militaristic policing put in place by our state and local Democratic leaders, many of whom ran on platforms aimed at increasing social equity. We are aware of the rise in conservative, often xenophobic policies throughout the world, but will not stand for a corresponding policy shift in our city. We point to the recent uprising in Chile: a direct response to their transit system’s untenable fare increase and a threat to citizens’ daily lives that resulted in a serious challenge to their government. The parallels are clear, and position New York City government’s current policies—both with regards to increased police presence, and to impending fare increases that bear no corresponding increase in wages—on the wrong side of just and equitable governance that could ensure, at the very least, a utilitarian functionality in our city.

We, the co-signers of this letter, stand with the communities being targeted by these policies. As artists, activists, and cultural workers, our responsibility is to imagine and help manifest new worlds. We accept this task gladly and thus, call for the removal of the increased NYPD presence in the MTA. We call for expanded policies that provide reliable, affordable access to public transportation for low- and middle-income New Yorkers. We call for strategies that decriminalize, rather than target, poverty. We call for the MTA and NYPD to invest in additional  anti-racist and implicit bias training by working with community-attuned organizations such as the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond and/or the Center for Racial Justice in Education. We call for New York City to stand up in support of its incredible diversity across all measures (race, religion, gender, sexuality, age, class, disability, and immigration status, etc.) to maintain a transit system that is safe and accessible for all.

See the list of signatories here