Community groups are pushing back after the introduction of a proposal that would suspend individuals arrested for certain crimes from using Washington, D.C. public transportation services.
The Safety and Operations Committee of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s board of directors approved the proposal July 15. In response, local groups — such as Sunrise DC — have organized letter-writing campaigns and rallies in an effort to encourage the board of directors to reject the proposal. The vote was originally scheduled for July 29 but was postponed until Sept. 9 after the board requested additional information ahead of the vote.
If the board of directors vote to approve the proposal, individuals arrested on the basis of sex or weapons charges would be suspended from using the Metrorail and Metrobus systems for 14 days after a first offense and 30 days after a second. In the event of a third offense, the suspension would last for a year. Suspensions would go into effect upon arrest, before a case goes to trial.
The language of the proposal is vague and specifically focuses on arrested individuals rather than convicted individuals, which could unfairly affect Black and Brown individuals and sex workers, according to Aura Angélica, an organizer for Sunrise DC, an abolitionist organization advocating for anti-racism and intersectional climate justice.
“This is an open realm for literally anyone accused of many a thing to be targeted, or not even accused but suspected, by Metro Transit Police,” Angélica said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “I really wish I could speak more to the language, but there is just such a lack thereof in the policy that it is even hard to imagine what things wouldn’t go under this policy.”
The proposal is intended to keep transit riders physically safe from criminal activity, according to Paul Smedberg, the Metro board of directors chair.
“Keeping our customers and employees safe also means being smart about how we handle the most serious offenses we see on our trains, buses, and in our stations,” Smedberg said in a WMATA news release. “This proposal would give us an additional tool to prevent sex and weapons related crimes on Metro, and I look forward to full Board consideration.”
Sunrise DC held a rally for riders’ rights July 27 during which participants protested in front of the home of Tom Bulger, a Metro board member who represents the District, according to Angélica. Bulger did not interact with participants of the rally, and other board members did contact Sunrise DC when they reached out, Angélica said.
Customers prohibited from using Metro services would be unable to carry out their day-to-day lives, according to Nassim Moshiree, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia.
“So many Metro riders rely on public transit to meet their basic needs, whether that’s getting to work, visiting friends and family or attending doctor’s appointments or court dates,” Moshiree wrote in an email to The Hoya. “It would be incredibly disruptive and harmful to folks’ livelihoods to suddenly find out that your sole mode of transportation has been pulled out from under you.”
Sunrise DC co-sponsored an online letter-writing campaign that allows participants to send an electronic message to WMATA board members, urging them to reject the proposal on the grounds that the Metro Transit Police should not be granted the power to prohibit certain individuals from riding without conviction. ACLU-DC also started a similar electronic letter-writing campaign. Combined, community members have sent over 1,500 letters from both the ACLU-DC and Sunrise DC, according to Moshiree.
“Metro Transit Police already lacks adequate oversight and this expansion would almost certainly perpetuate harmful stop-and-frisk practices and excessive use of force — particularly for marginalized communities already subject to unequal policing,” the Sunrise DC letter reads. “We should be seeking ways to reduce police interventions and opportunities for misconduct, not increase them.”
Recent efforts from activists and community groups have created hope for change, according to Moshiree.
“Given how quickly the WMATA public safety committee voted to advance this policy, we do believe a full board vote in support of it would have happened if not for our efforts,” Moshiree wrote. “We’re glad to hear the full board was persuaded to give this incredibly harmful policy a closer examination, however it should not have taken such a concerted community outcry to convince the board to do its basic due diligence of asking for input from other WMATA jurisdictions.”