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The Cops

NYPD Officer Learns How to Drive MTA Bus—While Transporting Arrested Protesters

"A lot of people were commenting like, oh God, I don't know if he's gonna make this turn."

(Alexa Wilkinson)

On Tuesday night, Mari and Emily were two of the hundreds of New Yorkers arrested during Jewish Voice for Peace's protest at Grand Army Plaza calling for an end to U.S. funding of the Israeli military. After they were arrested, they were loaded onto an MTA bus that had just been taken out of service and commandeered by the NYPD to transport the protesters to One Police Plaza. 

It was then that the evening took an absurd turn: According to both Mari and Emily, it soon became obvious that, as there was no MTA driver on the bus to transport them, the NYPD was scrambling to find an officer with a commercial license who could operate the bus. 

"It was just very clear that it was a, who the hell is going to drive this bus situation," Emily, who requested they use a pseudonym out of privacy concerns, told Hell Gate. 

While they were waiting, an NYPD sergeant got onto the bus and asked the other officers if anyone was certified to drive a bus. "Nobody answered, like, they stayed completely quiet," Emily recalled. "And then he said it again, and they all said, 'No.'"

Shortly afterwards, Mari said, another NYPD officer came on the bus and asked the protesters themselves if any of them had a commercial license. "At that point, everyone started laughing, because it was just so absurd, and we said no," she said. 

Finally, an officer was pressed into the driver's seat. Mari recalled that the driver was one of the officers who had been asked if they were certified to operate a bus, all of whom had said no. According to Emily, someone wearing MTA gear came onto the bus and "showed the guy what was what…And then the doors closed, and we kind of sat there for a couple more minutes, and then it was clear that this guy was driving us." They added, "Generally, the feeling on the bus was like, I hope this guy knows how to drive the bus. And that was the feeling among the people who were in cuffs. And also the cops were kind of joking around with each other, like, oh, I hope we make it."

They were perhaps all right to be concerned. "When we took the turn on to the Brooklyn Bridge, the driver took it really wide and really slow," Mari recalled. "A lot of people were commenting like, oh God, I don't know if he's gonna make this turn." And then, Mari said, "on the off ramp to get off of the Brooklyn Bridge, the driver drove like fully over a curb. Like half the bus was on a curb, drove over it." Shortly after, the bus jolted to a stop, after hitting what both Emily and Mari said may have been a pothole. "I just remember people just kind of exclaiming, like, oh my god, he hit something. And then the bus kind of jolted," Mari said. 

Then, when the bus arrived at One Police Plaza, the cop-turned-bus-driver appeared not to know how to turn the bus. "The bus was in the wrong spot. He made an 18-point turn and we all got jerked around on the bus," Emily said, adding, "Nobody got hurt." "It was just like, another example of just, this person has clearly never driven a bus before," Mari said. 

(Zachary Schulman)

Hell Gate has reached out to the NYPD for comment, and will update if they respond.

Why was a police officer who seemed to not know how to operate a bus driving that night? According to one arrested protester, Spencer Reed, his arresting officer told him that the NYPD had a hard time that night finding officers who were certified to drive commercial vehicles. "She explained, yeah, there’s a certification process the NYPD will pay for, but most people haven’t gone through it. So drivers were pretty scarce, and it was hard to find drivers," Reed said.

And according to JVP, MTA bus drivers on Tuesday also refused to transport protestors. Jay Saper, a JVP organizer, approached an MTA driver that night whose bus was just commandeered. "We asked, where are the people being driven to? And his response was, 'I don't know, I'm not driving that bus,'" Saper said. They added, "It was a clear act of refusal to drive New York protesters standing up for what they believed in."

TWU Local 100 spokesperson Alina Ramirez confirmed to Hell Gate that on Tuesday night, several in-service MTA buses that were running their normal route were commandeered by the NYPD to transport protesters arrested at the JVP action, and that no MTA bus operators transported those arrested. "As far as our cooperation with the NYPD goes, they said, 'Hey we need this bus,' and we safely direct[ed] the passengers to clear the bus and let NYPD have it."

"Today, it should be evident that we stand firm in the very principles that my predecessors, John Samuelsen and Tony Utano, were resolute in. Our operators will not participate in the transportation of individuals to prison using commandeered buses, as such actions exceed the bounds of our duties," TWU Local 100 President Richard Davis told Hell Gate in a statement. "NYPD and Local 100 are otherwise working together to maintain a safe environment for our members and the riding public."

In 2011, TWU Local 100 famously challenged the NYPD's use of MTA buses and drivers to transport people arrested during the Occupy Wall Street protests, with John Samuelson, then the head of the local union and now president of the national, describing the NYPD's actions as "a blatant act of political retaliation" after the union publicly supported the movement. "They have no right to press our bus operators into performing emergency services," Samuelson said. "We're down with these protesters!" The union went so far as to file a lawsuit challenging the NYPD's use of MTA bus drivers that year. In 2020, during the George Floyd protests, TWU took a similar stand against transporting people arrested by the NYPD, after a video of an MTA bus driver refusing to drive people arrested at a protest at Barclays Center went viral. "TWU Local 100 Bus Operators do not work for the NYPD. We transport the working families of NYC," the union's Twitter account wrote in a since-deleted tweet, adding, "All TWU Operators should refuse to transport arrested protestors." 

“NYC Transit bus operators are not expected or required to drive outside of their assigned routes, other than for authorized detours," MTA spokesperson Eugene Resnick told Hell Gate in an emailed statement.

TWU's Ramirez told Hell Gate that the union has no issue with the NYPD commandeering MTA buses to transport protesters; rather, the issue is when drivers are asked to drive those buses. "For bus drivers, this is outside of the scope of their duties. It literally falls outside of our agreement," Ramirez said. "We make sure that New York stays moving. Anything outside of that is essentially outside of our purview."

Both Mari and Emily told Hell Gate that while they joked about the bus ride at the time, in retrospect, the NYPD had put all of them, including its own officers, in a dangerous situation. 

"This seemed funny at the time. Like, haha, isn't this weird? And the more you thought about it, the more you were sort of like, I feel like they just put us all in unnecessary danger for the hell of it," Emily said. They added, "In my opinion, if they didn't have somebody to drive the bus and they just wanted to give us tickets, they should have just ticketed us all on the bus. It feels like they just went out of their way to be punitive. Obviously, it's the NYPD, but they put everyone in a generally unsafe position in order to prove a point." 

Mari agreed. "I was thinking, as we were crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, if this somehow crashed and there's a bunch of people with their hands tied behind their backs, we wouldn't have been able to get out of the bus or pull ourselves out to safety at all," she said. She added, "It was a bit ironic that if someone is driving a commercial vehicle without a commercial license, that is something that a cop would give you a ticket for. It's just another example of the laws not applying to people equally."

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