Photo by Brian Addison.
Last week, I had the honor of hosting and sitting down one-on-one with Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia to talk about transit after he was elected to the Metro Los Angeles Board. During this conversation, I saved what I called “the elephant in the room” for last—that is, the discussion on the Blue Line.
As a rider of the Blue Line, I wanted to specifically make sure the Mayor understood of the difference between the perception of the lack of safety and genuine safety issues—and my reasoning behind this was very specific, albeit male-centric: I had never personally experienced a lack of safety myself as a rider. Seen, for lack of a better term, crazy shit? Absolutely. But the perception of a lack of safety is a double-edged sword: I strongly believe that safety comes with numbers and the more people that ride the line, the less likely those unable to defend themselves or avoid trouble will do so. However, the other side of the coin is that if there is even an unsubstantiated perception that the Blue Line is unsafe, people won’t ride it.
That being said, I don’t think, particularly as a male, it was my right to dismiss the concerns of others when feeling unsafe. A feeling, whether it was rooted in reason or not, is real for the person experiencing it.
So there was a large discussion around the so-called lack of safety on the Blue Line.
And here I deviate to say “so-called safety” very purposefully because I made a mistake when honing in on the safety issues of the Blue Line; I indirectly joined a growing cohort of complainers and misinformers that fuel the idea that the riders themselves are the culprits rather than focusing in on policing.
When I say the lines need to “policed more efficiently,” I do not mean more police officers and more ticketing and more profiling… The Blue Line is the most heavily policed of all the lines—and more unsettling still, black men are disproportionately ticketed and arrested there, despite being only 19% of riders. The issue isn’t police efficiency; the issue is who and what’s being policed and how and to what end.
Surely, I had asked the Mayor if Metro voting to update its policing contract was a win-all solution or were there other pressing issues… But I still framed the Blue Line’s main issue as It Is Not Safe to Ride and when this sentiment is presented with little context, it exacerbates derogatory opinions of the Blue Line—it’s viewed as “ghetto” or “trashy”—that are directly attached to the hard working folks that depend on it rather than a pejorative view of the way its policed.
In the words of my friend and advocate Senay Kenfe, “It’s interesting that in terms of policing the Metro, the burden seems to be put on the riders—and not the sheriff’s department.”
Even more pressing was another young black man who approached me after the discussion, with one of the most poignant things to ever shrink me in the most beautiful way possible: “The sheriff isn’t doing their job—and then the wealthy folk talk about the Blue Line’s ‘main issue’ is being unsafe. And when you keep saying the Blue Line is unsafe, what you’re really saying is that those who depend upon it make it unsafe. You’re calling me unsafe. You’re calling my family unsafe. I was born in ’93—I don’t know of a life without the Blue Line. Now I have to struggle with a system that is getting too old and I have to defend myself as a hard worker who won’t hurt anybody… Sometimes I feel like the sheriff is there not for safety but for punishment.”
It was Senay and this young man that prompted me to entirely alter the op-ed I was asked to write about Metro’s policing contract. With eyebrows raised to their highest, we must question as to why, especially amongst the affluent and white communities, why we pin the safety issues of the nation’s most ridden light rail not on the police officers contracted to do just that.
Even more, there is little to no discussion on the fact that the lines are patrolled well—but only to a certain point, as noted by the young man I encountered. So when I say the lines need to “policed more efficiently,” I do not mean more police officers and more ticketing and more profiling. No.
As fellow journalist Sahra Sulaiman noted, “The Blue Line is the most heavily policed of all the lines—and more unsettling still, black men are disproportionately ticketed (50%) and arrested (60%) there, despite being only 19% of riders. The issue isn’t police efficiency; the issue is who and what’s being policed and how and to what end.”
We must question as to why, especially amongst the affluent and white communities, why we pin the safety issues of the nation’s most ridden light rail not on the police officers contracted to do just that.
During morning and early evening times, lines are filled with a police presence. Come nighttime, they ghost—directly affecting working class and cash poor residents who don’t have the luxury of a Monday-through-Friday, 9-to-5 schedule.
“When you’re made to feel as though protection from our law enforcement—enforcement that that we all pay for as taxpayers—when you’re made to feel that it is based on a particular demographic rather than the collective needs of the community,” Kenfe said, “well, all it does is create more tension in between us.”
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