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Fights on public transit: Oakland bus fracas is latest flash point

A fight aboard a city bus in Oakland, Calif., is the latest fracas on public transit to be captured on video and disseminated on YouTube. Such images, rightly or wrongly, may heighten concern about the safety of public transportation in the US.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer / February 17, 2010

Two men shout at one another on an Oakland public bus before a physical altercation on Monday.

Youtube screen grab

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San Francisco

A brawl Monday between a white and a black passenger aboard a city bus in Oakland, Calif., is the latest in a string of public transit fracases to attract public attention – and raise concern about safety.

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Much of the shouting match and fistfight between the two men was caught on camera by a college student aboard the AC Transit bus and posted on YouTube, attracting a sizable audience and igniting something of an online debate about race.

Violent incidents seem to be dogging public transit in this city across the bay from San Francisco. Last year, a cellphone video captured an arrest in which a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer fatally shot an unarmed passenger. In November, a videotaped arrest of an unruly BART passenger was broadcast on YouTube, raising questions about the officer’s conduct and giving the impression that public transit is not safe.

It’s unclear what started the confrontation aboard the Oakland bus – or if either man has been criminally charged. It seems from the video, which is violent and full of foul language, that race may have played a factor.

The recording begins with an exchange between the black man and an older white man. Their exchange becomes heated when the white man asks, “How much you charge me for a spit shine?”

The black passenger responds: “Why a brother got to spit-shine your shoes?”

The confrontation escalates from there, ending with the black passenger injured and asking for an ambulance.

Sacramento’s CBS 13 featured an interview with Iyanna Washington, a college student who caught the fight on camera.

"The white guy was asking the black guy for a shoeshine," Ms. Washington said. "And I guess the black guy took it as a racist comment, like, 'Why's a black guy have to spit-shine your shoes?' "

The prevalence of cellphone cameras means violent incidents on public transportation are being captured more often and seen more widely, giving an impression that such problems are on the rise. An AC Transit spokesman sought to provide some perspective.

“We hate for this sort of thing to happen,” Clarence Johnson, spokesman for AC Transit, told KPIX-TV. "Our buses transport 236,000 passengers on a daily basis, and these types of things are not commonplace."

Still, some people could avoid public transit because of security concerns. In October, a cellphone photographer caught a fight between two female passengers on a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency railway. And in December, a passenger recorded a brawl in a New York City subway.

Older women in particular tend to have concerns about safety on public transit, Rod Diridon of the Mineta Transportation Institute told KTVU. “It isn't how safe the situation really is; it's how they feel. And really, it's how they feel that matters, because it's how they feel that determines whether they're going to ride transit.”

On his blog at SFGate.com, Zennie62 wrote: “What does this AC Transit Bus Fight prove? Well, it proves why cars and taxi cabs are a more desirable form of transportation than AC Transit buses in Oakland.”

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