Railway Resistance

In recent months, protests have descended upon New York City subways. Seas of demonstrators have overtaken underground stations and streets above demanding sweeping reforms to the MTA, the city’s extensive rail network. Images of crowds hurtling turnstiles en masse, electronic card readers smothered in glue, and police clashing with protesters have circulated the media. The demonstrations, referred to as FTP – an acronym with multiple meanings, including “Fight the Power” and “Feed the People” – have disrupted life on New York subways to spread their message. Through the chaos and confusion, however, this message has become muddled and marred in the eyes of many New Yorkers. The rudiments of this underground movement can be revealed by investigating the conditions which created it.

The MTA, or Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is New York City’s wheels. Through its massive administration of trains, buses, and other modes of transit, over five million city residents travel from point A to point B each day via twenty-seven subway lines in four boroughs – the largest network of its kind on the planet. Access to this gargantuan web of trains is granted for a fare of $2.75. New York’s underground infrastructural behemoth is not without its ails, though. “It’s kind of a part of life here,” says City Honors graduate and NYU sophomore Sophie Quigley, “but it’s frustrating how much it costs considering it’s rarely on schedule.” Tired technology and tardy trains have ravaged the MTA for years, frustrating city residents endlessly. But the subways’ problems venture beyond just convenience, according to another Honors grad and Columbia freshman Alexis Marshall. “The MTA fare is indisputably discriminatory against low-income and minority patrons.” The $2.75 fee may not seem like much at the surface, but considering the railways’ centrality to daily life in the city, it adds up. For someone who is struggling financially, the fare can be economically immobilizing. This concern has occupied the minds of many disadvantaged New Yorkers – and in some cases, concern has turned to commotion on the commute.

    Tensions were driven over the edge in September, when Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that five hundred new police officers would be assigned to the subways to combat fare evasion, adding to the already sizeable law enforcement presence. Afterwards, a video surfaced online of several officers unholstering their firearms and storming a train car to subdue an unarmed teenager who hopped a turnstile in Brooklyn, prompting outrage. A group of New Yorkers did not take kindly to the escalation. FTP, a coalition of demonstrators aiming to rid the MTA of police, organized several protests in subway stations, city streets, and Grand Central Terminal – the heart of New York’s transit system. The movement has taken on a few different purposes apart from anti-police sentiments, including the elimination of the $2.75 fare and increased accessibility for the disabled in MTA facilities. 

What materialized from the calls for action was chaos. Hundreds of protesters occupied MTA facilities, waving signs reading ‘No Cops, No Fares’ and chanting FTP slogans. Graffiti displaying anti-police messages painted the walls of subway stations. Police presence skyrocketed to receive the demonstrators, leading to riotous clashes. One City Honors graduate living in the New York area who took part in the protests shared their account of violent encounters with police during the demonstrations, wishing to remain anonymous. “I was shocked by the extreme violence enacted by the blatantly racist cops,” they recounted. “Every single cop that was present was actively trying to harm or degrade the protesters, specifically those that were black and brown.” The witness described a particular instance where multiple police forcefully arrested an individual, saying “the person was clearly struggling, choking through their words…that they couldn’t breathe. One of the four cops beating and choking this person said that if he can scream, he can breathe.” A total of fifty-eight arrests were made that day. 

Responses to the protests and their methods have been varied, with some quick to paint them as acts of violence and vandalism while others stand with FTP. Many New Yorkers took issue with the disruptive nature of the demonstrations. “I support the idea of the protests and think it’s important that the city hears the voices of the oppressed,” explained Alexis Marshall. “However, I also think large-scale protests in confined areas like subway stations force bystanders to be involved against their will. Not everyone can afford to be political at all times.” One particularly controversial incident involved protesters soaking a MetroCard reader in Gorilla Glue, preventing patrons from swiping their passes to legally gain entry to the station. Another saw a protester throw a hammer through a window of a Chipotle in Manhattan, injuring a woman according to officials. Demonstrators have made a point to leave their marks on MTA facilities, with graffiti and permanent marker staining subway stations. Proponents of the protests, however, would encourage New Yorkers to heed the writing on the wall. As of late, neither the demonstrations nor the establishment seem to be ceasing in their methods or messages. One can only hope that the metro will once again see the day when all New Yorkers can easily get from point A to point B – and onward. 

Originally published in the Silent Noise in February of 2020.

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