Activist Lateefah Simon ran for the BART Board of Directors, and won, in part because of the killing of Oscar Grant. She’s now helping the agency navigate troubled waters following the killing by BART police of another young, unarmed black man — Sahleem Tindle.
ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: You already had this really extraordinary career as an activist and a change maker. You'd just become president here at the Akonadi foundation. What made you decide that the way you wanted to make change was on the board of BART?
LATEEFAH SIMON: So almost 50 years ago, the concept of BART was birthed, and it was birthed in my opinion, and the opinion of many scholars, for reasons that were completely racialized — to ensure that white folks who left the cities because of ... economic and racialized choice to leave communities of color, out into the suburbs — there needed to be a way to get these folks in back to the city to work in the Financial District. There was never at the origins of BART an equity vision. As somebody who's transit-dependent — I'm a mother. I grew up low income, I grew up in public housing. I know how important BART is to the everyday worker, and I didn't want to be on city council and I didn't want to be the mayor of any city. I wanted to be a part on the other side of the dais of an institution that affected so many lives that are important to me — young people, queer folks, disabled folks, working folks.
I represent over 500,000 people and almost 500,000 people every single day ride our system, and it's a multi-billion-dollar system. I have the power to do things that I never imagined that I could do, like pushing for Sanctuary Transit, which I won last year. Our system is the only multi-county transit system in the country that has agreed that our transit police will not in any way support the deportation of our riders. That's not our job.
Also last year we were able to push forth policy, and now it's being implemented, to make sure that young people over the age of 11 get discounted BART fare. Do you know that all these years young people have been paying full BART fare over the age of 12?
So if you're a young person and you live now you live in Antioch, but you were born and raised in Oakland, and you still commute every day because you want to graduate from Oakland Tech — displacement has everything to do with the politics of today and the politics of BART. So we made sure that BART did the right thing and created more of a fair and equitable fare structure for young people.
WIRTSCHAFTER: BART is in the midst of a crackdown on fare evaders, and I wonder if you're worried that that could end up targeting people of color and low-income people in a disproportionate way?
SIMON: Listen, anytime you have any any policy that involves enforcement, if law enforcement is not deeply committed to deracializing its practices of stopping folks, you're going to have that issue. What we've asked is that every month that BART give us updated statistics on who they're stopping, and who they're arresting.
If people who can pay for system can pay for it, they should pay for it. If people can't, we should help them pay for it, so means-[based] fares is absolutely something that I have to get done before I leave this office. In the Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington, if you cannot afford to use a system, to get to work, to get to your chemo appointment, your community should make sure that you could actually still use that system so that you are not isolated. Mobility is a human right and BART is one of the most expensive transit systems in the country. We've got to get better.
WIRTSCHAFTER: During your campaign you said that Oscar Grant and his mother Wanda Johnson were some of your inspirations for running. Oscar grant of course was killed by a BART police officer in 2009. And then a few months ago in January another young black man, Sahleem Tindle, was shot by a BART officer near the West Oakland station. How did you react to that now being in a position of power at the same agency?
SIMON: If you watched a few meetings ago when Sahleem's family came to rightfully express their need and wanting to know what happened, and why their son was murdered — or why their son was killed, I should say, these are two different legal terms — I was utterly shaken and in tears. Not because a black man was killed by the force that I am a part of ... but because I know that family very well, and they're from the Fillmore, and I know [Tindle's mother] Ms. Yolanda [Banks Reed], and I know that as a mother myself, the worst thing that possibly could happen to your black child as they be their killed by the state.
And so shortly after the killing, I immediately [called for] a clear and transparent investigation. What happens so quickly when a black man is killed by law enforcement is, there is a narrative that is developed about who he was and what he was doing. And of course you need a complete investigation — no institution should police themselves. So we did a lot of advocacy initially to make sure that the investigation was going to be thorough and that it was going to be a multi-pronged investigation by different agencies.
But I got to tell you, I don't care really what the investigation says. Black men have been killed by the police and in numbers that are not only unimaginable, but that are unacceptable. I weep for this family, and I know that I also have to do better as an elected, not only now, but moving forward. And speak more truth, but also just be more change. I haven't seen the results of the investigation. So all I know is that when a black woman has to bury her child without answers, there is no justice. So we need to get this woman her answers.
WIRTSCHAFTER: Some activists have called for BART to disarm the police department. Is that something you're advocating for?
SIMON: I have not focused on the disarming of the police department. I'm also super open to listening and understanding. I think guns kill people, and I think that many folks have had such difficult experiences with enforcement, it seems that that demand makes sense for many communities who have been fighting for justice.
WIRTSCHAFTER: [Y]ou've been even elected, I think, with a lot of high hopes from activists and advocates. Do they ever expect more of you than you feel you can do? Do they get frustrated that that you can't just fix things now?
SIMON: Activists, organizers, should be frustrated with me as I'm learning the process. I'm frustrated with the lack of the swiftness of change, of the demonstrative fallacy of progressive governance.
I want more people to actually run for office. I want our folks to understand what we can do. It's kind of lonely out here! And you got to get five votes. You know you got to get five votes or you're just talking s—. So yeah, I want people to be frustrated with me. Because every single time I get that email, "Lateefah, how could you?" Or, "I need you to do this," at three o'clock in the morning, it gets me up, and it makes me want to work harder.