Paying the Full Fare

"Assimilate My Purse," Maximumrocknroll, December 2005

They just raised the bus fare in San Francisco, from $1.25 to $1.50, which doesn't sound awful except that they raised it a year or two ago and this time the increase comes immediately after a dramatic decrease in service on some of the busiest buslines in the country. Sometimes the busses get so crowded now that you literally have to push in order to get inside. It's like they're working New York City subway realness or something, but the real story is the same old tragedy that's happening everywhere: subsidize downtown business, and charge the poor for worsening services.

San Francisco has a long history of bus drivers letting people ride for free, ignoring expired transfers and generally not worrying too much about who isn't paying. The drivers get their paychecks either way, right? Of course, certain bus drivers have always shown suspicious amounts of loyalty to their masters, but lately this pattern has escalated. The transit authority has hired teenagers during peak hours to kick people off the busiest busses if they attempt to enter without paying. There are now permanent signs warning people not to enter through the back doors, and drivers now refuse to hand over a transfer until you've paid the full $1.50. Some of the most aggressive drivers have taken to writing signs by hand that warn: EVERYONE MUST PAY.

Unfortunately, the people most often targeted by fascistic bus drivers and teenaged cops-in-training are poor black people, youth of color and homeless people. And the drivers and minimum wage rent-a-cops most often responsible for such petty shows of militarism are, unfortunately, black men and youth of color. Just the other day, I had a run-in with a driver who apparently doesn't like flaming faggots either, because he's always ready to rip the transfer out of my hands. In this case, my transfer was expired by barely a half hour, but sure enough this driver said you need to pay the full fare. I was so angry that I couldn't even say anything. I just got off the bus, even though the driver had taken my transfer so I would have to pay on the next bus. I had $1.50 in my pocket, but it was just too demeaning to hand it over.

Then the other day, I saw something on the bus that I'd never seen before. Several people were about to get off the bus, through the back door the way you're supposed to, and they saw a bunch of kids getting ready to jump on, and they literally turned around and walked to the front, causing a back-up because of all the people entering in the front. The back doors in San Francisco busses won't open unless you step down, so of course I got up to let people on, but witnessing the self-policing of the exiting bus passengers was enough to break my heart.

Of course I'm aware that much worse things are happening, but they all trace back to the willingness of US inhabitants -- bus drivers, bus riders and everyone else -- to police the borders of "decency." Decency means that the US can overthrow the only democratically-elected government in the history of Haiti, and watch as United Nations "peacekeeping" troops massacre civilians who might possibly oppose a US-installed president who commanded Haiti's notorious death squads. Decency means that British troops can knock down the walls of a prison run by the US-and-British-installed Iraqi government, in order to rescue two British soldiers found dressed as Iraqis while driving a of truck full of explosives (hmm... terrorism?). From Palestine to the Philippines, Colombia to Kazakhstan, decency means that US colonial interests go unchecked.

And here in our blood-drenched star-spangled "homeland," decency means that a hurricane leads to ethnic cleansing on a public scale usually reserved for US client states. Everyone by now knows the horrifying story of how purposeful neglect of protective levees in New Orleans flooded most of the city (but especially the poorer parts), and left those too poor, weak or dependent to leave stranded in a sea of sewage, toxic chemicals, oil spills, dead bodies and drowning animals. The media immediately began blaming poor black people from being too stupid to get out, and the Coast Guard prevented hundreds of boats from entering the area to rescue people while a huge military ship sat idle nearby.

Those most vulnerable died first-old people, disabled people and babies fell victim not just to the flooding but to the indifference of federal agencies who left people stranded for days on the roofs of buildings in the sweltering heat without food or water. Let's just make this clear: people were left to die of dehydration. When the government began to act, they herded people into detention centers and then proceeded to divide families, separating men from women, children from parents, pets from caretakers and shipping people hundreds of miles away with no central database or tracking system. President Bush issued a call for private donors to help offset the costs of rescue and rebuilding -- PRIVATE DONORS, in the richest country in the world -- what is the US government for? The Governor of Louisiana issued a shoot-to-kill order to protect private property from those desperate or ingenious enough to liberate insured goods from shuttered businesses. Racist white vigilantes took matters into their own hands, and police officers forced thousands of fleeing residents back into a flooded city when they heeded government calls to cross the highway bridge into Gretna, across the river from New Orleans.

I need to pause here for a second, just to think about these racist crackers pointing shotguns at fleeing poor people, in order to protect their sacred property. Food rotting inside protected grocery stores in a city with no refrigeration. Bottled water sitting just inside glass walls, in a city with no running water. Store owners should have left signs saying "Take what you want, it's all insured." Instead, New Orleans became a free-for-all for racist gun-toting thugs, as cops from all over the region, hired mercenaries and military personnel imposed a lockdown and arrested "looters" even as people were still desperately trying to escape flooded homes. In the Superdome, where thousands of people crowded awaiting busses out of the city, soldiers

boxes of food on the ground and declared "every man for himself," then stood and watched starving people tear each other apart for food. Of course, the media reported the supposed savagery of traumatized, dehydrated, devastated hurricane survivors. A 65-year-old Vietnamese woman who didn't speak enough English to ask for directions, stranded because all of her children and grandchildren are fighting in Iraq, hitchhiked all the way to Houston to find help.

When the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) finally arrived, they promptly shut out the media and declared that dead bodies not be shown on camera (think Iraq). FEMA offered evacuees the paltry amount of $2000, if they could prove citizenship and legal status. The Red Cross made a few hundred dollars available for each evacuee, if you could stay on the phone for eight hours straight in order to get through to an operator.

Visiting a militarized New Orleans just as the flood waters were going down, an NPR reporter asked: why aren't there more checkpoints? Gas prices sky-rocketed as oil companies rushed to profit, and the host of an NPR environmental program, "Living on Earth," asked an oil industry representative when the new oil refineries would be ready on the Gulf Coast, with no mention of the environmental devastation caused by the old ones. And the mayor of New Orleans declared, "For the first time ever, this city is drug-free and violence-free." For whom?

In New Orleans, most of the damage was caused by the flooding, but along the coastal cities in Alabama and Mississippi, the hurricane itself turned entire city blocks into rubble. Almost a month later, the smell of dead fish and bodies and mold coats the air and people camp out under freeways, in the middle of roads and in the front lawns of destroyed houses. As the gambling industry prepares for a land grab, the government constructs an internment camp in Greene County, Alabama to consist of 10,000 one-room metal trailers with no heat or air conditioning, Port-a-Potties instead of bathrooms. This will more than double the population in the county, with no plans to increase services -- except, of course those in charge of surveillance and policing of evacuees. That's right -- I said internment camp-people will be "housed" for an indefinite amount of time. A smaller camp of 500 trailers is also planned for Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Real estate profiteers, multinational corporations and other "city planners" now stand poised to turn New Orleans into a gentrified, Disneyfied theme park for wealthy tourists and business elites. With several hundred thousand black people shipped out of the city, this is the big chance for big money in the Big Easy. Will parts of the city such as the Ninth Ward, home to more black property owners than any other place in Louisiana, be razed to make way for industrial parks and free trade zones? Will the US military immediately target desperate evacuees warehoused hundreds of miles from destroyed homes as fresh cannon fodder for the war on Iraq? It's all part of paying the full fare.