The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s governing board told the T to stop transporting Boston and other municipal police to George Floyd protests, a board member said Thursday evening, but the MBTA refused to say if it would follow the directive.
Brian Lang said the five-member MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board gave the directive to the agency Thursday afternoon, marking a concession to protesters and advocates who have said public transit agencies should not be shuttling police to sites of demonstrations against police brutality.
“The function of the T is to provide public transportation for the riding public,” said Lang, who attended a demonstration in Boston on Thursday. “It’s not to get into the middle of the political fight, and most particularly to interfere with people who are trying to eliminate racist practices. So that’s why I expressed my willingness to support the resolution.”
After initially saying the agency would issue a statement in response to Lang’s remarks, the T declined to comment and would not even say whether it would follow the board’s directive.
The rebuke came as T officials continued to defend their practice this week of shutting down stations near the site of large protests. Advocates and some protesters complained the closures left many stranded just as police were ordering them to disperse, and made tense situations worse because the crowds could not easily move on en masse.
Another board member, Monica Tibbits-Nutt, said it was “inappropriate” to move police to protests.
“We are stranding people, forcing them to go home, while the police they are protesting are on public transit buses," she said. "If nothing else, just the optics of that are awful.”
On Thursday evening, several MBTA buses were spotted transporting police to Jamaica Plain, where another of the region’s ongoing protests took place. Lang said the board expects the T to stop transporting police to protests as of Friday, although the agency can continue to shuttle members of its own police force between T facilities.
Jarred Johnson, director of the local advocacy group Transit Matters, which has called on the T to stop moving police, said the failure to respond to the board directive showed that the agency’s earlier comments in support of the protests were “hollow.”
“If you show up with three buses full of police to a peaceful protests, I don’t know what kind of message you’re sending," he said. “If the T and the general manager can’t even agree to stop bringing busloads of police to peaceful protests, then that says a lot more about his feelings towards peaceful protest than any press release could.”
On Wednesday, MBTA general manager Steve Poftak issued a lengthy statement defending the station closures. The T has closed stations three times in the last week, most prominently when it shuttered nearly every downtown station after Sunday’s massive march wound down and a night marred by looting and violence began.
More limited station closures, each lasting an hour or less, occurred in downtown areas on Tuesday and Wednesday as protesters gathered at the State House and on Boston Common. The T did not close Forest Hills station Tuesday night, where a large crowd formed following a major demonstration at Franklin Park.
Poftak said the closures are based on concerns about unruly situations, citing chaotic scenes that developed Sunday night. But the closures on Tuesday and Wednesday came amid protests that were reported as peaceful at the time the T took the stations offline.
“A disorderly situation in a station poses significant risks to riders, T employees, and critical T assets such as vehicles and signal systems,” Poftak said. “An accident, a deliberate act, or trespassing poses significant risk of an incident — including contact with the third rail, potential to be struck by a moving vehicle, injury to another rider or employee, and a risk to our employees and customers in the form of secondary trauma due to the injuries caused and/or witnessed.”
The Sunday station closures were ordered by MBTA Transit Police, which Poftak said had determined “outside activity posed a danger to the safe operation of the station.”
According to e-mails from the T’s operations control center obtained by the Globe, the T was “notified by Transit Police” to bypass service at Park Street and Downtown Crossing stations around 9:15 p.m., shortly after crowds left the State House to cap off a massive march from Nubian Square, but before tensions had escalated into violence and looting in the aftermath.
That left many protesters on social media fuming they had been “trapped” or “stranded" when at around 9:40 Boston Police tweeted that “peaceful” protesters should “vacate and go home." Eventually only T stops at North, South, and Copley stations were open in the downtown area.
Transit Matters seized on that deference to police.
“Our public transportation system cannot become a tool in the hands of law enforcement officials,” Transit Matters said in a statement earlier this week. “MBTA senior leadership must retain full control over operational decisions at all times and in all circumstances. If a government imposed curfew is in place, the T needs to operate to get people home. If a police-ordered dispersal order is in place, the T needs to function to allow people to disperse.”
The station closures have split the two leaders of the MBTA’s oversight board, with Tibbits-Nutt, the vice chair, calling them “unacceptable" and saying the T should at minimum be running shuttle buses.
But board chairman Joseph Aiello said they are the “right call" as a public safety measure. He recalled marches and rallies that he participated in during the 1960s and 1970s where enthusiastic crowds, violent or not, could create unsafe situations on station platforms. The Floyd demonstrations are different from other big events because the T has had much less notice about crowds than, say, after a sporting event or parade, which are scheduled long in advance, he said. The latter, Aiello added, happen often enough that the T has protocols and procedures in place.
“We typically try to spread ridership away from an event,” Aiello said. “This time everything was moving so fast, I think the T did as good a job as it can. ... I’d rather have people confused or frustrated than hurt or dead, if that’s the choice. And I think it is the choice.”