Commuters at stations in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Harlem were greeted during afternoon rush hour Wednesday by activists handing out free rides as a form of protest against the NYPD's broken windows policing strategy, which targets people for minor offenses like fare evasion.
During the evening peak hour on Wednesday, Brooklyn's Broadway Junction station was bustling.
"Poverty is not a crime!" chanted the dozen protesters, before setting themselves up next to two turnstiles offering people a free entry to the subway. It's illegal in New York City for people to solicit a "swipe in" of another commuter's subway card—but it's not illegal to offer to swipe someone in. The fine for unauthorized solicitation is $50. Fare evasion carries a $100 fine and is classified as theft of services and punishable by up to a year in prison.
A single, one-way ride on the city's subway system, operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), is $2.75, while an unlimited 30-day pass is $116.50 per month, or $1,398 per year. According to the latest data from New York City's Center for Economic Opportunity, 20.7% of people across New York City's five boroughs live below the poverty line, meaning they earn less than $11,880 per year for a one-person household, or $24,300 for a household of four. Here's how that breaks down by borough:
The MTA has raised fares four times in the past eight years (a monthly unlimited card cost $80 in 2008, for example), with another fare increase of up to 4% expected in 2017.
This is the second time this year that activists have handed out free swipes using unlimited 30-day subway cards to draw attention to the disproportionate number of people of color being arrested for the minor offense of asking for a ride on the subway. The Black Alliance for Just Immigration was joined by other police reform and racial justice groups including the Coalition to End Broken Windows, Why Accountability, the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), Black Lives Matter NYC, the Black Youth Project 100, and the ANSWER Coalition.
"Swipe it forward is to protest one of the many facets of broken windows policing," said Albert Saint Jean, an organizer with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. "We want to create a culture of people swiping in their fellow New Yorkers."
The NYPD denied that officers target low-income people of color for low-level offenses.
"A tremendous number of quality of life enforcement is in response to specific and repeated complaints from members of the public. These arrests and summonses are not race-based. Officers have the ability to use discretion in the issuance of summonses," a spokesperson said in a statement to Fusion.
The department told the New York Daily News in February that of the people caught jumping turnstiles to avoid fares, just 30% were arrested: the other 70%, they said, were given court summonses instead.
Activists say that doesn't address the problem: that people of color, particularly low income people of color, end up being penalized for not being able to afford a trip on the subway.
Data provided to PROP by the New York Division of Criminal Justice found that 92% of those arrested for fare evasion at subway stations in 2015 were people of color–that's 2.291 white people arrested for theft of services, compared to 26,678 black, Latinx, or Asian New Yorkers.
"This type of enforcement becomes an all too frequent interaction between the NYPD and homeless New Yorkers, LGBT youth, and many low-income residents," the group said in a statement. "By encouraging people to help each other, we offer a direct solution to the problem of criminalizing people who simply can't afford to pay the ever-growing cost of MTA fares."
While protesters handed out flyers and held placards explaining their position, the dozen or so people the group swiped in were grateful for the free ride.
"They're helping the people, they're helping the community, and I think it's awesome," said one woman who was swiped in, who declined to give her name.
Others were supportive but not entirely aware of the message the groups were hoping to send.
"It's good because it saves our money, right?" said Amelie, another woman who was swiped in.
The NYPD's controversial broken windows policing strategy was designed by recently retired Police Commissioner William Bratton and targets minor offenses. Community groups, including Black Lives Matter New York and PROP, have criticized the policy, saying police use it to unfairly target low-income, diverse neighborhoods and criminalizes people of color.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority did not immediately respond to a request for comment.