New York: Increasing Radicalization of the Protests for Free Public Transport

by Mo Sedlak

On January 31 New York activists took the street for the third FTP (Fuck the Police) day of action. Since the Metropolitan Transport Authority MTA increased fare prices last year, then organized a campaign against fare beating carried out mainly by police violence, the protests have been increasing in size and militancy, with hundreds taking over Grand Central Station. There have also been decentralized banner-drops, graffiti, destruction of turnstiles and the forcing open of emergency exits all over the city.

The protests are encouraged by established groups of the autonomous and Black left, but carried out mainly by a new generation of young activists. The demands offer a platform of working class unity against a transport system failing us every day, while the radicalism takes up a healthy confrontational stance against NGO and local reformists who attempt to co-opt the actions. And there’s plenty of room remaining for linking up with the union struggles in the public transport sector and including the explosively growing ecological movement too.

The failing MTA is an act of class war

The New York public transport system is notoriously unreliable, expensive, and a constant burden for working class people and youth that depend on it for ways to work and school. Under the increasing public pressure and threat of actually throwing the economic system of the city into disarray, politicians have acknowledged that something needs to be done.

NY governor Andrew Cuomo made the MTA workers and alleged fare-beaters responsible for the problem, while newly hired manager Andy Byford promised to increase punctuality by re-organizing the agency without taking a public stance against his own employees. And in a side note, Mr. Byford resigned just before the third FTP day of action, leaving Cuomo’s reactionary solutions all that’s left in the public for now.

Rather than fixing transport, New York hires cops to terrorize

The gradual defunding of the public transport system is a form of class struggle, protecting the tax bills of those who use drivers and helicopters at the expense of the working class. But class war is more than a metaphor, and against alleged fare-beaters, soldiers in uniforms and with weapons were deployed when the MTA announced a zero tolerance policy in the Fall of 2019 and hired 500 new cops at a cost of $ 249 million for five years, the equivalent to 90 million single fares.

Combining structural racism with an armed offensive against the poorer segments of New York’s population, these cops started publicly threatening and humiliating their enemies immediately. Scandals involved eight cops drawing their guns in a crowded L train against an alleged turnstile hopper in October 2019, the punching of teenagers less than 24 hours later, and then tasered a 16 year old accused of fare evasion two days later. All the victims were people of color.

The movement challenges the police on the streets

Days later on November 1, the first FTP march erupted in Brooklyn, rallying a diverse and angry crowd against police violence, but also communicating first demands. Three weeks later, 1000-3000 protestors took the street in Harlem, resisting police violence (which ended in over 50 arrests nevertheless) and attempts to disperse the crowd. According to multiple observers, the actions on January 31 were even larger.

The movement has consolidated four demands, (1) free fares on all New York transit, (2) cops out of the trains and stations, (3) no police harassment of street vendors and performers and (4) full accessibility. In three “communiqués” that demanded to “swipe Wall Street’s profits”, it analyzed the oppressive character of the police as an institution (rather than the “few bad apples” myth) and pointed out the settler-colonialist history of New York city, formerly Lenape land, as well as the role of trains in escalating this process. It unites anti-racist struggles and positions against sexist as well as sexual oppression around these key demands that speak to every worker and youth in the city.

Furthermore important is the combination of mass protest as in Grand Central Station, autonomous propaganda activities (such as banner drops and graffiti) and “propaganda of action” style attacks against the ticketing infrastructure of the MTA. The movement has been growing since the beginning and rejects the intervention of non-governmental and non-profit organizations as well as “police mouthpieces”. The tone and aesthetics of the campaign is heavily influenced by established anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist groups in New York city, but not openly opposed to Marxist allies (as of now).

Necessary unity with unions and ecological activists

Unfortunately, earlier attempts of single groups to link up the protests with the struggles of MTA workers have not been successful yet. Neither has the obvious link to environmental struggles been established. It is obvious that any reduction in personal emissions for the working class majority is impossible without well functioning and affordable public transport. The American City catering to car traffic (and thus, car production and oil capitalists) is a crime against the climate.

The issue at hand draws an intuitive class line in times of minimal class consciousness. Almost all of those who depend on public transport are workers. The same is true for rented living spaces or public school – such campaigns can unite workers who, after decades of ideological attacks against the idea of a working class, do not believe that class has any meaning. This is the main strength of the campaign.

Demands to win the MTA and the whole city

We offer to the fighting comrades the a few proposals, inspired by the movements for free transport in Brazil as well as against evictions and rent hikes in Germany. They are addressed both at the activists within and organizations outside the movement, thus repeating demands that have been raised already.

Also, Workers’ Power fights for a socialist society, in which workers and the now-oppressed democratically decide over matters of administration as well as production and distribution. Our demands seek not only temporary improvements, but also to prevent the capitalist backlash once a movements slows down by permanently taking the power away from the capitalists and their political representatives.

– The small number of key demands is good to establish a broad base; now it is time to begin the discussion about an action program for free and accessible transport that goes beyond it. Let’s establish a forum for debate and publicize it.

– Police activity in the subways is a war against working people of color; expand on jail support and people of color-only meetings, establish caucuses of the oppressed and self-defense organizations.

– Unite the struggles; invite MTA union rank-and-file activists and the militant and working class parts of the ecological movement to prepare for and speak on united actions. Reject attempts by the union bureaucracy or the green NGO wings to take over or divide the struggles.

– Reject the propaganda offensive by Cuomo and the bourgeois media: It is neither “lazy” MTA workers nor free riders who ruined the transport system, but a political elite intent on eliminating every aspect of the city not directly serving the capitalists.

We cannot win the class war by autonomous actions and independent collectives; as the ruling class has their political, propaganda and armed apparatus, we also need a structured resistance. We need to build a revolutionary party of the workers and the oppressed, rejecting any strategic reliance on the capitalists and their two main parties.