Muni Will No Longer Take Cops to Anti-Police Brutality Protests

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Police form a line near 4th and Bryant streets in San Francisco, in front of a Muni bus some officers rode to the protest on May 31. (Courtesy of Chris Arvin)

Two Saturdays ago, demonstrators marching in San Francisco viewed a peculiar sight.

Some police, clad in full riot gear, did not arrive at Union Square in police cars, sirens blazing. Nor did they ride in on motorcycles, bicycles or even those armored vehicles — the Lenco BearCat — that have been ubiquitous in demonstrations across the United States. Instead, they arrived the way 720,000 people once traveled to work in San Francisco every day (before COVID-19, anyway) — by Muni bus.

After a public outcry and a quieter, internal rebellion by San Francisco’s own transportation agency employees, the years-long practice will end.

Muni buses will no longer transport police to political demonstrations about “police brutality,” the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency announced on Twitter Tuesday.

It’s a small rebellion by a transit agency against local police, and particularly poignant after decades of mistrust between black Americans and public transportation agencies.

It was on a bus, after all, that Rosa Parks was met with racist orders to yield a seat to a white passenger in 1955 — and it was on a BART platform where Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a transit police officer as he lay unarmed on the ground in 2009.

The decision by Muni leadership came after turmoil both public and behind closed doors. And there are no rules in Muni’s books to prevent the practice in the future — yet.



Lateefah Simon, president of the BART Board of Directors, is also a lifelong Muni rider. Growing up in San Francisco, Muni was part of the fabric of life: going to school, going to work and, yes, part of being arrested after a protest.

In 1991, a young, junior high school-aged Simon took a 38-Geary Muni bus from Presidio Middle School to an anti-Iraq war protest downtown. When she was arrested, police tossed her and other demonstrators on a Muni bus bound for juvenile hall.

“They sure did put us on a Muni bus,” she recalled.

But in the intervening decades, a movement in the transit community has risen to bring public transit onto the side of protesters and racial justice.

At the start of the George Floyd protests in May, one New York City bus driver inspired many in the world’s transit community. When detainees from a demonstration were loaded by the New York Police Department onto a city bus, the driver walked off, refusing to transport the protesters.

Crowds at Barclays Center, where the protesters were arrested, wildly cheered for the driver. The video went viral, and was viewed more than 12.5 million times as of June 10.

But here in the Bay Area, transit-lovers skewered Muni after watching social media videos of police in riot gear emerge from Muni buses to counter protesters. The driver did not walk off, and on social media the agency was perceived as against protesters demanding the defense of black lives.

One of those self-described transit “geeks” against the practice is David Sorrell, a UC Berkeley transit administrator. Sorrell, who is black, told KQED his industry is predominantly white, male and of an older generation. Sorrell grew up in Chicago without access to a car, so his love of buses and trains grew from a young age. He saw the world from the window of a train. In that light, Sorrell called Muni transporting police to a local protest “infuriating.”

“From an optics standpoint, and from a personal standpoint, it's disappointing that the one thing that is supposed to connect our communities together is being used as a tool to stifle our freedoms of speech and assembly,” he said.

Sorrell was not the only one to express outrage online. Chris Arvin is a prominent figure in the world of local transit lovers, known for his cherubic happy-faced bus and train art which he sells as pins and shirts online.

Marshaling his thousands of online followers, Arvin blasted Muni for transporting police to protests. He noted that the agency was once dubbed “The People’s Railway” when it began in 1912, and should remain for the people — not cops.

“During Sunday’s peaceful protest in support of black lives, I saw a police officer aim a rubber bullet gun directly at a woman who had her hands up,” Arvin told KQED. He also tweeted a photo of that moment. “Public transit buses should be solely for the benefit of riders, serving their transit needs, not to aid another agency in bringing weapons to a peaceful event.”

Even SFPD hasn’t kicked up a fuss about the move.

“We recognize we are all in the midst of a difficult, emotionally charged time as we come to terms with painful truths about the kind of policing that took George Floyd’s life in Minneapolis,” SFPD Sgt. Michael Andraychak said in a statement. “SFPD's commitment to the safety and First Amendment rights of those we serve remains undiminished, of course, and we've adjusted our transportation and operations accordingly."

While some are already praising the decision publicly, the decision is actually a reversal.

Major U-turn

Only one week ago, Muni leadership said the agency would continue to transport police to demonstrations.

Speaking to the SFMTA Board of Directors during their public meeting last Tuesday, Jeffrey Tumlin, director of SFMTA, said he was surprised to learn Muni buses were used to transport police, which he only learned after a photo of a bus transporting police was tweeted by this KQED reporter. Tumlin was swiftly met with criticism by Muni riders and his own staff.

“Two days ago, I learned from social media that our Muni buses are being used to transport police officers. This is apparently something the agency has been doing for many years,” Tumlin told the SFMTA board.

He then detailed some legacy of public transit and racism, including San Francisco planners’ historical erasure of black neighborhoods, labeled as “blight,” to erect new freeways.

“So as I work to try to reform the horrific history within my own industry, I need to honor (SFPD) Chief Bill Scott’s leadership for structural change within his,” Tumlin added. “We’re a city department just like SFPD. SFPD officers are our colleagues.”

By the time Tumlin voiced his support for police, the outrage on social media against Muni had quieted. Protesters redirected their energies to police clashes in San Francisco and the Bay Area.

But internally, staffers from various SFMTA departments voiced their outrage to Tumlin. The relatively new SFMTA director had started his tenure in 2019 with bold promises to correct his agency’s historic injustices against the black community, and his new stance on police threatened to turn those words into mere lip service in the eyes of his staff.

Voices within the department began to organize. In just a few days, Tumlin threw his agency into reverse.

Never Again? Not So Fast

Already, some in the city are rebuking the agency for its new policy.

“Hey Muni, lose our number next time you need officers for fare evasion enforcement or removing problem passengers from your buses and trains,” the San Francisco Police Officers Association wrote on Twitter.

Should pressure mount from the police union to restore service, there is no regulation on SFMTA’s books preventing them from transporting police, only the promise of its director.

To prevent Muni from being used as police transport in the future, the city’s charter or SFMTA’s own policies may need to change.

There may be some support for such an action at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Supervisor Shamann Walton, who represents the historically black Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco, told KQED “I am not sure why SFMTA would be participating in militarizing our streets in these times of unrest and high tensions between community and law enforcement.”

There is some appetite to make this a permanent change at the SFMTA Board of Directors, which sets policy for the agency. Jane Natoli is a nominee by Mayor London Breed for an empty seat on the board, and is awaiting final approval for her seat by the Board of Supervisors. She called it “confirmation limbo.”

But, should the board appoint her, Natoli said she would work to enshrine a policy so Muni no longer transports police to city protests.

“This is something that as soon as I saw, I was just shocked,” Natoli said. “I think that that shows that our values aren't necessarily aligned with our actions.”

Should no local leaders act, bus drivers themselves may be the last line against the practice. They drive these special service buses on a volunteer basis.

Roger Marenco, president of Muni’s union, the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, said his members value police when they help with assaults on bus drivers and understands the police’s desire to maintain peace at protests when break-ins occur.

He called it a “delicate line.” But Marenco also used to drive a bus himself.

“An officer taking away somebody's life, that person is never coming back to life, ever,” Marenco said. “It just seems like, ‘why are we not standing up in solidarity in terms of this movement that is occurring here due to the murder of George Floyd?'”

“If it were me?” Marenco said, he would refuse to drive that bus.