Fight Racism! Join the Bus Riders Union
by Jenni "Emiko" Kuida

As Japanese Americans, we know about racism. We know about being immigrants in this country. I remember being taunted at school, "Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!" Others know the anger of being denied jobs or housing. If you’re younger and think you haven’t experienced racism, ask your parents or grandparents to tell you about internment camps.

Over the years, employment and housing laws were created to combat discrimination. Japanese Americans worked together in multicultural grassroots coalitions, fought for redress, and won. We still have a long, long way to go, but things are better.

Have you ever ridden on the buses in Los Angeles? Although my Issei grandmother took the bus to her job as a seamstress, I’ve never been a regular bus rider myself. Years ago, when my car was stolen, I had to take the bus to work. When I sprained my ankle playing racquetball in college and couldn’t drive, I hobbled to the bus stop on crutches to get to work. Other than that, I’ve always had a car.

When the Commuter Express started bus service from the San Fernando Valley where I live, to my office near the LAX, I took the bus to work. I was lucky. These were brand new buses. I rode to work in clean, air-conditioned comfort with cushy seats. It was like those luxury tour buses that you can charter on trips to Vegas or the Manzanar Pilgrimage (Saturday, April 26). I liked it. I didn’t have to deal with traffic on the 405 Freeway. I could read, sleep or chat with other bus commuters on their way to their "white-collar" jobs in the South Bay. Rarely was the bus ever crowded.

The Westside office building where I work has an annual Transportation Fair where they hand out incentives like posters, bumper stickers and free bus passes. What’s more, the company where I work has a Commuter Transit Reimbursement policy. In effect, I was getting money for taking the bus!
So, when I heard about the Bus Riders Union, I wondered why this was so important or why I should join. Then I started to learn more about the people who take the bus---many because they don’t have cars and need to get to work, school, the grocery store. Not because of some corporate-subsidized incentives or because their cars are in the shop.

The fact is, there are 350,000 bus riders in Los Angeles who use the Metropolitan Transit Authority. 81% of bus riders are African American, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander and Native American. 60% of bus riders have annual family incomes below $15,000 and 57% are women.

94% of all MTA users are bus riders who rely on old and overcrowded buses. Meanwhile, the MTA Board has spent billions of dollars to construct the rail lines that are used by only 6% of public transit users. According to the Bus Riders Union, the MTA wants to spend at least $804 million on the Pasadena Blue Line, money which could help double the bus system in this city.

A Chinese American woman I know rides the Metrolink into Union Station every day. She says that the riders on the Metrolink come in from the Santa Clarita Valley and are mostly white, suburban business people who "choose" to commute by train. The bank where she works pays for her monthly train pass and gets a tax break for doing so.

You can see where the MTA creates these different forms of transportation for white or more affluent commuters, such as the Commuter Express, Metrolink and the DASH buses. The average Metrolink rider receives almost $30 in subsidy per passenger per ride, while bus riders on the Vermont Line receive a subsidy of only 34 cents. Is this fair?

I wonder how many bus riders who earn less than $15,000 per year work for employers who pay for their bus passes. Most? Some? Just a few? Do they "choose" to ride the bus?

The Bus Riders Union and the Labor/Community Strategy Center filed a class action civil rights lawsuit charging the MTA with racial discrimination. They alleged that the MTA favors expensive rail projects created for mostly white, suburban commuters at the expense of low-income and mostly immigrant bus riders. They have demanded 50 cent fares, a $20 monthly pass, 2,000 new buses, clean fuel buses, no privatization of bus lines and an elected MTA Board.

Focusing on the concerns of low income and people of color, the Bus Riders Union has won some encouraging victories. Through grassroots community organizing, they stopped bus fare increases for five months in Sept. 1994, and saved the monthly bus pass from elimination.

Last October, the MTA signed a federal Consent Decree where they agreed to make buses a priority and reduce overcrowded buses. They agreed to lower bus fares for monthly and bi-monthly passes and created new weekly passes. But they also agreed to buy 152 new buses, the first of which were due in December of 1996. However, the MTA has not complied with this agreement and failed to meet the first deadline to reduce overcrowding. They haven’t ordered the new buses that were due in December or the buses that are due in June of this year.

What can we do to help? Even if you’ve never ridden the bus, you can join the Bus Riders Union and attend their meetings on the third Saturday of each month at their office on the corner of Wilshire & Western. There is also going to be a Public MTA meeting next Wednesday, March 26th at 10:00 a.m. at the MTA Headquarters at Cesar Chavez & Vignes. Bus lines 1, 2, 33, 40, 42, 60, 68, 70, 71 and 78 will take you there. The purpose of this meeting will be to demand that the MTA comply with the Consent Decree in order to live up to their agreements.

Rita Burgos, an organizer for the Bus Riders Union stated very eloquently that, "this isn’t just a bus issue, it’s a civil rights issue. When JAs fought for redress, we saw it not only as a Japanese American issue, but a civil rights issue."

As Japanese Americans, we may or may not have to ride the bus every day, but we know about racism. That’s why I’ve joined the Bus Riders Union, to help "Fight Transit Racism."

Jenni Emiko Kuida is a recent member of the Bus Riders Union and writes from Panorama City. For more info on the Public Meeting on March 26 or to join the Bus Riders Union, contact the Labor/Community Strategy Center/Bus Riders Union at (213) 387-2800. Opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

Originally published in The Rafu Shimpo, March 18, 1997.

Updated: 11/10/02

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