MBTA must stop harassing black kids
Boston Globe Op-ed 5/31/2001
By Lani Guinier

THE MBTA HAS zero tolerance for laughing. If you are caught laughing out loud at or near an MBTA stop, you can be arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Zero tolerance means no laughing, no running, and not even minding your own business while waiting for a bus.

According to testimony at a hearing at the Boston Public Library on May 23, where the Massachusetts Black Caucus investigated these allegations, riding the MBTA is serious business.

As a result of hyper-aggressive policing policies enforced by the anticrime unit under MBTA Police Chief Tom O'Loughlin, an undercover MBTA police officer can put a loaded gun to the chest of a black teenager whose only crime was walking downstairs to catch the No. 42 bus at the Forest Hills station.

Another officer grabbed the boy's crotch, as part of his routine pat-down. Why? Someone had reported that there was a group of black teenagers somewhere in the station, and someone else claimed they saw a gun.

Standing with a friend in quiet contemplation of a mural is also a criminal offense, if you are black, according to the testimony about MBTA policies. It is called trespassing and warrants being handcuffed, fingerprinted, booked, and put in a cell by yourself for six hours. When you and your friend, another eighth grade student, ask the arresting officer why he does not arrest the white kids who are standing in the same area, also apparently trespassing, the cop answers without skipping a beat: ''We only have two sets of cuffs.''

And the black kids caught laughing out loud? As they were being arrested, handcuffed, and taken into custody, two white kids jumped the turnstiles with impunity. The arresting officer did nothing about those who were stealing service. His chief testified that jumping the turnstile, after all, is ''not a criminal offense.''

At a standing-room-only hearing, witness after witness testified that they were arrested, handcuffed (one 17-year-old girl was shackled when she was brought into court) for the crime essentially of using public transportation in the city of Boston.

A 12- and 14-year-old were also arrested. Their mother was told that being handcuffed to a pipe was done ''for their own good.'' Otherwise they might have been hit by a car.

If you think there is something wrong with these stories, you are right. As Lisa Thurau-Gray, an attorney with the Suffolk Law School Juvenile Justice Center, testified, ''The cowboy conduct of the anticrime unit constitutes child abuse.''

But when asked whether the MBTA had internal policies in place to discover patterns of abuse and stamp them out, the answer at the hearing was an emphatic ''no.''

Has any police officer ever complained to the chief about the conduct of one of his fellow officers? The chief's answer was simple: ''no.''

The mother whose children were handcuffed to the pipe was asked whether anyone ever apologized to her. ''No,'' she replied quietly. How did her children react? ''Well they were angry. But I grew up in the '50s,'' she said softly. ''Prejudice is part of life. It is something we all deal with all our lives.''

No one was listening to her pleas when she first reported to the MBTA headquarters to retrieve her children who had been arrested and booked at 3:17 p.m. She could see the MBTA officers through a glass partition, but they just ignored the ringing bell.

Desperate, she used the pay phone in the lobby to call the FBI, the Boston police, and the mayor's office. Finally, an MBTA employee allowed her in at 6:35 p.m., only to have her wait another three hours while her children were ''being processed.''

The charges against the children were eventually dismissed. However, they still have an arrest record, which ought to be expunged immediately, public apologies delivered and just compensation made.

Kevin Sullivan, the secretary of transportation, admitted at the hearing that ''the people who spoke today are believable.'' He proclaimed the session therapeutic. But it is not therapy that is needed.

The Black Caucus hearings should serve notice on the public at large, not just the MBTA leadership. It is time to reconsider and reduce the criminal law enforcement jurisdiction of the MBTA.

It is time to hold the MBTA leadership accountable for its irresponsible enforcement of criminal law. It is time to insist that the MBTA adopt and enforce policies that improve the quality of life for all transit users, including and especially our children.

Lani Guinier is a professor at Harvard Law School.
This story ran on page 17 of the Boston Globe on 5/31/2001.
Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.