Thursday, February 9, 2012

Send Congress the Message

Last night I went to a cafe in Rainier Beach to learn more about Puget Sound Sage's Transit Justice Project, which sends teens out to collect surveys about who is using buses and light rail in Rainier Beach. I got to look at some of the surveys, and I was really impressed by finding a community-based research project that also serves as outreach.

Getting ready to head home, I turned down an offer for a ride, thinking I should defy the recent warnings about transit violence in the neighborhood. I waited at the bus stop for a short time, and two young men came up. Ever since somebody tried to steal an electronic device from me when I was getting off the subway in LA in 2010, I try to stay very aware of my surroundings when I'm getting on or off transit. Making eye contact is a big part of this, so I briefly smiled at the two dudes. The look I got in return was less than friendly, but I decided to sit down under the bus shelter anyway. All of a sudden, glass exploded a few feet from me. My first thought: these little shits are trying to intimidate me. But when I looked up, I could see that they were just as startled as I was. Someone in a passing car had hurled a glass bottle at them.

"Why the fuck would they do that?" I asked the guys. "I don't know!" they replied, cursing and obviously mad as hell. They were black. "It was some of those Asian gangsters," one teen said. I didn't see who was in the car, just heard it peeling off. They started yelling and posturing at passing cars, pumping with adrenaline and filled with rage.

It was a horribly up close and personal example of what an unequal power dynamic cars create, where a person can hurl a bottle out of a window and never face the consequences of that action. There was nothing we could do except stand there and stare, imagining the feeling of glass shrapnel cutting up our skin. This is extreme for me, but how normal is it for those teens? And do you think they're going to keep riding the bus one second longer once they can afford to drive? And, finally, when they are the ones inside the car, are they going to treat people on the outside like humans, or like video game targets?

Our congress is currently debating a federal transportation bill that has no funding for public transit, funneling all monies toward automobile infrastructure. How do our elected officials think we are going to solve our transportation problems by continuing to subsidize individual automobility? How do they think this is anything but a huge attack on the most vulnerable people in the United States? What kind of message are they trying to send?

A short bus ride later, I was back in my neighborhood, where people like me feel warm and fuzzy about using transit and riding bikes to brewpubs.