A World without Fares

Leijia Hanrahan

No more turnstiles, and no more borders.

Last November, on my way to a demonstration, I received an audio message from my friend Seba, in Santiago, Chile: “Good luck, and don’t forget to send pictures—we need to make memes.” At this point, “pics or it didn’t happen” applies more to the demonstration than it ever did to the afterparty.

In New York City, where I live, the state is set to spend $249 million on an additional five hundred subway cops to offset a contentiously estimated $200 million loss due to ongoing fare evasion—a daily practice citywide; often an unassuming economic necessity, always a political refusal. Police in MTA stations, ostensibly as part of an explicit, coordinated crackdown on fare evasion, have tackled, beaten, and arrested young Black kids for hopping turnstiles and selling candy on trains, and arrested and ticketed Latina women for selling churros on platforms, confiscating their wares in the process. What is on paper an effort to maintain the MTA’s collapsing bottom line is plainly an extension of the same “quality of life” policing that made broken windows theory canon in New York. (New York isn’t a singular case—on February 28 of this year, police in Chicago shot a man in a subway station for moving between train cars. The video circulated online and immediately sparked heightened criticism of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s recent move to increase police presence on the CTA system.)

Following the unrest which began in Santiago last October—the first acts of which were mass fare evasions on the metro—stickers designed by the Mexican illustrator Perrito emerged on the MTA . The design depicts Negro Matapacos—a dearly departed Chilean riot dog—hopping a turnstile, accompanied by the inscription: “EVADE”. Chilean news media reported on Matapacos’s traversal of the equator, and the stickers began to appear in other American metro systems in turn.

Through this kind of diffusion, we signal to each other across borders, across time zones, and maybe most importantly, across specifics. There are no riot dogs in the United States, at least none that have become national celebrities, but the turnstile is a universally recognizable object of containment. “Evade” is easy enough to grasp in any language. It felt kind of geographically inside-out when I sent Seba a package of Matapacos stickers. The package took two months to arrive in Santiago; when it did, its contents immediately appeared on Instagram.

Seba’s audio message had been about the “FTP2” demo that occurred on November 22, 2019; a follow-up to “FTP1” on November 1. FTP, of course, is an acronym for “fuck the police.” Both demos were organized principally by Decolonize This Place, “an action-oriented movement and decolonial formation in New York City and beyond.” Media-savvy, the group first made waves protesting at a number of museums and cultural spaces in the city, such as their successful campaign to force the vice-chairman of the board at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Warren Kanders, to resign over his ownership of a teargas manufacturer implicated in attacks on migrant caravans in 2018.

The FTP actions have been a raucous rejection of increased policing in the subways, or anywhere else. FTP3 occurred on January 31—promotional propaganda for the action went viral almost immediately after being posted. One announcement about the action was even retweeted by Donald Trump Jr., poorly recontextualized as a dig at New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio. The demands set forth by DTP have remained consistent:

1. Cops out of the subway.

2. Free transit.

3. End the harassment of vendors and performers.

4. Full accessibility for people of varying abilities.

These rowdy, far-reaching demonstrations have ended in mass fare evasions, and entailed antipolice graffiti, smoke bombs in stations, turnstiles chopped off, fare-card readers glued shut, and emergency doors chained open. The annual pop atrocity that is New York’s Santacon—a pub crawl attended by thousands of overgrown frat boys dressed as Father Christmas— was détourned last December by a small band of Santas who hopped turnstiles, held open emergency doors, and passed out anti-MTA literature. The production of music videos and memes by participants after the fact serves as a vital (and better designed) counter-narrative to the right-wing condemnations of evaders as dangerous vandals that will inevitably be presented as truth in tabloids like the New York Post.
“Swipe it Forward” actions also occurred on January 15 in East New York and on January 30 in the Bronx, drawing dozens of restless policemen to stand around awkwardly while nobody actually broke the law, since swiping people into the subway for free is legal.

In the emerging global wave of struggle, fare evasion, vandalism, sabotage, and ever-present rage at the police has coalesced into coordinated rejections of the ordinary function of a metro station.

Student-led mass evasions (evasiones masivas) began last fall in Chile as a protest against a proposed metro-fare hike, and developed in a matter of days into a full-on national rebellion calling for the resignation of president Sebastián Piñera and a new constitution. Weeks of a federal state of emergency and military occupation of all major cities ensued, including a brutally enforced curfew. Throughout, residents blasted music by Víctor Jara, the Nueva Cancíon icon murdered by Augusto Pinochet in 1973, through their windows. Even after the withdrawal of the state of emergency, protests and national strikes have continued.

In Hong Kong, the MTR metro system—the city’s “pride and joy”—has been shut down completely for days at a time by anti-government protesters who have been fighting the police since last summer. Mass fare evasions have also taken place in Toronto, Seattle, and Chicago. All of this, of course, has taken place over the course of just the last several months. Past years have seen the same tactics rise to the surface elsewhere, such as the fare strikes in 2013 in Brazil, which quickly sparked a national movement (although it bears mention that the Movimento Passe Livre formed in 2005, and was resurgent in 2015 and again as recently as January 2020). Brazil’s mass fare evasions were initiated by students and anarchists, but coopted by far-right groups—an occasional risk run when organizing around a tactic without a particular political vision, and a reason for antifascist vigilance as mass-evasion movements continue to spread around the world.

Despite some gaps in communication—for instance, many early demonstrators in Chile hadn’t heard anything about the actions in Hong Kong—there is no coincidence in the international, contemporaneous spread of calls to “evade.” The first casualty of austerity is always motion. As a catalyst, the subway reveals more than the tragic mismanagement of public funds. In Chile, placards read: “No son 30 pesos, son 30 años.” It’s not about a 30 peso fare hike, it’s about 30 years of neoliberal democracy, austerity, record income inequality, and laughably poor social services. If New Yorkers were paid living wages, had access to affordable housing, or didn’t regularly drown in private medical debt, perhaps we would be less reticent to part with $2.75 for a subway journey. Transit as a target is as apt symbolically as it is functionally. If a metro is the city’s circulatory system, evasion is a strike to the heart.

In New York, we are held hostage by metro fares, malfunctioning signals, plainclothes cops, and random bag searches. Crumbling, unaffordable transit infrastructure keeps poor people trapped in disenfranchised neighborhoods, made to confront violence or imprisonment as punishment for a desire or need to move. And these violences, like so many others, are intensely racialized, crucially challenging us to recall that we have different experiences of the same enemies, different gravities at stake. In 2018, 90 percent of New Yorkers arrested for fare evasion were people of color, as were 65 percent of those who received summonses. In January, Attorney General Letitia James announced a formal investigation into racial bias by the NYPD on the city’s subways.

When we revolt, we revolt against a logic of motion imposed by capital, which flows freely, while motions of human beings, through the urban landscape and across distant borders, are restricted. To trouble this logic forges a different understanding of movement, integral in a struggle for a world without cops and transit fares. From Hong Kong, the cry cribbed from Bruce Lee to “be water” is a philosophy not only for protest, but for navigating cities designed to keep us frozen.

A progressive movement for free transit is gaining momentum in the United States and worldwide. In Kansas City, Missouri, the municipal government voted unanimously on December 5, 2019 to make all public transit free, starting next fiscal year. There was no concentrated revolutionary uproar, it was rather a common sense measure to boost transit use and address concerns about social equity. Other examples of free urban transit include Olympia, Washington, and almost one hundred other cities and towns across the world. We don’t need to assign a position of total altruism to, for instance, the Kansas City council, and the cost of their decision totals only around $12 million annually owing to the city’s smaller size and ridership. Olympia is certainly looking at a smaller cost than most major cities as well. Still, these changes serve as further structural evidence that free transit is broadly doable, and the decision to increase or enforce a metro fare rather than abolish it is always political, never imperative. On February 5, Mark Treyger, a New York City councilor from Brooklyn, announced plans to bring a resolution before the council to make the MTA free; all trains and buses, year round.

How this movement will interact with the unfolding coronavirus pandemic remains to be seen. The sudden onset of COVID-19 has violently reconfigured the politics of motion—many MTA passengers now are those too poor to afford quarantine—and forced those in power to make concessions to the movement for free transit. In New York City, as in parts of the Bay Area, municipal bus fares have been waived indefinitely. Police presence in many subway stations has dwindled for now, likely owing to some 12 percent of the NYPD being out sick. These things were possible before and they’ll still be possible after. Certainly, even free transit would only amount to the removal of a small degree of insult from a massive ongoing injury—crumbling, inaccessible infrastructure that we don’t have to pay for is still crumbling, inaccessible infrastructure we’ll continue to rely on; cops who aren’t lurking behind turnstiles will find other hiding places.  

Commune contributor Andy Battle wrote of the oppressive state of the MTA in October of 2018, “As long as people keep paying their fares, the message is clear—we accept present conditions.” And if we instead choose rejection, like any good spectacle, the gravity of a mass evasion lies in its potential for reproduction. Considering the mystical future, “when things go back to normal,” we can only fight for a normal that is profoundly different from the one we’re reeling from now. We’ll move together in new ways. We still won’t pay the fare.