At the 125th street subway station in East Harlem, you can board the 4, 5, or 6 trains and arrive at any one of New York City’s boroughs. For Keesha Brown, 29, this station is the final stop on her way home from work as a startup consultant. Brown remembers leaving the subway one day and seeing a man who looked distressed. That look went from distress to relief, she says, when she used her unlimited MetroCard to swipe the man into the subway, providing a free ride for him.
“As a long-time New Yorker, when I’m leaving the train, if there’s someone who makes eye-contact, I just swipe them in,” Brown said.
Brown isn’t alone. Across the city, people with unlimited MetroCards are giving away swipes. It’s part of a campaign called #SwipeItForward. Launched in May 2016 by a coalition of organizations including Why Accountability, New Yorkers Against Bratton, and the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), it aims to reduce the number of police interactions that place people in vulnerable communities at risk of burdensome fines, jail time, or even deportation—all for being unable to afford the $2.75 fare.
“Our clients report that NYPD officers hide on the platforms to catch people.”
In 2016, “theft of services” was the second highest cause of arrests in New York City. Most theft of service charges stem from people not paying transit fares, according to Jared Chausow, a policy expert at Brooklyn Defender Services. His organization has provided legal representation to thousands of people charged with theft of service.
What’s more, those arrested for evading fares are disproportionately people of color, young people, and the poor. According to the news release announcing a new report by the Community Service Society, those arrested for fare evasion in NYC were “overwhelmingly” young black men at subway stations in high-poverty neighborhoods.
“Our clients report that NYPD officers hide on the platforms to catch people jumping the turnstile—kids leaving school, anybody trying to get to work,” Chausow said.
Brown remembers her own run-in with the police for jumping the subway turnstile. She was 14 and was issued a $75 fine. “I was lucky enough that I could pay the fine, but there’s so many who simply don’t have the money,” she said.
At one #SwipteItForward action last year, activists from PROP, Copwatch, the Coalition to End Broken Windows, and Black Lives Matter NYC gathered at stations with high concentrations of low-income people of color, including the 125th street station. Activists chanted, “No one should go to jail for $2.75,” “Poverty is not a crime,” and “Real New Yorkers swipe it forward.” They also distributed information about the campaign to subway riders, including instructions on how to safely and legally give a swipe.
The movement is aiming to turn grassroots efforts into true political momentum.
Bob Gangi, who founded PROP after 29 years doing prison reform work with the Correctional Association of New York, said #SwipeItForward actions like these were intended to raise awareness about the injustices associated with “broken windows” policing. This method of policing heavily targets minor infractions such as fare evasion. Gangi said he saw the number of Black and Latinx New Yorkers charged with misdemeanors spike after the adoption of broken windows policing policies by Mayor Giuliani in the 1990s. “It’s a policy that criminalizes poverty,” he said.
Chausow said a major win for the campaign came when the subway Metro Transit Authority confirmed swiping it forward was legal as long as you do not sell your swipe.
Now the movement is aiming to turn grassroots efforts into true political momentum.
“We’re working on making our actions bigger and making it more than about just our actions,” Mikaela Berry of PROP said. Berry helped organize the actions in the subways last year. “We’re coming up with legislation to look at what it would look like to eliminate fare evasion as an arrest and as a summons.”
“Policymakers must reinvest the funds spent on enforcement and punishment.”
Progress is being made toward this goal. Over the summer, Manhattan’s District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said his office would no longer prosecute people caught and charged with “theft of services” for “turnstile jumping” in criminal court. This was a reversal of a 20-year practice of prosecuting fare evasion as a crime. According to an official memo, this move was intended to “eliminate unnecessary incarceration, and reduce the risks of deportation, loss of housing, and loss of employment that often accompany a criminal prosecution.” The office’s first steps were to dismiss outstanding warrants for 640,000 low-level offenses now on the books and to drastically reduce the prosecution of “turnstile jumping.”
A similar policy announced by Brooklyn’s acting district attorney goes a step farther. It lays out specific measures to shield low-income immigrants who commit a misdemeanor from becoming targets for deportation. As of today, the DAs of NYC’s three other boroughs have not announced a similar policy shift.
Despite these policy successes, NYC still isn’t providing free fare to low-income people. And that, ultimately, is what #SwipeItForward activists and supporters say is needed.
Actions like swiping it forward are really just a stopgap measure until transportation is affordable for all, Chausow said. “The answer is simple: Policymakers must reinvest the funds spent on enforcement and punishment in making public transit affordable for all New Yorkers.”
This is a solution Gangi champions, too. “What the city should do is provide free fare to low-income people,” Gangi said, “so they can use the subways to make a better life for themselves.”
Updated October 18, 2017: To clarify which organizations made up the coalition that launched #SwipeitForward.
This article was funded in part by a grant from the Surdna Foundation.