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The Clenched Fist

Doctrinaire and dour, obstreperous and seething, the Bus Riders Union wages an endless war against the MTA.

November 05, 2000

In six months of attempting to rally passengers behind "Fare-Strike Thursdays," Dipti Baranwal had grown used to the drivers' reactions: a nod of the head, a sidelong wink, a shout of disapproval, a threat to call the cops. But never until this balmy afternoon at Rosemead and Crenshaw had the 21-year-old organizer for the pugnacious Bus Riders Union been caught like a mouse in a trap. "Get off the bus!" the driver shrieked. Baranwal's comrade, Olivia Udovic, had already slipped onto the bus and begun announcing that the union was staging its weekly no-pay protest. As in other BRU demonstrations, Baranwal and Udovic were not only trying to pressure the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to buy more buses for its often-decrepit fleet. They were proselytizing. They were trying to shape L.A.'s mostly poor, working-class and minority bus riders into a militant constituency to overturn what they call the MTA's "transit racism."

Even had Baranwal been willing to back off just then, the driver's off-the-bus order would have been impossible to obey because he had slammed the 310's doors shut on the left side of her body and wouldn't let go. Her leg and most of an arm dangled inside the bus, while the rest of her remained on the curb. As she struggled amid the shouting, half-swallowed by the bus' door, Baranwal's bright yellow T-shirt was also shouting the BRU's populist slogan--No Somos Sardinas! Emblazoned across it was an open-topped view of a bus rolled up like a sardine can, revealing tightly packed riders raising fists of revolt.

Half a minute went by, and the driver still hadn't released Baranwal. Then he opened the door just enough to let go of her limbs, slammed it shut and revved up the engine to take off. He'd decided to strand not only the BRU demonstrators but a half-dozen paying patrons who had been waiting for this uptown Crenshaw district bus for 20 minutes. Martin Hernandez, a full-time BRU organizer with a background in performance art, bounded in front of the 310's gargantuan windshield and flashed his valid MTA bus pass. Chris Jones, a high school sophomore recently recruited to the BRU's cause, jotted down the driver's badge number. "I'm writing the MTA about that!"

The driver slammed the brakes, opened the door, and the three remaining BRU activists climbed on board. Over the next few hours, Baranwal, Udovic, Hernandez and Jones would approach their potential constituents with an unfailing concern and infinite patience so different from the persona the BRU displays at monthly MTA meetings. There, members abandon all gentleness: They are doctrinaire, dour, obstreperous and seething, speaking their brand of truth to the hated MTA board.

"Obviously, when we're talking to riders, they're the people who are suffering, who are going to push the organization forward," Udovic said. "And all of us, whether we're transit-dependent or not, have a lot of reasons to have a lot of anger at the MTA. The MTA are the people who are causing our members to suffer."

The BRU, which claims 3,000 members, was formed eight years ago by people who saw L.A.'s woeful public bus service and gleaming subway construction plans as an obscene symbol of the gulf dividing L.A.'s poor and affluent. That view was endlessly reinforced during the recent MTA strike by scenes of stranded nannies, janitors, security guards, fast-food cashiers and garment workers--the bus system's main constituency.

Early on, the union sued the MTA, demanding better bus service on civil-rights grounds. The suit forced the agency into a 1996 federal court consent decree in which the MTA agreed to incrementally reduce overcrowding and improve service, which led to the largest expansion of its bus fleet in two decades. The 10-year consent decree also gave the Bus Riders Union legal standing as the representative of the agency's riders--but that only served to make the activists even angrier: The MTA continued insisting it could not afford nor was legally bound to comply with the bus expansion deal--even though it had signed the consent decree to prevent the union's lawsuit from going to trial.

It was 2:30 p.m. when the northbound 310 swallowed Baranwal. The bus was not as overcrowded as it would be at rush hour. The personalities in transit--old radicals and young evangelists, domestic workers and aspiring auto mechanics, proper matrons and smart-aleck teenagers--were given room enough to breathe. As Baranwal made her way through, some passengers greeted her as indignantly as the driver had, but it was undeniable: her altercation with the driver had captured the bus riders' attention.

Now Baranwal made her pitch. She handed out fare-strike cards bearing the same cartoon as her T-shirt: fists pumping through the roof of the sardine-can bus. So, she asked two passengers, Jasmine Garrison and John Johnson: What do you guys think about the MTA's service?

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