Saturday, August 3, 2019

An Alabama town’s ugly transportation past resurfaces in Hong Kong

Areawide Community Transportation System (ACTS) buses take on passengers at Anniston, AL's Amtrak station in July 2019. 58 years earlier, a Ku Klux Klan mob attacked the first racially-integrated intercity buses to serve the town. (Photo by me) 

Staring out the window of Amtrak’s New Orleans-bound Crescent train as it entered Anniston, AL on a recent Saturday, I caught a view of New Flyer of America’s recently-expanded bus factory.  The New Flyer factory gives Anniston, which lost 5.8 percent of its population from 2010 to 2017, a much-needed economic boost.

Transit agencies throughout the U.S. – including New York City Transit, whose Select Bus Service buses lined the facility as our train rolled past, and the Maryland Transit Administration, which recently spent $81.3 million on New Flyer buses now operating in Baltimore – supply funds that the factory’s 750 workers pass on to local businesses. 

A couple minutes past the factory, on the other side of the tracks, stood one of those businesses: an awning supply shop with two large Make America Great Again signs on its storefront.

As we pulled into Anniston Station, where Areawide Community Transportation System (ACTS) buses were taking on riders, I recalled the events of my prior trip on the Crescent, two years ago. That 2017 spring day – with DC Circulator buses lining the New Flyer facility – our train stopped just beyond Anniston due to a disabled Norfolk Southern freight train blocking the tracks ahead. We sat still for more than two hours before the conductor, having given up on a quick resolution to the problem, ordered our train back to the station, where we remained until the freight train was finally fixed.

A white passenger accosted a black Amtrak employee in the café car while we sat just west of town during that delay, exclaiming in a thick Southern accent that “everything’s wrong” while begging to be let off the train so she could drive to Birmingham, the next stop, for her afternoon religious service.

Greyhound buses in Birmingham, AL, as seen from Amtrak's Crescent train. (Photo by me)
In the spring of 1961, a lot was wrong in Anniston.

Six years earlier, the Interstate Commerce Commission had issued a ruling banning racial segregation on intercity transit, but had done nothing to enforce the ruling. So, the Freedom Riders – a mixed-race group of civil rights activists – took matters into their own hands, choosing their seats for a DC-to-New Orleans bus trip paralleling the Crescent route of today.

On Mother’s Day, a Greyhound with Freedom Riders aboard pulled into Anniston, the first of two passenger-desegregated buses heading into Alabama that day. However, a Ku Klux Klan mob – some members of which were clad in attire they had worn to religious services earlier that Sunday – attacked the bus during its stop at the downtown terminal, slashing its tires. Police, operating in collusion with the KKK, did little to restore order.

The bus made a quick departure, but only made it a few miles west of town before the Klan-inflicted damage rendered it disabled. The KKK mob, which has followed in pursuit, attempted to burn the bus with the riders trapped inside, then brutally beat them once they escaped. The riders made it to a local hospital, but received only minimal care as the mob surrounded the medical facilities. Allies from Birmingham had to come and rescue them, using a fleet of vehicles.

Freedom Riders aboard the second bus, which operated as part of the then-Greyhound competitor Trailways Transportation System, faced similar terror during their Anniston stop. Klansmen boarded, beat the riders to near unconsciousness, and dragged them to the back of the bus. The bus then continued to Birmingham, where upon arrival an even larger mob proceeded to beat the passengers with bats, pipes, and chains.

Despite the violence people aboard those first desegregated buses faced, Freedom Rides would continue for months. Later that year, the movement would catalyze a major Civil Rights accomplishment: full, enforced racial integration of intercity public transportation in the South.

Amtrak's Crescent passes wetlands near Lake Pontchartrain. (Photo by me)
58 years later, the Crescent would not be delayed in Anniston on this day. After a stop at the station – which now doubles as the town’s Greyhound terminal – that seemed shorter than the length of time it takes for the doors to open on a WMATA 7000-series train, the whistle sounded and we were on our way to Birmingham. (The downtown bus terminal at which the Freedom Riders were attacked still stands, preserved as part of a national monument President Obama established.) 

Shortly thereafter, I would – by the type of happenstance that can only happen in an Amtrak dining car – have lunch with Chef Madison Butler, the Rail Passengers’ Association intern spending the summer on a food-inspired cross-country rail trip, during her ride from Atlanta to Meridian, MS. That evening, stunning views of Lake Pontchartrain welcomed us into New Orleans, an hour behind the published schedule but on time for dinner at Acme Oyster House and a night of live music on Frenchmen Street.

A Lyft car at the front of a line of stopped vehicles near Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. (Photo by me)
I would encounter a spontaneous outdoor brass-band performance, on a street congested with ride-hailing vehicles. The chaos served as a reminder that the current state of mobility in New Orleans represents some of U.S. transportation policy’s greatest shortcomings – substantial funding went into construction of the short-line, mixed-traffic Loyola-Rampart Streetcar, but bus service levels remain approximately half what they were prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

But on the other side of the globe, in a city-state that those of us trying to make it easier for people to get around places like New Orleans are infatuated with, a scene bearing eerie similarities to the KKK’s attacks on the Freedom Riders was playing out in a subway station.

Handmade signs implore drivers in New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward, one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods during Hurricane Katrina, to slow down. Though 14 years have passed since the storm, the city has restored just half of its bus service. (Photo by me)  
Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) is one of the world’s best transit systems. The city’s Rail + Property Model has both allowed the Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed MTR Corporation to reinvest economic benefits the system provides city residents and businesses into further transit improvements, while also integrating stations and their surrounding neighborhoods so effectively that the system operates profitably. MTR has garnered such respect that transit providers from Sweden to Australia have contracted their operations to them.

On July 21, 2019, however, MTR’s Yuen Long Station looked a lot like Anniston’s bus terminal did on Mother’s Day 1961.

That day, hundreds of thousands of people had ridden MTR trains to attend the latest in a series of large protests against what they see as increasingly authoritarian behavior by the mainland Chinese government. Much like the Women’s Marches in U.S. cities the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration and the demonstrations in Seoul that catalyzed the impeachment of former South Korean president Park Geun-Hye, transit’s efficiency helped make Hong Kong’s massive gathering happen.

But after the rally, a white-clothed pro-China mob attacked riders aboard a packed train stopped at Yuen Long.  Using metal and wooden rods, the mob did not just attack people headed home from the protest, but beat those aboard indiscriminately. They injured people commuting home from late-evening work shifts, and even a pregnant woman.

Police did not arrive until a half hour after the attack, which an organized crime group carried out. Though local officials stated that the ongoing demonstrations had strained law enforcement resources, activists saw the slow response as evidence that those in charge knowingly allowed the mob violence to happen, much as Anniston authorities conspired with the KKK to terrorize the Freedom Riders.      

A New York City Transit bus at New Flyer of America's Anniston, AL factory. (Photo by me)
From Alabama towns to Asian megacities, public transportation gives people freedom of mobility. And in both, oppressive forces have resorted to violence against transit riders. The attackers in Hong Kong and Anniston had the same goal: to restrict the public’s freedom and spread fear.
Historically, when oppressors try to take on transit riders, they fail. In 1961, the KKK’s terror only steeled the resolve of the Freedom Riders, helping thrust the Civil Rights Movement into the national spotlight.

MTR now finds itself in a position comparable to that the American South’s intercity bus carriers did – a flashpoint of a major social and political movement. Earlier this week, protesters blocked train doors during a morning rush hour to express their condemnation of the attack, leading to crippling delays and bustitutions on the normally impeccable rail system. There’s also been talk of a train operators’ strike, which would likely cause even greater service disruptions.

It remains to be seen what long-term impact the Hong Kong demonstrations will have. But one thing is certain: violent mobs won’t scare people away from riding transit, or from fighting for what they believe in.          

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