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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

During the recent strike by MTA drivers, the BRU activists picketed alongside bus drivers. But in the political realm they seem more comfortable with enemies, which they can find even among seemingly natural political allies. At a recent speech by Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, for example, union members shouted out slogans questioning his commitment to fight racism and larded down the Q&A session with their agenda until many in the audience were grumbling against them. When the BRU determined that mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, the former Assembly speaker, had departed from his anti-rail orthodoxy, they began taunting him at public appearances.

This passion grew out of the death of a plant that manufactured cars.

The Cornell-educated Mann had worked at General Motors' Camaro assembly plant in Van Nuys during the '80s, and when the auto manufacturer decided to shut it down, a coalition that also included actor Ed Asner and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) fought unsuccessfully to keep it open. The coalition survived and changed its focus to industrial pollution, particularly in poor neighborhoods, a syndrome the left calls "environmental racism." The center evolved into the broader Labor/Community Strategy Center. One of the projects the center spun off in 1992 was the Bus Riders Union.

Despite the union's small membership, Mann believes that at least 40,000 passengers "identify" with the group, allowing him to claim BRU representation for nearly 10% of the systems' 450,000 riders. For funding, the Strategy Center and union have relied not so much on dues (some members pay only a dollar) as on grants from foundations such as Nathan Cummings, Jesse Smith Noyes and the Rockefeller. Contributions totaled $881,000 in 1998.

There are certainly some self-defined socialists among BRU's leaders, but Mann, who drew a salary of $88,000 in 1998, refuses to characterize the union that way. It is not anti-capitalist, he says, merely "anti-corporate. There are many points of view, but all [our members] see the privatization of public life and the profit motive as the greatest obstacle" to having government serve the masses instead of an economic elite."

The anger that wells from this movement comes from the heart of Mann. It is what sets him apart from other social activists. You can hear it in his vow to "train organizers and get the poor to fight," his ready explanation for "why I hate liberals," his branding of the MTA's policies as "the most grotesque, race-based discrimination in an urban center right now probably in the U.S." Complex, self-righteous, closely reasoned yet free of apparent doubt, Mann does not limit himself to critiquing L.A.'s broken-down buses. Sit down with him at a bar and he'll connect the dots of oppression, from the MTA to the larger class struggle in the U.S., to the economic hegemony of the International Money Fund and World Trade Organization to low-wage factories in Mexico, to U.S. support of torture in Latin America.

This struggle, Mann tells you, isn't the '60s, when the enemy was entrenched white males. This is a struggle against L.A.'s "multiracial corporate class." Politicians of all ethnicities and both genders are culpable, he says. "From [Mayor Richard] Riordan, who says he's trying to run the city like a business, from [MTA board members] Yvonne Brathwaite Burke [an African American] to Gloria Molina [a Latina], the train is a symbol of personal power." What the union wants to tell the poor riders it tries to organize is that by refusing to upgrade bus service, the MTA has reinforced second-class citizenship and sown the seeds of self-hatred. "We're trying to get poor people to realize that when [the powers that be] say the bus is dirty, they really mean: 'You are dirty.' . . . Everything they say bad about the buses is a code word for you. But they're the ones who make the buses like that. You're not dirty; the MTA is dirty. You're not cattle. It's the MTA that treats you like cattle."

On Route 210 Limited Southbound

After a few minutes of passing out leaflets, BRU activist Udovic was upstaged. By fomenting the weekly fare strike, she had inadvertently unleashed the creative talents of a gray-bearded passenger named James. Inspired by her talk, James raised a stumpy walking stick wrapped in duct tape to his lips as if it were a microphone.

"We need more buses," James started chanting as the 210 huffed up a commercial stretch of lower Crenshaw.

A claque of Inglewood high school girls sitting opposite furnished the background vocals.

"Boom, boom, boom boom," went the schoolgirls.

"We don't need pretty speeches. . . ."

"Boom, boom, boom boom."

"We need more buses, every 15 minutes at nighttime."

"Right now, right now, right now."

"We're going to get more buses if we strike."

"Every Thursday!" Udovic chimed in.

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