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The defeat of the TSPLOST/TIA is an unmistakable victory for the people of Metro Atlanta. By voting down this racist and regressive tax, Atlantans have backed away from this attempted neoliberal money grab, and in the process have provided themselves with the needed breathing space to think of alternatives. Sure, not all voters in the 10 county area voted for progressive reasons. But Black Atlanta -more than any other voting base- realized the retrograde strategy this tax represented, and made their voice heard. And since the Atlanta Public Sector Alliance (APSA) was the first organization to publically oppose the TSPLOST, and since we prioritize outreach to transit dependent black MARTA riders, we are very interested in analyzing and discussing the ramifications of this win, and how we can move forward in a principled way.

Because victory does not come often to our side, and progressive grassroots organizations like APSA and others cannot compete with the budgets, staffing, or media access that gives some other formations and groups their prominence, or influence. Our side succeeds by dialoguing with the people, taking action, and projecting a new vision. So on those rare occasions when we win, it demands that we take time to take stock and understand what happened, so we can build momentum against oppression.

APSA organizers, especially those that use our Transit Rider Union (TRU) committee structure have been working on Transit Justice for more than 7 years. Through action and reflection, our victories and defeats, we believe we are in a special place to begin a dialogue on what it means to defeat the Transportation Investment Act, and to talk about what going forward could look like.

In our opinion, there are some very key elements to consider when attempting to make sense of this situation. Some of the elements are: (1) the voters that voted no, (2.) the unknown (or hidden) historical events that helped ensure victory, (3.) the role of the Ella Baker method of grassroots organizing & social media in the win for transit equity, and (4.) moving forward while keeping the transformative organizing of the most oppressed at the center.

The Voters

When APSA began its campaign against the TSPLOST last summer, we could already see an unusual nexus of opposition forming among black transit dependent riders and working class whites from the outer ring of Metro Atlanta who some call Tea Partiers and conservatives. Outreach to riders had already shown us that the people who have to ride the bus everyday were suspicious of more promises and the unequal taxation the Transportation Investment Act (TSPLOST) represented. Black bus riders have endured 40 years of broken promises and coercive demands, and they refused to play along again.

But it was not until we participated in a hearing at the state capital on governance that we realized how deep the white suburban opposition was to the TIA. At this governance hearing in December of 2011, those against the TIA were alone in a room full of white suburbanites who vehemently opposed the TIA for all the traditionally conservative reasons: they hate taxes no matter what, and they felt the TSPLOST represented an expansion of “big” government.

It seems that progressive white metro Atlantans were the last to make the decision to oppose the tax. We at APSA had many hard talks with progressive white allies, some of whom we were never able to convince to vote no. The “yes” voters could only see the benefit for themselves, and not the hurtful impact on those most oppressed. Others only made their minds up to vote no in the final days leading toward the vote.

Because of our principles, we could never have formed partnerships with reactionaries, who despite their objective role in opposing the TSPLOST, were in every other sense, our opponents on other, non-negotiable issues of importance. Also APSA’s ability to build partnerships was affected by the fact that so many so called progressives remained ambivalent until the final weeks. And despite what seems to be the exclusion of APSA and the GA Green Party from some of the more recent formations of “coalitions”, both of our groups worked hard to get the vote out through the use of leaflets, grassroots media, and discussions. We feel vindicated in our efforts to reach voters.

Grassroots Organizers In Action

Grassroots organizing was a key element in the victory. For more than one year, APSA went out into communities, on the buses and trains, into barber shops, and house meetings to encourage the people to vote no. Through hot summers, the fall, winter, spring and summer again, we quietly and methodically canvassed. And to be honest, it wasn’t hard talking to transit dependent people about why they should vote no. It was really just a matter of letting people know the vote was coming.

And though we struggled with many groups in the beginning on the issue, the GA Green Party (GGP) was always supportive. They helped enormously when no one else would. GGP made flyers and videos; they walked the streets, and spoke to Atlanta residents. They conducted forums and debated the “yes vote” puppets.

The DeKalb NAACP was another early opponent of the referendum. After hearing of the personal opposition to the tax by DeKalb NAACP president John Evans, we had several meetings with him. Soon after sharing our position and reasons to oppose, the DeKalb branch (and later the state NAACP) came out against the TSPLOST. APSA is proud to say that we included Mr. Evans in early meetings with bus riders and MARTA workers to dialogue on the TIA. We also were invited to attend NAACP meetings to inform the members in South DeKalb of our point of view.

Race, Economy & Over-reaching

One factor that made the grassroots organizing somewhat easy was the racist nature of the tax; Black Atlanta would have had to pay twice what white suburbanites pay for regional transportation, yet black Atlanta would have received far less for their money. Black south DeKalb in particular –who’ve been waiting for the broken promise of the I-20 corridor for 40 years- could clearly see that this tax was yet another racist grab for money. Black folks in the city have experienced constant fare increases (to some a form of taxation on the poor) and service cuts on MARTA.

Over and over again, black people saw themselves paying more for less. But what made this circumstance different from the abuses Black riders routinely suffered at the hands of MARTA Management and its Executive Board was that this vote (a referendum) was in the people’s hands; decision making on transit was taken out of the hands of the MARTA Board that doesn’t represent workers or riders.

We at APSA also think that voters rejected the TSPLOST because a regressive tax –especially in the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression- is simply a bad idea. Sales taxes hit the poor and working class much harder than the well-to-do and the rich. People are having trouble making ends meet, and to add an additional cost to needed purchases was –for working class voters- too much to tolerate. Moreover, tying financing for transportation to a sales tax is -in general- a failed model.

MARTA is funded by a sales tax, and it suffers because of it. When the economy is hurting, the poor and working class spend less on purchases, and thus there is less revenue going to MARTA. And when this happens, this moves the MARTA Board to the wrong-headed decision to cut services and raise fares in a so called effort to balance MARTA’s budget. As long as we tie funding for necessary services to the exploitation of those already exploited, we are never going to get the kind of transit we need. There are much better ways to fund transportation. We can start with looking at using gas taxes and progressive taxation to meet our transit resourcing needs.

The crafters of the TIA, its monied bakers, and the political puppets who served as mouth pieces are victims of their own hubris. They used every rhetorical trick, marketing PR manipulation, and opportunistic “so called” progressive to move their agenda; thinking they could overwhelm not only the grassroots opposition, but also the political instincts of the people. This arrogance was perhaps due to past successes utilizing this strategy, but times have changed. 40 years of racist neoliberal attacks, gentrification, and a down economy have made people skeptical of attempts like these. Moreover, the heavy-handed media assault of billboards, TV, and radio spots, ironically worked against supporters because it did a great deal to reveal to the public who really stood to gain from the tax. The more TSPLOST supporters pushed, the greedier they looked.

History Is Important

But it wasn’t just the objective conditions like racism, economics, and the arrogance of the TSPLOST backers that made the win happen. APSA and our allies like the GGP had to take action, and we did. This is important to note in the midst of the aftermath stemming from the victory, because historical narratives shape consciousness. Its only when we study history as it really unfolded can we see what drives progress. For example, its only when we learn of the untold (or submerged) story of how Rosa Parks, and the Women’s Political Council (WPC) created a city-wide network of activists who initially concerned themselves with issues of sexual violence against Black women in Alabama, can we really see how the movement infrastructure for the Montgomery Bus Boycott came into being. But for these unsung heroines, we may not have had a Civil Rights movement.

We will not suggest that this win on the TSPLOST is equivalent to that historic boycott, but similarly, we already see that the history of our work is being submerged under what seems to be a media and social networking tide lifting up formations that have only mobilized around this issue recently. Some members of these formations are quite familiar with our long history doing transit justice work and our early opposition to the tax, yet we have not been included in any of the planning and discussions these formations are having. If groups and coalitions choose to ignore our many years doing this work, our insights, our methods, and vision, that’s their choice, but we at APSA feel it at least necessary to give a brief timeline of our work against the TIA to highlight the role grassroots organizing had on the outcome of the vote:

•Ø Summer 2011 – APSA mobilizes riders to go to the MARTA Board to urge a no vote to fare increases and TIA. That same day, APSA issues the first public statement opposing the TSPLOST.
•Ø Fall 2011 – APSA begins discussions with DeKalb NAACP, disability groups, GA Green Party, MARTA employees and MARTA riders on why we should vote no.
•Ø Winter 2011 – APSA attends hearing at the state capital on TSPLOST governance. We urge all in attendance to vote no, and to demand that any governance be placed democratically in the hands of workers, and riders.
•Ø January 2012 – APSA and the GA Green Party leaflet at the King Day Parade
•Ø Spring 2012 – APSA conducts weekly outings on MARTA to speak to riders about the tax; APSA begins outreach to CCT riders and bus operators; APSA organizer Terence Courtney begins regular information sharing on Facebook; and coordination between APSA and GGP escalates.
•Ø Summer 2012 – APSA continues weekly outreach to riders, and using social media to inform the public.
•Ø July 31st – TSPLOST is defeated.

The Ella Baker Method, the WPC, and APSA

When we analyze the vote, we at APSA believe that if we can point to any one factor that secured the outcome of the referendum, it has to be grassroots organizing. Those organizing for the NO vote, did not have the high priced commercial ads, billboards, yard signs (until very late), broad political backing from elected officials or support from economic elites. Grassroots groups like APSA were able to use social media like Facebook, but the reality is that most poor, working class black Atlantans, (who were the major force to reject the TSPLOST) do not use social media as their primary tool for information gathering, sharing and organizing. And the few mainstream liberal organizations that came out in opposition –who were given media coverage- do not have the ability to move the black working class either.

So, it was that grassroots outreach that made the difference. And we at APSA were one of the first to engage the issue utilizing the Ella Baker model of organizing. Like Baker, we believe power emanates from those most affected. Consequently, we prioritized the poor, bus riders, and black communities. APSA went door to door, bus to bus, and MARTA station to station over the past year talking with voters about the tax. And in this case, the form of direct action we asked people to engage in was voting NO on this referendum. GGP often joined us. Additionally, we have to recognize that the DeKalb NAACP had events where they did outreach as well.

This victory tells us that grassroots organizing and social movement building has to be looked at as our primary tool to affect deep change. But not just any kind of “grassroots” organizing; we must center organizing on those most affected. Just as Rosa Parks and JoAnn Robinson of the Women’s Political Council (WPC) focused on affected women and their families during the Jim Crow days in Alabama to build the movement infrastructure to defeat Transit Racism in 1956, we have to learn from their example and always strive to do the same. History –in this case- is repeating itself; and it’s telling us something if we are ready to listen.

On a deeper level, we must also battle the facile (and historical) tendency some might have to attribute success to notable names and celebrities, mainstream political parties, and social media, because much of this only came to the fore in the final days of the vote. Let us instead dig deeper to see where our power really lies, and what we must do to harness it.

Which Way Forward?

The defeat of the TSPLOST is only the beginning of a much longer struggle for transit equity and human rights in metro Atlanta. We know that MARTA is in deep financial crisis. We know that the state is threatening to take over and privatize a system that the people of Fulton, DeKalb and the city of Atlanta have operated, maintained, and supported for 40 years.

We have been here before and we know the script. It happened with Grady Hospital. Drive the system into a manufactured crisis by withholding the necessary financial support. Use the underlying racist message that African-Americans are too incapable and corrupt to run their own institutions. All this then opens the door to the Chamber of Commerce and the private sector to say, “There is no alternative! We have to privatize.”

What we do in the coming months will determine whether we can stop the continuing, neoliberal assault on the public sector and protect the people’s interest in MARTA. What will it take? As referenced in the previous section, history shows us the way. It will take a dedicated movement of grassroots people who are committed to protecting, restoring, and expanding MARTA as a key piece of Atlanta’s public sector.

Learning from history, this movement will have to be built carefully and deliberately. South Africa’s freedom struggle uses the slogan “Nothing About Us Without Us.” This will have to be a guiding principle for our work. APSA has been engaged in long-term relationship building with the constituencies most affected by inequitable transit policies. Understanding their vital importance, we have been about the slow, undramatic work of base-building with these forces. We know that their leadership is crucial and that they must feel ownership of the organizing process. If we are to be successful, this cannot be a movement led by “advocates” who speak for the oppressed. The oppressed must always lead their own struggle for freedom.

What will our program for human rights and transit equity look like? In April of 2008, the Atlanta Transit Riders Union, a committee of APSA along with a graduate student from Georgia Tech produced a “Transit Riders’ Vision for Regional Transit in Atlanta; A Plan from the Perspective of Dependent Transit Riders.” This plan was developed in consultation with both riders and workers. Their input was essential and a good example of the process we must use as we continue to be guided by what the people say they care about and what they want.

Among the points from that plan that we believe are still relevant to today’s discussion about regional transit is the need to “Keep Public Transit Public” and to have a governing board that is accountable and representative of the constituencies it serves.

We believe that in order to maintain public accountability, high quality service, and decent working conditions for employees, public transit should not be privatized or contracted out to private for-profit companies. Privatization transfers public assets to businesses in the private sector, replacing public participation and institutional accountability with a profit motive. It has been proven that privatization does not guarantee government savings; does not mean lower transit fares; and does not improve overall service. It is bad for democracy and it is bad for workers.

We believe that any regional transit system should be owned and operated by public agencies. Service should not be contracted out to private companies, who by their very nature sacrifice quality, safety, and worker’s wages for profit. Given what MARTA was intended to be, it is our position that MARTA should be the sole planner and provider of regional transit. MARTA management should be held accountable for its finances and its decision-making but it is also true that it is the largest transit system in the country that does not receive operating assistance from the state. This is responsible for the financial crisis that MARTA currently faces.

We also believe that any governing regional transit board should be a directly elected so it is accountable to the voters and riders. The board should use weighted voting based on the population they represent. The board should only include representatives from jurisdictions that fund the system. All campaign contributions from contractors obtaining or seeking contracts from the agency should be banned. In addition, the Amalgamated Transit Union and transit dependent riders, in particular, the disability community should have representation on the board.

Finally, we believe that the human rights of transit workers must be protected. Their rights to a livable wage, to a grievance procedure, and to collective bargaining must be lifted up as essential to the creation of a regional transit plan. Rather than a patchwork of small, suburban privatized systems each governed by their own contract, the Amalgamated Transit Union should represent all transit workers with one contract under the MARTA umbrella. It is only fair that there should be equal pay for equal work.

The Atlanta metro area deserves the kind of transit service that only a public agency can deliver. An agency that is controlled by the community it serves. An agency that recognizes its obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the needs of transit workers and all transit riders, especially the transit dependent.

We know what the state plans to do. Learning from history, we also know the pitfalls that come from not correctly paying attention to the methods we use to build movements. It’s time to get ready. It’s time to build a people-centered, human rights movement that recognizes that the leadership of such a movement must come not from self-appointed leadership but from those most affected by the oppressive nature of this system.

Terence Courtney
Atlanta Public Sector Alliance
542 Moreland Ave. SE
Atlanta, Ga. 30316