Does the Bus Riders Union care about Transit?
Or do they care more about "Racism"?

On September 12, 2000, the following letter was sent (via both USPS and e-mail) by the BRU's planning committee to its members. It was forwarded to us by the So.CA.TA member known as "Anti-BRU", who feels it accurately shows the narrow scope of their focus.

Dear Members,

In anticipation of this Saturday's general membership meeting we want to talk to you about some problems inside the organization that need attention -- namely the tensions developing at general membership meetings about the organization's focus on "fight transit racism," some tensions about what we believe are reflections of white chauvinism, and our growing understanding that we are not addressing the language needs of our Spanish speaking members fully and effectively.

Let us explain --

To begin with, the Bus Riders Union is a very successful multi-racial organization that is integrating the fight for civil rights, environmental justice, and first-class transportation. We ask you to review the principles of unity and the by-laws of the organization to see the firm foundation upon which we have built the group. Second, we understand tension and political disagreement inside an organization like ours is positive and constructive -- nothing moves forward without contradiction and struggle. The goal, however, is to make sure that the tensions are resolved in a constructive manner.

1) "Fight transit racism." The Bus Riders Union first came on the scene by challenging the racist policies of the Los Angeles MTA (sic) and bringing them to court on charges of violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act. We argued that eliminating the monthly bus pass -- that would hurt 350,000 overwhelmingly Latino, black, and Asian bus riders at the same time as building the Pasadena Blue Line that would serve a whiter and more suburban ridership -- was an example of "separate and unequal" use of federal funds to benefit white people more than people of color. The federal courts agreed with us and forced the MTA to restore the monthly bus pass and roll back its fare increase. Later, we signed a Consent Decree with the Los Angeles MTA (sic) in which they again admitted past problems (but not legal guilt) of racial inequality and pledged to provide future service equally to all passengers. We believe the U.S. is a racist society and the poor service, degradation, overcrowding, lateness, mechanical unreliability of the bus service is the form that transit racism takes.

Some members have argued that we should not talk so much, or not at all, about transit racism and they worry that we are "turning off" some white riders. Our view is that the Bus Riders Union is a civil rights group and racism in the United States is once again on the rise -- we will speak our mind and recruit members based on our clear politics. While a few white riders may not like our politics, many people of color, and many anti-racist whites do. We will not bite our tongue to please the wrong people who do not support us anyway.

2) The rights of members to disagree with our politics. Members have the right to disagree, and to express their views, but an organization also has the right to protect the integrity of its meetings and to restrict debate that is redundant and clearly hostile to the purposes of the group. The Bus Riders Union is an anti-racist organization. That is why we hold a new members orientation, to make sure people know what group they have joined, that is why we have principles of unity and by-laws, that is why we put out leaflets with very clear politics, and publications like "A New Vision of Public Transportation."

It is not a person's right to come, meeting after meeting, to use the public comment period to talk about why he or she does not like the use of "transit racism" and to use each meeting to criticize the leaflets of the organization, the behavior of the bus riders, and to defend the Los Angeles MTA (sic). The BRU has a clear program and members should ask themselves honestly if they are generally in agreement with that program. Again, members still have the right to express their opinions, but after a while, the chair will have the right to rule certain discussions out of order. Also, members who disagree with other members because they believe their remarks are chauvinist and destructive also have the right to express their views. And if some members are loud and assertive against the organization, other members have the right to be loud and assertive in defense of the policies of the organization.

3) White chauvinism in the organization. U.S. society is racist. By racist we mean institutions that make explicitly derogatory remarks about black, Latino, Asian, and indigenous peoples and carry out policies that actually hurt them. We do not think any white person in the BRU is racist. But we think that some members do not understand the concept of white chauvinism. White chauvinism is an implicit sense of superiority that white people get, often without consciously knowing it, by living in and benefiting from a white racist society. In the BRU this is reflected in several ways.

When the meeting begins, sometimes as many as 5 or 6 white people put their hand up to speak, while many Latino and black members do not raise their hands at all, or wait for others. Is it because the black and Latino members are "inferior" or don't know what they think? No. It's because white people have been educated to think very highly of themselves and their opinions and feel more "right" to speak out. How many white members look at the room and notice that too many white people are speaking or trying to speak, how many notice that monolingual Spanish members rarely speak -- how many want to take action to change that?

Some non-Spanish speaking members have refused to take translation headphones, this means that they are saying they don't really care what Spanish speaking members are thinking or saying. That is unacceptable and chauvinist. It is our view that any English speaking member who refuses to use the headphones should not be allowed in the meeting, they cannot be allowed to talk but not listen.

One white member talked about a bad experience she had on the bus, and then talked about black people in the street shaking the bus. She then used the term "you people" to talk about black people. This is in our view chauvinist. But worse, several white people applauded loudly like they were tired of defending black people and they too agreed that black people were hurting the bus riders' cause. A black member, A'isha Salaam, then explained, very graciously that the sports fans after the Lakers game were in her view acting like fools, but what did that have to do with them being black? We would add that in England in particular, white soccer fans have been rioting and killing each other over games, are those white Englishmen hurting their cause, whatever cause they have. But those white Englishmen were not slaves, are not pulled over by police because they are black, are not beaten in stationhouses or denied a job or a home because they are black.

The remark the member made was, in our view, very inappropriate, but the loud applause of support for her remark by several white members seemed destructive and cruel. People have the right to speak, but the group has the right to be very angry at chauvinist speech that is directed against black, Latino, and Asian members.

Fortunately, these instances are few and far between. But they must be dealt with openly so they happen less and less.

4) The language rights of Spanish speaking members. The Bus Riders Union believes in the equality of languages, and has done more than any organization we know to try to run fully bilingual meetings in Spanish and English. We think we have made a lot of progress, but we do not believe we have succeeded in creating a rewarding and equal experience for our Spanish speaking members.

We have three main problems.

1) We need translation headsets for all members, not just the Spanish speaking members. This is expensive, but we have just ordered 30 more headsets at $85 apiece. They will be ready at the next meeting! Any members who would like to contribute to the costs of the new headsets can help at the next meeting.

2) Our translation is done by members who work very hard, this is a very difficult job. But sometimes English speaking members speak too rapidly so it is difficult to translate, sometimes the translators are good but can't convey the whole story to Spanish speaking members. Sometimes expressions in English are not the same in Spanish and things get "lost in translation." We are working to hire professional translators for future meetings but in the present, we ask each member to speak slowly and to listen very carefully. If Spanish speaking members do not understand the Spanish translation or think that more was said in English than was translated in Spanish they should speak up and tell us -- that is helping the organization.

3) Some English speakers are not cooperating. They do not listen to the English translation of Spanish speakers, they talk when Spanish speaking members are talking, waiting for the translation, even though that is very distracting to the Spanish speaking members. We need to have full respect for each other's languages and cultures and we cannot tolerate white or U.S. chauvinism among a small number of our members.

We wrote this to help provide some clarity and leadership to this discussion. We hope to see you this Saturday so we can express our views and help bring the organization even closer together.

BRU Planning Committee -- Maria Aguirre, Alex Caputo-Pearl, Rita Burgos, Manuel Criollo, Martín Hernandez, Cirilo Juarez, Barbara Lott-Holland, Eric Mann, Shawn McDougal, Lupe Rivera, Ted Robertson