Riding the midnight train from San Francisco to Palo Alto the other night, a man sat across from me and politely asked if I was expecting anyone to take the seat next to mine. When I said no, he stretched his legs out, placed his sneakered feet on the seat and proceeded to take a nap.
My blood boiled. Not with the anticipation that I was going to have to wake him up when it was time for me to get off the train (which I did). Not because he was old enough (50 plus) to know that his feet, no matter how clean they seemed, did not belong on the “furniture.”
My blood boiled because he could enjoy the privilege of resting easy because he was white.
I should add that he was white, apparently middle class and well groomed; no one would mistake him for a homeless person in search of a night’s shelter.
My blood boiled because had he been a black or Latino man of any age, well-groomed or not, had he been a passenger on a New York subway rather than Caltrain, he would likely have been arrested and carted off to jail.
A New York Times article “Relax, if you want, but don’t put your feet up,” published earlier this month, precipitated my rage. The article chronicles the New York Police Department’s practice of arresting passengers who take up more than one seat, deliberately or inadvertently, or block the movement of the doors.
William D. Peppers, a black man, was on a nearly empty train around 4 a.m. on his way to his bakery job and had stretched out his legs. He spent 12 hours in jail, pleaded guilty and lost a day of work.
Juan Castillo, a diabetic, was arrested for putting his feet on a subway seat to give himself an insulin injection. He was arrested and denied insulin for 30 hours, but he won a judgment from the city for $150,000.
Flavio Uzhca, a restaurant chef from Ecuador, was detained for standing in the doorway of a packed subway train and was ultimately deported.
When 30-year-old Abdi Omar was charged with having his feet on the seat, he said he was told there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest. He refused to be fingerprinted and was sent for psychiatric evaluation. The warrant was never produced.
I don’t know the racial identity of Michael Weaver, a 20-year-old construction worker, who was arrested on Thanksgiving while he was on his way home to Harlem after having dinner with his girlfriend’s family. Here’s how the Times described his experience: “As he rode an empty E train, Mr. Weaver said, he nodded off and his right knee and thigh leaned on the empty seat next to him. Just before 1 a.m., he said, he was jolted awake by a police officer who accused him of taking up more than one seat. After he spent the night in a cell with two dozen men, he appeared before Judge Toko Serita. The judge offered to dismiss the case if he stayed out of trouble for six months,” the article said. This should give pause to anyone with a 20-something child.
The NYPD’s official line is that attention to major and minor offenses has contributed to the decline in subway crime. Its spokesperson told the Times that many of the subway seat arrests the department has made have resulted in the apprehension of serious offenders.
Unofficially, one officer said he and his colleagues are under pressure to “‘bring in one collar’ each month. The officer, speaking anonymously, was generally disdainful of making arrests for seat violations, but pointed out that stopping people on these charges allowed officers to check them for outstanding warrants. ‘It quite often happens with people laying down on the seats — sure, it could be an empty train, but you stop them and if they don’t have their ID, you have your collar,’ he said.”
Since when did you need an ID to ride the subway?
I should point out that the Times article did not cast this as a racial or gender issue. In fact, the main photo that accompanies the article is of a woman, of undetermined race, with her feet on the seat in front of her and her bag on the seat beside her.
But the result will no doubt be the harassment and criminalization and ultimate disenfranchisement of more black and brown people for “offenses” that would likely go unnoticed but for the color of their skin.