135th Street Subway Station/MTA (287049)
Credit: Bill Moore photo

Crackdowns on turnstile jumping, arrests of food vendors and officers attacking civilians. While Black citizens are often on heightened alert about interactions with the police doing normal activity, public transportation is becoming the NYPD’s latest target on the poor community.

One of the latest incidents garnering criticism involves a food vendor selling churros at the Broadway Junction station in Brooklyn. A video posted to social media shows four officers surrounding a Latino woman who calls herself Elsa and handcuffing her. The woman shooting the video asks why the woman is being arrested as Elsa cries.

“I feel horrible, very nervous, stressed, absolutely devastated,” Elsa said through an interpreter during a press conference on Monday, Nov. 11.

Reports indicate Elsa had several summonses and was the subject of multiple complaints, according to police.

Another woman selling churros was also arrested in Brooklyn this week. This time at the Myrtle-Wyckoff Avenue station where the woman was handcuffed and issued a summons. Police say the woman reportedly had two outstanding warrants for not appearing in court.

MTA policy dictates that it is illegal to sell or distribute food in the transit system. Mayor Bill de Blasio defended the NYPD saying the officers were enforcing the law.

“I am a believer, you set some rules and you stick by them, but how you go about enforcing­—the officers as far as I can see did things properly but I’d like to see additional work to never have to put the officer in that situation,” de Blasio said in a televised interview.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams joined the chorus of supporters who say policing in public transit it getting out of hand. He appeared at a recent rally in support of Elsa.

There’s so many policies that are oppressive to certain communities−̶but so often, we don’t do the hard work of untangling & addressing them,” Williams said on social media. “We send police. We criminalize.”

However, the arrests of the food vendors speaks to a larger problem that appears to be targeting people of color in low income neighborhoods. It was just a few weeks ago two incidents involving Black citizens in the public transit system were the subjects of police abuse.

The first involving 15-year-old Benjamin Marshall, who was punched by an officer while police were trying to control a fight that broke out at the Jay Street-MetroTech subway station. The other involving 19-year-old Adrian Napier who was pummeled by several officers who drew their guns after he allegedly jumped a turnstile. Both incidents were caught on video.

A stronger police presence in the subway is part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s addition of 500 uniformed officers to the subway and bus system next year. The move was made to crackdown on money being lost on fare evasion.

The AmNews reached out to Cuomo and a spokesperson responded with a transcript from a recent televised interview about the MTA.

“We’re a city and nation of laws and they have to be enforced and people need to be safe on the subways,” Cuomo said. “We’ve invested a lot of money. The performance is getting better through the subway action plan but people have to feel safe. “

Riders Alliance Community Organizer Danna Dennis said Cuomo needs to focus on the MTA’s core services instead of over-policing.

“Subway crime is very low and falling. More cops will bust the MTA’s budget and hurt vulnerable populations including low-income vendors like Elsa,” said “Governor Cuomo needs to focus on the MTA’s core services and spend riders’ money on subway and bus frequency not over-policing public transit.”

Afua Atta-Mensah, executive director of Community Voices Heard said the crackdown on low-income communities of color trying to access public transit must end.

“We cannot stand by as the MTA and the NYPD continue to criminalize poverty and harass working class people,” she said. “We are proud to stand with organizations and individuals who are fighting back against this onslaught. Together, we are all working to build a city that is accessible and affordable for all New Yorkers.”

During a recent interview with the AmNews, Manhattan Assembly Member Dan Quart said fines for fare evasion are being targeted at people who don’t even have the money to pay. Currently, the fine for entering the transit system and not paying the $2.75 fare is $100. Quart has proposed legislation to lower the fine to the cost of a subway ride.

“This isn’t about condoning turnstile jumping, it’s about what the appropriate response is,” Quart said. Fare evasion continues to be enforced on people of color. If the person didn’t have $2.75 or $127 to buy a monthly, the idea they will have the $100 fine is absurd.”

Quart added that fare evasion fines are harmful to young people using the subway to get to school. Not paying the fine can create a criminal record leading to roadblocks for college, housing and employment.

An MTA spokesperson said, “The safety of our customers and employees––who hail from every background and every part of the city––is paramount and the focus of the police responsible for law enforcement on the subway.  We have made it unequivocally clear that we are opposed to any inappropriate targeting.”