Smoke Bombs, Vandalized Subway Stations: Was It Worth It?

Smoke Bombs, Vandalized Subway Stations: Was It Worth It?
Protesters at Grand Central Terminal Friday night. Rachel Baron/Bklyner.

MANHATTAN — Friday night, hundreds of protesters gathered at Grand Central Terminal to address perceived growing police brutality on the MTA, and to demand free subway fare for all. It was the culmination of a full day of citywide strikes.

The night was punctuated by heavy police presence and mass fare evasion. The Instagram page for activist organization Decolonize This Place (DTP), which assisted in organizing the protest, claimed 45 arrests — NYPD confirmed there had been 13 arrests, 9 men and 4 women, all of whom have since been released.

The strike served as a reaction to aggressive crackdown measures taken by police against fare evaders, as well as what many deem to be racially-motivated arrests of people of color, like that of Latino man David Casilla at Bushwick’s Myrtle-Broadway subway station in January, or excessively violent ones, like that of black teenager Adrien Napier in October.

Friday’s protest also demonstrated opposition to Governor Cuomo’s controversial plan to hire 500 new police officers to patrol New York City’s subway system, according to the New York Times – an addition that would increase the number of MTA police by 20% and cost $249 million over the next four years.

This was the third protest by the FTP or “F–k the Police” movement, and the most recent one opposing MTA policing and the crackdown on fare evaders — the previous protest took place in November, less than a week after Napier’s arrest. A representative of DTP told us that, while DTP was the protest’s central organizer, other activist organizations like Take Back the Bronx, Why Accountability, and People’s Power Assemblies were also involved.

At 4:10 p.m., less than an hour before the protest was scheduled to take place, NYPD Chief Terence Monahan announced via a video on Twitter that a group of individuals had vandalized subway stations that morning, and that the same individuals might attempt to disrupt the evening commute, endanger commuters, and otherwise create disorder.

“While the NYPD will always protect people’s right to protest,” Monahan said, “we will not accept illegal behavior that threatens the safety of others.”

“This demonstration activity follows the dangerous pattern of previous activities that have resulted in vandalization and defacement of MTA property – clearly violating laws,” said Patrick Warren, MTA Chief Safety Officer. “Those actions divert valuable time, money and resources away from investments in transit services that get New Yorkers to their jobs, schools, doctors and other places they need to go. The MTA has zero tolerance for any actions that threaten the safety of the public and our employees, and impede service for millions of customers. We are monitoring conditions as we cooperate with the NYPD and MTA PD to maintain service while ensuring everyone’s safety.”

The vandalism Monahan spoke of included destroying MTA turnstiles with glue, hammers, and spray painting anti-cop messages on subway walls.

Bklyner followed the protest from the outset at Grand Central Terminal, where hundreds of participants gathered in the center of the station’s enormous main concourse around 5 p.m.

Protesters, many of them masked or concealing their faces with bandanas, held signs with phrases like “Poverty is not a crime; the subway should be free!”; “F—k your $2.75”; and, of course, “F–k the police.” Organizers shouted for participants to spread out, and to take up more space.

“This is a militarized city we’re in,” one protester, who declined to give her name, told us. “It’s not just about fares – it’s about war on poverty, it’s about war on black and brown.”

Matthew, a young man from the Bronx who attended the first FTP event, said, “This is about free fare for all – this is about equal opportunity and upward mobility for everyone. Being a part of this is just like, a testament to that we can stand strong and we don’t need to put up with bulls—t from the cops, from the system. So f—k the police, free the people!”

A young woman, Augusta McMann, explained her belief that police target poor people and people of color who can’t pay for public transit which, she said, “should be public,” free to all.

Protesters at Grand Central Terminal Friday night. Rachel Baron/Bklyner.

Protesters joined together in forceful chants of “Free F—king Transit!” as they marched in a circle around GCT.

We saw a person with vibrant orange hair and wearing a mask, cape, and homemade costume being detained by police. They could be heard screaming, “Let me go!” as they were restrained and placed in handcuffs. A young man was also detained: as police led him away, he called out, “first name Alexander!”

Bklyner followed the group as it filed out the front doors of the terminal, chanting “How do you spell racist? N-Y-P-D!”

The protestors snaked through midtown, pivoting down a new street every few minutes to, it seemed, keep police on their toes. The throngs passed through major hubs like Times Square, Herald Square, and the Flatiron District.

Smoke bomb at 42nd Street – Bryant Park subway station. Rachel Baron/Bklyner.

At Bryant Park – 42nd Street Station, around 5:40 p.m., protesters staged a mass fare evasion by hopping the turnstiles and walking through the emergency exit door onto the platform. They proceeded to hold up an F train for several minutes by standing in the doorways. Police officers standing on the platform demanded that protesters either leave the train or allow the doors to close. Commuters complained openly about the disruption to their routine. A smoke bomb, presumably set off by protesters, filled the entrance to the station with a green haze.

While dozens of chants pierced the noise of Manhattan throughout the night, one refrain rang out consistently: “Full Service! Full Access! No Cops! No Fares!”

In addition to obliterating fares, participants in the protest also demanded better accessibility in subway stations. Near Herald Square, the march’s pace slowed to a crawl as leaders shouted, “We walk as slow as our slowest comrades!” Some participants held signs demanding that MTA install more elevators, not more cops, in subways.

NYPD holding train at 42nd Street – Bryant Park. Rachel Baron/Bklyner.

The group eventually stopped at Union Square for chanting, dancing, and sharing of information for those who wanted to assist in “jail support” – providing aid and comfort to those arrested during the protest – at NYPD headquarters in downtown Manhattan.

The NYPD informed us today that nine men and four women were arrested during the strike, and 11 of them received court summons: five charged with Criminal Mischief, five charged with Obstructing Governmental Administration, one with assault, one with disorderly conduct, and one resisting arrest.

Protesters also traveled to Brooklyn by subway, where they marched through the streets of Bed-Stuy before stopping at Restoration Plaza on Fulton Street. Twitter account @elaadeliahu posted a video of protesters shouting in unison at a large group of police officers: “We are the public! And we are telling you to leave!”

A number of arrests in Manhattan and Brooklyn were documented on social media: photos posted on Instagram account @bytaidgh shows several protesters being arrested for refusing to remove the bandana covering their face. One of them was pinned to the ground by three police officers in Grand Central Terminal.

Mayor de Blasio condemned the protests on Twitter Saturday, stating that “insulting our police and vandalizing our subway system is totally unacceptable and doesn’t advance ANY cause. Our NYPD showed unparalleled professionalism during yesterday’s protests. On behalf of their city I commend them for keeping everyone safe.”

The mayor announced the same day that applications are now open for half-price MetroCards under a program called Fair Fares, which, the New York Times reported, many feel will inadequately serve the estimated 800,000 New Yorkers living below the federal poverty line.

Borough President Eric Adams also tweeted a two-part response to Friday’s events, the first of which read: “You can volunteer to sign people up for Fair Fares. Organize your neighbors for transit improvements. Attend MTA hearings and lobby your local legislators. What doesn’t help is vandalizing stations, chanting profanities against the police, and causing mass disorder underground.”Asked if they thought the strike was a success, Decolonize This Place wrote to us in a message on Instagram:  “It went well, and by all accounts is a success in organizing and building people power and a movement led by ibpoc and not represented by politicians or corrupt ngos. We outmaneuvered the cops. We reclaimed our subway and city. We connected with each other and New Yorkers. We highlighted our four demands. We were ungovernable and the governor, Wall Street, the mayor and the police should take note. The vulnerable, forgotten, and otherwise oppressed are rising up.”We have reached out to the MTA police force for comment but did not receive one at the time of publication.


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