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Posts from the Civil Rights Category

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LA County Bike Coalition’s Tamika Butler on Planning While Black

Too often, says Tamika Butler, the people responsible for planning cities don’t look like the people who live in cities. In her keynote address from this week’s NACTO Designing Cities conference, she considers some of the ramifications.

Butler is executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition and a national leader in the field of active transportation and racial justice. Her talk begins about five minutes into this audio file.

Jeff Wood of the Overhead Wire recorded Butler’s presentation and several other NACTO sessions. You can tune in and listen to them all at his SoundCloud site.

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Civil Rights Advocates Challenge Missouri DOT’s Discriminatory Spending

In Missouri, urban residents receive only 35 cents in investment for every dollar they contribute to transportation funding. Rural residents receive $4.35. Graph: Missouri Coalition for Better Transit

For every dollar per capita that urban areas contribute to transportation funding in Missouri, the state returns 35 cents, while rural areas receive $4.31 for every dollar they contribute. Graphic: Missouri Coalition for Better Transit

Missouri, like many other states, shifts transportation funds from cities to rural areas — it collects most gas tax revenue from urban areas and spends it on roads in the hinterlands. And as in many other states, this amounts to a massive transfer of resources from the places where most people of color live.

But in Missouri, the scale of the problem is especially large, local advocates argue in a new report. Now they are challenging the state’s transportation policies on civil rights grounds — a campaign that could set a national precedent if successful.

In their report addressed to the U.S. DOT Department of Justice [PDF], the Missouri Coalition for Better Transportation argues that Missouri DOT violates federal civil rights laws prohibiting agencies that receive federal funds from creating a “disparate impact” on disadvantaged groups. The local NAACP is asking Congressman William Lacy Clay to file a civil rights complaint against the agency.

Here is an overview of the coalition’s case against Missouri DOT.

Restrictions on transit spending harm urban residents

Missouri is one of 23 states that forbids gas tax revenues from being spent on transit. The effect of this policy is fundamentally discriminatory against urban residents.

Read more…

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Naomi Doerner on How Street Safety Advocates Can Support Racial Justice

When a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, shot and killed Philando Castile earlier this month, the encounter began with a traffic stop. The stop fit a pattern: Castile had been pulled over many times before — 46 times in 13 years — but few of those citations were for dangerous driving. More prevalent were stops for minor issues like vehicle defects or misplaced license plates — the type of justifications that police are more likely to use when stopping black and Latino drivers throughout the country.

Naomi Doerner is a consultant who helps biking and walking organizations development social equity and racial justice plans. Photo: Bike Easy

Naomi Doerner helps biking and walking organizations development social equity and racial justice plans. Photo: Bike Easy

Street safety advocates often call on police to reform traffic enforcement practices in order to reduce dangerous driving that jeopardizes people walking and biking. Given the pervasiveness of racially discriminatory police work and the prevalence of police brutality in many communities, how should biking and walking advocates shape their strategies and messages?

Naomi Doerner, the former executive director of New Orleans’ advocacy organization Bike Easy, is a consultant who specializes in helping biking and walking advocates develop racial justice and social equity plans. She says advocates should be grappling with structural racism and considering how their own choices can entrench or dismantle it.

Here is a lightly edited transcript of our interview.

What’s a mistake some biking or walking organizations are making with regards to diversity?

I think that one of the things I see is hiring of people of color and then making them sort of the voice for diversity and equity, which are not the same thing.

It is great to hire the folks, to have the folks who do potentially have better understanding. Even if you had a staff that was diverse, if there’s not a co-created understanding of equity within your organization and how you’re contributing to it, it won’t succeed.

Read more…

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The Right to Peaceful Assembly vs. the “Right” to Convenient Motoring

Demonstrations against police brutality spilled onto streets and highways in American cities this weekend, with protesters stopping traffic in Baton Rouge, Memphis, St. Paul, Los Angeles, and Oakland.

NPR reports 102 people were arrested in St. Paul and another 120 in Baton Rouge, including prominent Black Lives Matter organizer DeRay Mckesson, who was arrested while walking along Airline Highway, a large, divided surface street. Mckesson was charged with “obstruction of a highway” and released on Sunday, telling the Washington Post that the charges against him have not been dropped, however.

“Obstruction of a highway of commerce” is a crime in Louisiana, and the felony version is punishable by imprisonment “with or without hard labor, for not more than 15 years,” according to a New Orleans criminal defense firm (hat tip to Lloyd Alter for the info).

Mckesson said that demonstrators were not even obstructing the highway, which is consistent with footage of the protest from around the time of his arrest.

Meanwhile, in St. Paul, officers used the obstruction of I-94 as a pretext to teargas protesters:

Read more…

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House Panel Calls on U.S. DOT to Measure Access to Economic Opportunity

A bill working its way through Congress may prompt federal officials to get a better handle on how transportation projects help or hinder access to jobs, education, and health care.

California Congresswoman Maxine Waters was one of the sponsors of the provision. Photo: Wikipedia

Representative Maxine Waters of California sponsored the provision. Photo: Wikipedia

The legislation, which passed out of a House Committee this week, calls for U.S. DOT to measure “the degree to which the transportation system, including public transportation, provides multimodal connections to economic opportunities, including job concentration areas, health care services, child care services, and education and workforce training services, particularly for disadvantaged populations.” Details of how the proposed metrics work would be determined by U.S. DOT in a formal rule-making process.

Sixty years of highway-centric transportation policies have systematically curtailed opportunity for poor Americans — spreading jobs and housing farther apart and limiting access to employment, especially for people without cars. Even today, projects like the Tampa Bay Express Lanes demolish properties in low-income urban areas to save time for more affluent suburban car commuters.

The provision in the House bill aims to make change through accountability. It won’t dictate policy, but it should illustrate how transportation policy decisions expand or diminish access to economic opportunity.

Advocates including PolicyLink and the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights campaigned for such legislation for years, but it was not included in the last federal transportation bill.

Read more…

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Civil Rights Groups Challenge Maryland Gov. Hogan’s Red Line Cancellation

Back in June, newly elected Maryland Governor Larry Hogan unilaterally cancelled a transit expansion project that Baltimore had been planning for a decade, transferring the state’s promised investment to road projects in more rural parts of the state.

Governor Larry Hogan canceled Baltimore's Red Line in June. Now civil rights groups are suing. Image: Railfanguides

Governor Larry Hogan canceled Baltimore’s Red Line in June. Now civil rights groups are challenging him. Image: Railfanguides

Now a coalition of civil rights groups is challenging the decision on civil rights grounds, saying it amounts to discrimination against Baltimore’s black residents. The Baltimore Sun reports that the Baltimore NAACP, the ACLU of Maryland, and the Baltimore Regional Initiative Developing Genuine Equality (BRIDGE) will file a complaint against the governor with U.S. DOT under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Hogan’s decision to cancel the $2.9 billion Red Line light rail project came after months of evasiveness. The city had spent $230 million planning the 14-mile line and about $900 million in federal funding had been committed. Hogan has since proposed a $135 million system of busways as a substitute.

Legal challenges of this type are rare but not without precedent. The city of Milwaukee prevailed in a similar case in the 1990s, when governor Tommy Thompson cancelled a rail project in the city while proceeding with highway projects elsewhere. As a result of the case, the state was ordered to fund a transit project in the city. That agreement is the reason Milwaukee has been able to proceed with its streetcar plans without interference from Governor Scott “No Train” Walker.

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Police Profiling Is a Safe Streets Issue

Cross-posted from the Safe Routes to School National Partnership

“Are they going to kill me?”

That’s the question a young black boy asked me one afternoon when I accidentally bumped into him and his grandmother on West Florissant Avenue, in Ferguson, after Michael Brown’s death. He was pointing at two officers watching peaceful protestors. I said, “No, little man, you’ll be okay,” but as I walked away, I wondered if he would be okay, if our country would be okay.

In the last two weeks several important reports have been issued: a new interim report from the White House’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing; the Justice Department’s final report on Ferguson; and the Mayors’ Challenge for Safer People and Safer Streets Summit convened by the US Department of Transportation. What intrigues me the most is how all three merge community, access, and safety. For those in the built environment advocacy space, this is a clear time to pay attention.

The role of place and mobility is gaining traction in the national discourse on policing and people of color. The 21st Century Policing Task Force’s interim report contains specific recommendations that identify proper policing as an imperative aspect of true community building. Whether it’s creating opportunities in schools and communities for positive interactions with police outside the context of enforcement, collaborating with community members to develop policies and strategies in neighborhoods disproportionately affected by crime, working with neighborhood residents on public safety, or encouraging communities to adopt policies and programs that address the needs of children and youth most at risk of experiencing crime and violence, safety and health are at the forefront.

As the recommendations from these efforts make clear, communal buy-in is critical for safe environments. The recommendations speak to equitable place-making, safe and healthy mobility, and the key role of community leaders and guardians. All of these recommendations are not separate unto their own, but are integral in the rebuilding of neighborhoods all over the country. As F.B.I. director James B. Comey candidly stated in February on the difficult relationship between the police and communities of color, “We all need to talk, and we all need to listen, not just easy things, but about hard things, too.”

The fact is, policing matters when it comes to whether or not residents in a neighborhood can freely and safely use their mobility choice to access their homes, schools, supermarkets, green spaces, and jobs. All over the country, there are significant disparities in enforcement that inhibit equitable community building.

Read more…


How Does the Threat of Police Violence Affect How You Use the Street?

When the news came out yesterday that a Staten Island grand jury had failed to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold, like many people I found the outcome difficult to comprehend. With clear video evidence showing that Pantaleo broke NYPD protocol and a coroner’s report certifying that Garner’s death was a homicide, this grand jury should have reached the conclusion that had eluded grand jurors in the Michael Brown case in St. Louis County: There should be a trial to determine if Pantaleo had committed a crime. But apparently that’s not how our justice system works.


Eric Garner, the 43-year-old father of six who was killed by police officer Daniel Pantaleo on a Staten Island sidewalk.

As the editor-in-chief of Streetsblog, I’ve been grappling with how and whether the site should cover these incidents of police violence. Do the killings fall within the Streetsblog beat? My first inclination was to say they do not. I don’t believe there is something intrinsic to the streets of Staten Island or Ferguson to explain the deadly force that Pantaleo and Darren Wilson applied against unarmed black men. Wilson did initially stop Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson for jaywalking, but another pretense could have been concocted — none of the other high-profile police killings in recent months began with a jaywalking stop.

Nor is police harassment and aggression against black men limited to streets. John Crawford III was shot and killed in an Ohio Wal-Mart. Akai Gurley lost his life in the building where he lived. It is an “everywhere” problem, not just a “streets” problem.

Nevertheless, for people of color, the mere act of going out on the street carries the disproportionate risk that an encounter with police will escalate into a fatal situation — or, on a more routine basis, the threat of a random police stop turning into an arrest that can have profound life consequences. As Adonia Lugo wrote for the League of American Bicyclists last week, these considerations affect how people use streets and public spaces, including their choice of how to get around.

I’m white; I don’t know what it’s like to carry this apprehension with me whenever I’m out walking or riding my bike. So I would like to do something a little different with this post and invite people of color who read Streetsblog (or who just came across this post floating on the internet) to share your thoughts. What effect does the threat of police violence have on how you experience and use streets and public spaces?

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Documentary to Explore Racial Discrimination in Transportation Planning

Beavercreek, Ohio, nabbed its own infamous place in civil rights history last year, when the Federal Highway Administration ruled that the suburb had violated anti-discrimination laws by blocking bus service from nearby Dayton.

The Beavercreek case marked the first time civil rights activists had successfully filed an administrative complaint with the FHWA against a public agency for violating Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Since the law was passed, dozens of these complaints have been filed, but not until Beavercreek did advocates use this mechanism to compel action by a local government. The decision gave Dayton area transit riders access to a bus route to a growing, mostly-white suburb that had sought to keep them out.

The Beavercreek case illustrates larger, more widespread problems with America’s transportation system, say researchers at Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. The Kirwan Institute is producing a one-hour documentary exploring the Beavercreek case and how racism can influence transportation decision making. The filmmakers hope to air the show on PBS after its completion this spring.

I got in touch with producer Matt Martin about the project via email. Martin noted that in a Title VI administrative complaint, the plaintiff must only show there was “disparate impact” on protected classes of people, rather than the much-tougher standard of intentional discrimination required in civil rights cases that go to court. Raising awareness of the administrative complaint as a tool for local activists and preserving its usefulness is one of the film’s main goals, Martin says.

Here is our short Q & A.

Read more…

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How 3 Communities Fought Discriminatory Transportation Policies

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The Ohio faith-based advocacy group LEAD held demonstrations to protest the suburb of Beavercreek’s refusal to allow bus service. Photos: Policylink

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

To celebrate the occasion, PolicyLink held a discussion this week about how that legislation has affected transportation policy. Three local community leaders shared stories about how they used legal protections to combat discriminatory transportation projects.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Advocates have been fighting for better transit in the Milwaukee region for about a decade, says the Wisconsin ACLU’s Karyn Rotker.

In the notoriously segregated Milwaukee region, nearly 50 percent of African Americans depend on transit. But regional leaders have severely limited transit access to the suburbs, which is especially problematic because Milwaukee’s suburbs have captured an increasing share of the region’s jobs over the last few decades.

“There are huge racial issues here as well as the urban sprawl issues,” said Rotker.

The Wisconsin DOT has been planning to rebuild and expand the “Zoo Interchange” near Milwaukee for the jaw-dropping sum of $1.7 billion. The ACLU, in partnership with some of the region’s civil rights groups, filed suit against WisDOT, alleging the project violated the National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA. The complaint asserted that transit riders and transit-dependent communities were not considered in WisDOT’s planning process. They also alleged that the state failed to consider the “interrelated social effects” of expanding highway capacity, and the impact that was likely to have on sprawl and racial segregation in the region.

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