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November 25

Off the Rails: A Report from the FTP Explosion in New York

A report and analysis on recent mass actions which have brought out thousands into the streets of New York.

Cover photo from Decolonize This Place
By Ride Free NYC

With a building movement around the cost and policing of public transit, New York may be the next city to join the wave of struggle sweeping the globe. On Friday, November 22nd between one and three thousand people demonstrated in the streets of Harlem and the South Bronx during the second “FTP Emergency Action” organized by a coalition brought together by Decolonize This Place. Snaking their way through Uptown Manhattan, protestors scuffled with and evaded cops for hours, eventually storming a bridge to the Bronx, then rushing into and sabotaging a subway station.

This was larger than the November 1st FTP march in Downtown Brooklyn. Images from that march of protesters vandalizing MTA property and jubilantly jumping the turnstiles at Hoyt-Schermerhorn station en masse – reminiscent of scenes from  uprisings in Santiago or Hong Kong – went viral. The first march as called in response to two viral videos of NYPD brutally arresting young black men in the subway station, following an MTA announcement that it would hire five hundred new officers to crack down on fare evasion. Since then, more images of arrests and police violence in the name of “quality of life” in the subways have emerged, and many came to Harlem energized to exceed the unruliness of the first march.

“With a building movement around the cost and policing of public transit, New York may be the next city to join the wave of struggle sweeping the globe.”

The NYPD were less hands off this time. Organizers of the march announced a decoy starting location, hoping to buy some breathing room. Hours before the rally began, however, both locations were already swarming with cops. Police present were intent on using bicycle blockades and snatch arrests to disempower the crowd and keep them on the sidewalk. Yet despite making nearly sixty arrests–sometimes with spectacular violence–they were ultimately unsuccessful.

After marching half a block on the 125th Street sidewalk, a small group forced their way into the forbidden roadway, igniting an hours-long game of cat and mouse. At different moments separated sections of the crowd took the street for several blocks, marching through projects, passing out pro-farebeating flyers, and pasting and spraying anti-cop slogans on busses and cops cars. Elements of the march experimented with tactics from Hong Kong and Chile, like black umbrellas and hunting lasers to disorient attacking officers and protect the demonstration as it grew rowdier.

After a tense stand-off with a number of arrests (and dearrests), the march split into three large sections. Two advanced their through Uptown Manhattan, attempting to force their way onto the Willis Avenue Bridge, the Harlem River Drive (a major highway), and blocked a series of other major intersections. Another stormed past the police onto the Madison Avenue Bridge, leaping over the pedestrian walkway fence to take both lanes as they crossed into the Bronx. They made their way to 149th Street subway station, where dozens hopped turnstiles in a larger mass fare evasion than its predecessor earlier in the month. A turnstile arm was sawed clean during the chaos became the most resonant image of the night.

The march in the Bronx ended at the Horizon Juvenile Center, a youth jail infamous for allegations of chronic sexual abuse. As red and green lasers roved over its facade and security cameras, a speakout pledged solidarity with those jailed inside. From there most ended their night by casually heading to the nearest subway, where, despite a few tired cops standing watch, no one paid.

“According to an MTA study, every day half a million people in New York evade paying their fare.”

Where do things go from here? Police have given us a good hint of what they don’t want: actions targeting the subway. CrimethInc. has called for mass fare evasions on Friday, November 29th. This would coincide with a planned fare strike in Seattle, XR’s “Black Friday Rebellion,” and an intensification of an ongoing slowdown by MTA workers.

The MTA is certainly paying attention. Under pressure from popular outrage they may likely scrap the 500 new cop plan in favor of a smaller number. After Friday’s march, DTP, who will likely announce another action in December, implied such small concessions – which change nothing – will not impede their momentum: “We won’t stop. We are not afraid. This movement only grows in numbers. The nypd out of the mta. Free transit. End of harassment of vendors. Not one demand less.”

The final line alludes to a slogan from Hong Kong, where an insistence on a final demand of abolishing the police transformed the mass movement from its initial orientation of local autonomy into a revolutionary force. Even if the NYPD tempers their enforcement, or stop targeting almost entirely black and brown people, the rising cost of living could still trigger epochal struggles. Similar popular rage led to the 2014 Free Fare movement in Brazil, the 2017 Gasolinazo in Mexico, the 2018 Gilets Jaunes in France, the Paquetazo in Ecuador, and the current general revolts in Chile, Lebanon, and Iran.

While the actions in New York have not yet reached the scale and quality of these mass movements, they are potent precisely because they tap into a much deeper well of proletarian subversion. According to an MTA study, every day half a million people in New York evade paying their fare. Commuters and MTA workers alike, from all walks of life across lines of neighborhood, age, and race, have made it a habit to share unlimited swipes, hold exit gates open, or sabotage them so they do not fully close. The once-quiet movement now actively counteracts the carceral response, fines, and arrest by videotaping, heckling, alerting other riders of police presence on social media, and, as of the first November march, assembling in rowdy demonstrations of popular anger.

“These last marches have been some of the most powerful experiences of collective direct action in New York City since the height of Black Lives Matter. They indicate a progression of the conflict between society’s management and the people failed by their incompetence and targeted by their violence.”

These last marches have been some of the most powerful experiences of collective direct action in New York City since the height of Black Lives Matter. They indicate a progression of the conflict between society’s management and the people failed by their incompetence and targeted by their violence. We need to expand from these humble beginning acts of supporting one another to ride free and rebel. What if the institutions of rent, liberal democracy, and work were delegitimized to the same extent as the MTA and NYPD? One day we may not have to commute at all.

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