MUHAMMAD: Racism, Self-Hatred Diminishes Metrobus Service

Riders at Metro's New Carrollton station prepare to board a shuttle bus traveling to Morgan Boulevard on May 16. The shuttles are running while maintenance work is completed at New Carrollton and four other Orange Line stations that are closed until June 15. (William J. Ford/The Washington Informer)
Riders at Metro's New Carrollton station prepare to board a shuttle bus traveling to Morgan Boulevard on May 16. The shuttles are running while maintenance work is completed at New Carrollton and four other Orange Line stations that are closed until June 15. (William J. Ford/The Washington Informer)

Imagine, if you will, this scene at a busy downtown bus stop. A 65-year-old-plus white man, leaning on his cane, just inches from the front of a Metrobus. The man refuses to move, to let the bus proceed because he wants to get on board. The black bus driver refuses to allow the old man to board and shuts down the bus.

You can’t fix your mind to picture an elderly white man blocking a bus from moving because he wants to board the bus, and a black bus driver refusing him. Your mind will not process such an image. It can’t happen in fast-gentrifying Washington, D.C.

But it happened to me. I had an adventure on a D.C. Metrobus Thursday morning, May 25. I was on the S-9 bus, southbound on 16th Street at about 10:30 a.m. An S-2 which goes closer to my job passed my bus. Both buses stopped at U Street. I got off and hurried toward the bus in front, trying to get the driver to see me and stop, but the bus (coach #5479 S-2 Federal Triangle) pulled away. I got back on my original bus.

At P Street, both buses were stopped at the same red light. My driver blew his horn and signaled to the bus in front that a passenger would like to transfer. I got alongside the S-2 bus in front, all the way past the back door, waving my arms and my cane so he could see me in his rearview mirror. I could certainly see him. As I approached the front, the light changed and the driver pulled away despite my shouts and waving in his face. I hit the side of the bus thinking maybe he hadn’t noticed me. He kept going.

I get back on my original bus. At M Street, the last stop both have in common, my original driver pulled along the left side of the S-2 Federal Triangle coach #5479 so he couldn’t pull out into the traffic and not see me approaching and trying to board.

By now, I had my suspicions, so I walked right in front of the bus, instead of going to the sidewalk. When I got to the bus he wouldn’t open the door. But I was directly in front of him and he could not drive away again, without striking me.

By now I was getting angry at his belligerence, but he couldn’t depart and I wouldn’t move. Again, picture a white man in my shoes. You can’t do it. The driver would let any white passenger board the bus immediately.

I know bus drivers have been assaulted, spit upon and abused by rowdy passengers on some inner city routes recently, so much so that drivers now sit in enclosed cages, like the bulletproof shields in some liquor stores or gas stations.

“You could’ve broke my window,” the driver shouted to me out of his window.

“Why didn’t you just stop for an elderly, cane-carrying passenger,” I wondered.

“You sure would have boarded Miss Becky, or any white person,” I shouted. I wasn’t budging from my spot in front of his bus.

A bus heading north stopped across the street and a man wearing a Metro “operations” vest came over and asked why was I blocking the bus. “He won’t let me board!” I complained. “What about those [five] people waiting at the bus stop?”

“Too bad,” I said, “they’ll just have to be late like me.”

“I would have drove around you,” the operations dude said, cursing me. “And you can’t do nothing to me.”

His name tag, badge, and every other potentially identifying mark employees normally wear on the job had been removed. He left.

“If I had been a white woman you would have let me on,” I shouted. The driver closed the window so he couldn’t hear me anymore.

The driver got off the bus and went to the folks at the bus stop to get witnesses to back him up because I promised I would complain to Metro about his wretched service, and he wanted witnesses to back him up. But they only saw the last part of a three-bus-stop humiliation, and of course by then I looked unreasonable, not like the poor innocent airline passenger drug unnecessarily off an airplane by orders of insensitive crew members, just like this driver.

I decided to walk on to work. I didn’t want to end up dead at the hands of a cop who would come up, see me, an angry black man, and automatically think “criminal,” as opposed to a “crusader” if I had been an elderly white man with a cane.

The truth is, incidents like this happen thousands of times every day to black female as well as male passengers, when self-hating, very well-compensated black bus drivers devalue and disrespect black folks routinely.

Oh, by the way: In about a month, Metro is raising all its fares, and decreasing the amount of “service,” such as it is, that transit system provides. Happy commuting.

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About Askia Muhammad 64 Articles
WPFW News Director Askia Muhammad is also a poet, and a photojournalist. He is Senior Editor for The Final Call newspaper and he writes a weekly column in The Washington Informer.
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