Another One Rides the Bus: Systems of Mass Transit as Vehicles of Protest
By Julia ThomasJune 25, 2017
ON NOVEMBER 12, 2016, a car dashboard camera captured dozens of Badger Coach buses lining both sides of South Canal Street in Chicago. The individual who took the video immediately shared it with the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s site InfoWars and declared it evidence that the buses were “bringing in protesters” paid for their disruptive work and participation in post-presidential election protests.
The bus conspiracy theory came out of a far-reaching dialogue about the implication of buses. Around 9:00 p.m. the day before, a Twitter user in Austin, Texas, named Eric Tucker posted a photo of charter buses parked in the city’s downtown area with the caption: “Anti-Trump protesters in Austin are not as organic as they seem. Here are the buses they came in. #fakeprotests #Trump2016 #austin.”
Though Tucker had not seen buses loading or unloading, it seemed to him that the situation “looked very planned” and that the buses were “just blocks away” from the protests that began on the University of Texas campus. The photo was retweeted at least 16,000 times, eliciting waves of dialogue on Twitter and Facebook about “fake protesters” and the idea of mass transportation of disruptors paid for by the Democratic Party and anti-Trump groups. Viewers were fixated on the buses themselves — as vehicles that could move and enable protesters even as they mask identities and intentions. Why get into the business of counting crowds when buses are higher denominations of value? A reported 200 buses applied for parking permits in Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington, DC, on Trump’s Inauguration Day; that figure was bested six times over by the 1,200 bus permits secured for the Women’s March on January 21, the very next day. It’s fair to assume that these separate sets of buses coming to DC a day apart carried folks with conflicting political views, reflecting a significant difference in the political affiliations of those who traveled to watch Trump’s initiation to office, and those who took to the streets in support of the voices, lives, and perspectives threatened by his proposed policies. When it comes to bringing protesters to the scene or using forms of transit as a means of mobilizing around social change, liberals and participants on the left lead the charge.
Buses represent the collectivization of people and physical movement across spaces and become — in the minds of those who dread uprising — a potentially greater threat than marchers themselves. With their own individual terrains, defined by the constant influx and rotation of riders themselves, buses can be thought of as spaces in which people with different perspectives and stories come together, whether as part of an intentional call to action or as individuals moving about their lives.
Buses are shared airspaces between people engaged in the ever-present task of migrating from and within places. They are widely recognized as gasoline hogs, clumsy bodies that shield viewpoints on highways, and they have been spaces of intensive state control and segregation, much like other public sites and instances that exist in common historical memory. Across time and in various calls for action by a broad range of riders, buses also are sites of struggle and powerful, influential spaces in social movements. They represent mobility of the masses and a visual call to action, many more thousand strong than the singular vehicles that carry many to and in acts of protest.
Consider the legacy of the Million Man March of 1995, an event that brought thousands of black men to the capitol to collectivize against antiracism and was viewed by its critics at the time with fascination and dread, even as its participants were experiencing something completely different. The 1996 film Get on the Bus, while fictional, effectively captures the journey of a crew of men coming from South Los Angeles on a Spotted Owl charter bus. The riders lay out the laws of the bus and their hopes for the drive and the march itself. “Father God, we come to you on a pilgrimage that is bound for glory,” says one character. Most of the riders are middle aged; they speak about the march as a return to youth and reinvigoration of life.
They also recognize the vulnerability the buses faced as visible structures carrying black men to a nationally publicized event, and wondered about their simultaneous power and risk. One character muses:
Think of all the trains, planes, and cars filled with black men headed to DC right now. Thousands, right? Thousands. And if I’m a crazy white man in the government and I want to kill a million black men in one full swoop, hit one button and boom, when and where would I do it? At the Million Man March.
This underlying concept of transit systems’ capacity to function as moving targets points to a larger phenomena of fear and risk in mobility.
Buses and other forms of public transit are also objects of fear and vulnerability to violence and attack, from both government and non-government forces. In an age of terrorism and the mass murder of civilians, public transit and buses are particularly vulnerable to such threats and become spaces of heightened fear. Given the great dependence of people upon public transit, this worldwide rising anxiety manifests in the form of continued bus and shared vehicle ridership. These sites are thus necessary to consider as inherently political, complex, and indicative of larger dialogues and threats in a more geographically distributed, interconnected world.
Buses make about half of all public transit trips in the United States. They trace the rounds on established routes planned out and monitored by the state; they pursue paths less traveled, perhaps, when they are owned by private companies designed for touring, moving students for educational purposes, or cruising at the whims of people who buy them at mass sales of overused school buses. Buses are simultaneously mixing pots and vessels endowed with the power of modern technology, speed, and functioning that allow them to exist as spaces for exchange.
Public transportation as a whole is associated with the connotation of belonging to the “masses,” an idea that shapes ridership and historical perceptions of buses as a mode of transportation. While buses have been the sites of heavy state control and segregation around the world, they have also been places in which groups have organized bus boycotts, commandeered control of transportation, ridden across state lines, and taken over spaces that allow them to express power by occupying a significant area.
While the dehumanizing images of “herding people” may arise when it comes to buses, the reality is far more empowering. Buses are spaces of exchange and influence for people who have been marginalized by ruling private interests and institutionalized racism.
The name of the vehicle widely known as a “bus” in the United States has it roots in the Latin term omnibus — meaning “for all” — introduced by French mathematician Blaise Pascal in 1662, as a formation of seven horse-drawn carriages that ran along three different routes. The transit idea did not catch on widely in urban centers until the 19th century, but even this particular model intended to be accessible. Over time, the bus became a vehicle associated primarily with people of color and the working poor.
According to the report “Transit Civil Rights and Economic Survival in Los Angeles” from the Los Angeles Bus Rider’s Union, 90 percent of L.A. transit riders are people of color, and 68 percent come from households living on less than $26,000 a year. In a time where fare rates are increasing and bus routes are cut, this presents an intersection of environmental injustice and civil rights. And yet, the dreary buses can still inspire. The poet Marisela Norte writes creatively about her experiences onboard various forms of Los Angeles public transit, specifically about the experience of moving as an individual in Union Station. She writes of how the waiting hall is constantly changing “like the exchange rates on romance, survival, and a cup of coffee,” but also the common sense of movement to separate spaces:
I steady myself
as if I were driving
or already on a moving train
outside of this self.
The Los Angeles Public Transit Story
have been cast as
strangers on the same train of thought
inside Union Station
all of us
are going somewhere
while standing perfectly still.
Norte explores the dynamics between strangers sharing the same physical space while having their own very individual experiences aboard metros, trains, and buses. The differences themselves manifest in the objects and clothing that people wear —
the buttoned down
the generic plastic bag
— and the diversity of destinations across the city, which themselves tell a larger story about urban geographies and placement. Mass transit is largely informed and shaped by racial and class dynamics. People of color, who have historically been and are currently proven to be more dependent upon public transit, are being denied the right to move where they need to go because of financial obstacles and route changes. A white, middle-class person would have the ability to take public transit only as an option, perhaps, because of their location and larger dispensable income.
Birmingham, Alabama, is another such urban center that drew primarily African-American farmers from the surrounding counties into the city to work in industrial production at the turn of the 20th century; by 1900, 50 percent of coal miners and 65 percent of iron and steel workers in Alabama were black, according to Robin Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. Though segregation persisted and black voters were disenfranchised after 1905, there was no “single, identifiable black community to speak of,” as racial segregation shaped the economic and political conditions of the city. However, a small portion of the black population gained prominence in industrialized Birmingham, but “could not always find complete satisfaction in material wealth when they […] were denied basic democratic rights.” Many of them would eventually be driven to the buses and trains heading to northern cities in the Great Migration. As a result of societal and political conditions, writes Edwidge Danticat, “Black bodies, living in “certain uncertainty” […] can be in transit, it seems, for several generations.”
Civil Rights movements in the United States — including the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–1956 and the Freedom Riders of 1961 among countless other instances of resistance — grew out of generations of organizing within African-American communities, which became increasingly visible as southern cities experienced expansion and industrialization at the turn of the 20th century. This increase in political participation and formation of community groups and networks led to widespread feelings of frustration and a sense of “being tired of giving in” that was both intersectional and collective.
Pamela E. Brooks writes on the feelings of African Americans in Montgomery toward buses and white policing of public spaces:
The years of segregated bus seating had tired and angered the black residents of Montgomery. Black riders had stood over empty seats reserved for white passengers. They had watched drivers who hauled nearly empty buses pass them by as they waited on the street corners. They had witnessed the arrest of children for failing to follow the prescribed seating arrangements. They had watched drivers verbally and physically assault women riders and have them arrested by the police for minor infractions. […] As a means of both protest and self-protection, many Black men had abandoned their use of the buses.
They had good reason. Bus drivers could control where buses stopped and frequently assaulted women, children, and other riders without consequence, since there was often no proof of witness or law enforcement beyond the voices of those in the space.
In his book Race Rebels, historian Robin Kelley explores the “congested terrain” of buses as “moving theaters” in which African Americans fought against white supremacy and racism. He discusses how buses themselves became “small war zones” created between the primarily white drivers and black passengers, who frequently engaged in intense physical fights or verbal arguments.
Arguing that public spaces such as buses and streetcars are overlooked places in terms of injustice, Kelley weaves through the dynamics of individual and collective acts of resistance on buses. He recounts instances in which a group of black passengers continually rang the bus’s bell to protest against a particularly racist driver, the consistent acts of resistance from black women passengers to sit in racially segregated sections of buses, and the break out of a fight when a driver closed the door on a black passenger’s hand. These acts were about “making noise,” in Kelley’s words, and combating racism through verbal resistance that often took a group tactic approach.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott, often called the “spark plug of the modern civil rights movement” with its collective resistance of thousands of low-income and working-class women, arose out of many decades of organizing on buses. Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on December 1, 1955, though likely not a planned protest, pushed the long-time issue of bus segregation into the public agenda. For years, Parks acted as a legal advocate for African Americans wrongly implicated by the legal system, and was one of many, often female, individuals who fought to end the “double standard of justice” present in Montgomery. Claudette Colvin’s conviction for disobeying bus segregation laws in Montgomery in 1955 was both unexpected, after a grueling challenge in court, and brought about a “breaking point” in the black Montgomery community after years of conflict surrounding buses.
The boycott came to an end on December 20, 1956, shortly in the wake of the Supreme Court’s upholding of the Federal District Court's ruling in Browder v. Gayle (1956) that segregation laws on public transportation were unconstitutional. The decision itself was undoubtedly a significant victory, made stronger by the Montgomery black community’s commitment to destabilizing the city’s profit from public transit; effectively, a front against capitalism. In doing so, Boycott participants pushed forward the Civil Rights organizing of that moment with their impact on the greater economic balance of Montgomery, and also continued to face violent backlash from white opponents of the court’s ruling in its immediate aftermath. Buses, then, can be thought of as a microcosm of the widespread societal dynamics and racist conditions that persisted even as segregation laws changed.
The Freedom Riders’ use of buses functioned as a visual method of challenging the illegality of interstate mass transit travel by African Americans. Starting in Washington, DC, on May 4, 1961, the Freedom Riders — a total of 13 students, seven black and six white students on two buses, one Trailways and one Greyhound — sought to make a trip through major cities in the deep South to investigate everyday segregation. The organizing group Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) presumed that this would be a two-week trip that would end in New Orleans, Louisiana, but what began as two buses eventually grew into a call of solidarity for people across class, race, gender, and religious backgrounds to join the movements.
At its height, over 430 Freedom Riders traveled throughout the South over the summer of 1961, and 300 were arrested and put into Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary. As Historian Raymond Arsenault describes, “it became almost a university of nonviolence. They became not just individual groups of Freedom Riders, but they had a shared experience […] it all got blended together. They became tougher. They became even more committed. They became the shock troops of the movement.”
The violence reached serious heights in certain areas of the South, when the Riders would experience large groups of people surrounding their buses and throwing rocks, verbally and physically assaulting them, and setting fire to their vehicles. However, the Freedom Riders took an oath of nonviolence upon entering into the movement and maintained that collective spirit throughout.
Bernard Lafayette Jr. describes the lyrics of a song that Freedom Riders sang in jail to taunt their captors with the images of buses — which must have seemed like tanks of an approaching army.
We made up a song saying that buses are coming. And we sang it to the jailers to tell them, and warn them to get ready, to be prepared, that we were not the only ones coming. So we started singing, “Buses are a-comin’, oh, yes, buses are a-comin’, oh, yes. Buses are a-comin’, buses are a-comin’, buses are a-comin’, oh yes.” And we say to the jailers, “Better get you ready, oh, yes.” The jailers say, “Alright, shut up all that singing and hollering in here. This is not no playhouse, this is the jailhouse.” So, we said to ourselves, “What are you gonna do? Put us in jail? Better get you ready, oh yes. Better get you ready, oh yes.” And they said, “Wait a minute, hold it. If we hear one more peep outta you guys, we gonna take your mattress.”
These lyrics, though somewhat playful, reveal the power of buses. The students’ acknowledgment that they knew they “were not the only ones coming” is indicative of the strength of the movement and its strong base for surging forward. The repetition of “buses are a comin’” engrains the idea that violence and the threat of imprisonment cannot prevent buses themselves, as public vehicles, from moving people.
Buses played a key role not only in literally mobilizing people during the Civil Rights movement, but also through serving as the sites of interracial resistance away from places that could immediately reject the presence of blacks. Though itself a movement that occurred over a long period of time, the Freedom Riders and the Civil Rights movement both show how buses actually impaired the government’s ability to control movement, despite non-physical infrastructures. The physicality and mobile nature of buses allowed them to exist as an intersectional space of resistance as young people continued to ride forward into the South.
Protests continue to play a part in everyday American life, and buses have been there to make it happen. More than 1,400 protests related to the Black Lives Matter movement took place in approximately 300 US and international cities from November 2014 to May 2015, according to a study by researchers at the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University. Of the protests during this period that took place in St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland, half of them sought to shut down or inhibit movement on transportation infrastructures.
“We systematically show that the political protest today is now almost totally focused on transportation systems, whether it’s a road, a bridge, in some cases a tunnel—rather than buildings,” said Mitchell Moss, director of the Rubin Center for Transportation, in an interview with the Washington Post.
This focus on infrastructures of mobility marks a contrast with the occupations of schools, restaurants, and administrative offices that commonly occurred during protests in the 1960s and 1970s, as earlier generations used more fixed places with capitalist structures, such as protests against segregated lunch counters at restaurants in the United States and the occupation of factories by French university students during the widespread student and worker movement in 1968.
Social movements and marches today play out mainly in cities and on streets. If “omni”-buses are intended to serve as places for “all,” how have they existed and moved as vehicles across history? While buses have been the sites of heavy state control and segregation across the world, they have also been places in which groups have organized bus boycotts, commandeered control of transportation, ridden across state lines, and taken over spaces that allow them to express power by occupying a significant area. As a symbol of power tensions and larger questions of inequality, racism, discrimination, buses should continue to be thought of as key vessels endowed with social power — and the capacity to disrupt and transcend spaces as a means of making change.
One such movement now is centered on Cuba, where I came across a bus in December 2016 along Havana’s Malecón displaying artwork against the US blockade. It arrived here via ship from Mexico after carrying passengers on a several week-long “Friendshipment Caravan” to Cuba. Started in 1992 with a group of 100 caravanistas out of the organization Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), the annual trip seeks to act using nonviolent civil disobedience against the US travel ban to Cuba and uses buses as both a space to transport aid and a medium for publicizing the group’s message. In 1993, one of the two buses traveling through the United States was seized by US customs, but its riders were firmly committed to their mission of moving onward into Cuba without a license. The people on board initiated a 23-day hunger strike that was supported by an emergency response network of calls, protests, and fasts in solidarity in 20 cities across the United States and Cuba. Eventually, the Clinton administration allowed them to move forward.
Since its inception, Friendshipment Caravan Program Coordinator John Waller estimates that over 100 buses — typically yellow school buses — have been donated to organizations in Cuba. The buses are fundraised for by various partner organizations of IFCO each year and are painted in a variety of styles — sometimes in abstract, less-conventional designs, on other occasions in more traditional iterations of IFCO slogans and logos. Starting in the northern United States, the buses typically travel through the country and pick up people as they go to create what Waller describes as a “traveling community.” From the bus’s first of two destinations in Mexico City, caravanistas then continue onward to a week or so of events, dialogues, and meetings with partner organizations and friends of the caravan in and around Havana.
In the wake of the Obama administration’s lifting of certain travel and economic restrictions, some aspects of the annual bus caravan have changed. With the election of Trump, Waller said that the organization felt that they “couldn’t wait until July,” when the caravan typically begins. In April 2017, six vehicles, including one school bus, carried speakers and traveled throughout the United States to talk with people about Cuba relations and policy at a variety of events. In July 2017, the caravanistas will fly directly to Cuba rather than travel through the United States.
The bus that I saw by the Malecón does not have a year or date of arrival painted on it. On the front, there is a green-shaded outline of Cuba with a heart over it; one side of the bus has the telephone number for Pastors for Peace written above the windows. The bus made its way with people through the United States, sharing its message across communities as it moved, and into Cuba, where it carries with it a legacy of crossing borders closed by government regulation.
This is just another bus story. More will doubtlessly unfold in the coming years.
As the population and economic values of cities continue to grow, public transit systems are becoming simultaneously more crowded and congested, all the while still serving as key spaces of movement and transportation for citizens. They have been present across history in various forms, beginning with the horse-drawn streetcars of Paris, evolving into trains and later buses. These systems are deeply reflective of their respective political climates and should be considered essential sites of study and organizing efforts in social movements. Vehicles of mass transit are intended to be a space for all, but are strategically designed to serve those with the privilege to maintain an area’s status quo. The visibility, mobility, and the intersectional energy of those who ride buses makes these vehicles an essential site in gathering support and traction for movements, and in redefining how justice can be achieved.
Julia Thomas is a writer from Bainbridge Island, Washington. A recipient of the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to study journalism and processes of storytelling around the world, her work has appeared in Marie Claire Magazine and Vela Magazine.
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