Tap Cards Out: How L.A. Metro Normalizes Policing, Jailing, Penalizing People of Color

It was the week before Finals at Pasadena City College, Spring 2011, and my class in the morning was having a potluck that day to celebrate the end of the semester. I was on the Metro Gold Line heading Northeast to Memorial Park, where I planned to get off to find the sweets for the occasion somewhere on Colorado boulevard.

It was supposed to be a time to celebrate the end of sixteen weeks of class that Spring, but on the train that morning, I was actually under a lot of stress. The following week exams were coming up, and the result of one test in particular, for my statistics class, would determine whether I’d get to transfer out of PCC or have to stay another semester to retake the course. I had applied to universities earlier in the school-­year, and had actually just gotten an acceptance letter from SF State for the Fall semester of 2011.

Unfortunately, I doubted that I’d be going to SF State that fall, as I’d only accumulated lackluster grades in my Statistics class up to that second to last week of class, and as it was extremely unlikely that I’d be able to turn the whole thing around during Finals. In fact, I hardly even liked my chances to so much as pass the final exam, but had decided to keep my head up anyway, at least until I actually saw the results.

On the morning of the incident, however, I just couldn’t help but feel anxious about what was in store for me following the end of the potluck with Finals and the semester. I regretted not making more time to study the coursework, and dreaded the thought of how to tell mom, my greatest advocate, that I’d actually have to stay another full year at PCC. I originally envisioned myself at PCC for just two years, but was then en route to four; I couldn’t help but feel like I let myself down.

In other words, it was just one of those long, dreadful mornings that spring up in a person’s life every once in a while as the train approached the Memorial Park station when a sheriff deputy stepped onto the car, asking everyone to take their passes or tap cards out. The officer was a Latina woman, and I remember that she asked for everyone’s tap cards in a calm and polite manner, but that I still felt uncomfortable, since ­going as far back as I can remember I’d always been made uneasy when asked for proof of my payment while riding the subway, feeling it was an unnecessarily aggressive form of surveillance.

On the train that morning with my head spinning about Finals, I felt no less uneasy, but when the officer walked over to my seat, even if grudgingly, ­ I took out my tap card and showed it to her. She took the card, scanned it, and then walked away, and while the whole encounter lasted for just a few seconds, it filled me with distaste; I felt like I’d just been harassed, and like there was nothing more I could use in that moment than the walk I’d embark on for the pastries to get for the potluck.

When the train arrived at Memorial Park, then, I was grateful to leave it behind and go on about my way. That is, until after stepping out of the car, when I noticed that two more sheriffs were standing on the exit out of the subway station asking to see tap cards. Their presence at the edge of the platform impeded people from getting through, forming a small cluster of traffic in front of the exit.

I knew by then that I was going to be late to my class that morning to pick up the pastries, but on seeing the two other sheriffs there, I felt that the commute was quickly becoming much more difficult than it needed to be. I was already bothered, after all, not just on a personal level, but also from the encounter with the officer from the car, and therefore felt it simply wasn’t right that I had to take out my tap card for yet another sheriff to scan again. Of course, the officers at the exit couldn’t possibly know that one of their colleagues had just checked tap cards, but it didn’t matter to me: by then I had concluded that it was in fact just harassment.

It’s in that moment that I made a hotheaded, arrogant decision, resolving to just walk past the crowd of commuters clustered in front of the officers to just dash through the exit, thereby subverting the officers’s request to scan my pass.

As I walked up to the exit, I can still remember my body tensing before I decided to swerve through the crowd. I told myself that it was only right to make my way out of the station the way I always did,­ in a hurry. I also thought to myself that even if the sheriff deputies were “only” checking for proof of payment, it was still unfair, since regardless of whether passengers paid for the subway or not, if they didn’t pose a threat to anyone, I couldn’t see why they should be stopped. The only danger, in my mind, was the one posed by the sheriffs and their arms, not the other way around.

These thoughts only justified the idea in my mind that I was right about subverting the sheriffs at the exit. But they also made me frantic. I didn’t know it then, but I was losing control.

A moment later, when I got just to the side of the pedestrians in front of the officers and exit, I swerved past them, at which point I heard a foreign voice calling out to me in the distance. Not stopping at the sound of the voice but stumbling as I continued onto the curb facing the street, I responded almost to thin air in a hurry that I had already shown my pass to another officer just a few minutes prior.

Suddenly, then, I felt an unfamiliar hand placing itself on my upper shoulder. And almost instinctively, was enraged; in the same breadth, not only did I register that my right against an unlawful search and seizure was being violated, but I felt also that my personal space –not just public– was also being violated.

Ultimately, my rage got the best of me, and I quickly shoved the hand away and turned around to stand defiantly before what my body recognized as an attack. I then looked at the officers and yelled out that I didn’t have to show them anything.

The next thing thing I knew, I found my face being flattened on the ground, with my arms behind my back being gripped into submission. I was arrested, not for lacking proof of payment for the subway fare, but for ‘disturbing the peace’, according to the arresting officers.

A few minutes later after seating me inside of the police car, one of the officers came over to the side of the window and informed me that I was also being arrested for “poking” him in the chest after I shoved his hand away. This, he told me, would be counted as a battery charge.

At that point, seated helplessly in the police car with my whole face burning from shock at what had just happened, I didn’t know whether the officer was being serious or just giving me a hard time, so I didn’t even contest his claim. Plus, in all my frustration, I couldn’t even remember whether or not I’d made any contact with the officer after brushing his hand off my shoulder.

A few hours later, I was booked into the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.

Needless to say, I missed the potluck for class in the morning and didn’t make it to school at all as I spent the rest of the day being processed into the jail. I felt absolutely disgraced to find myself behind bars for losing my control so badly. I was was stripped of all my clothes and belongings at Men’s Central Jail, forced to take a mugshot, and forced to fall in line with a barrage of other men in blue jumpsuits en route to the cells. The whole experience was a complete betrayal of who I was and what I went to school for, and it made me feel rotten and ashamed.

At some point later in the afternoon when my name was fully processed and it was time to go inside, I was led with a group of other inmates into what was essentially a cinder­-block shaped cell, which made me feel like I was walking into a giant tombstone, as if I had died.

When the steel door was shut behind us and we were all left to ourselves, I followed the lead of the other inmates and found a bunk bed to sit on. The inmates, nearly all Black men, were polite and respectful of my space, which allowed me to bring the day into perspective. I had no idea where I could end up next considering what had happened, and I had no clue just how I’d tell my mother, let alone my classmates and friends, about how much had gone wrong that morning. But one thing was clear: the only way out of the situation was to let go of the anger which led me there and find calm however I could.

Inside of the cell, amid all the chatter between the other inmates, I found peace in the passing of my breath and the passing of the day. I told myself that even despite the officers, I was the one who’d gotten myself behind bars for losing my temper, and that similarly, I’d have to be the one to get myself out of them.

Before the second night overtook the day at the Men’s Central Jail, I was released from the facility, and was subsequently ordered to show up to court a few months later when the paperwork was filed.

One year later in 2012, with the help of a public defender I ‘took a deal’ at Pasadena Central Courthouse which dismissed the battery count, and pleaded no contest to two other charges. I also accepted 15 days of community labor, as well as 26 classes of Anger Management for the case, all of which I completed and paid for out of my own pocket.

I never again saw the officer who made the charge against me, but the emotional and financial burden that resulted from the encounter with him and his partner is one that hurls in my memory, and which is still difficult for me to recount.

Additionally, the impact that the encounter has had on my professional life has been humbling at best, and devastating at worst. Even though the battery charge was dismissed, I’ve lost numerous job opportunities because of so much of its appearance on my background checks, including two job opportunities with L.A.U.S.D. which I was more than qualified for and that hurt to let go of considering my proven track record for youth and educational work.

Still, even after accounting for everything I’ve undergone because of the case, I harbor no ill-­will towards the officer and his partner, nor towards any law enforcement official for that matter. I couldn’t quite say the same immediately after the arrest, nor during the court case or when I had to take the deal, but I’ve since accepted that the police officers were simply doing their job when they asked me to show them my pass that morning, and that I was simply naive to try and subvert them in such an open manner.

I also told myself that regardless of whether I ever actually “poked” the officer, which I remember overhearing other public defenders scoffing at in between discussing their other cases, I was still the one who let the stress and anxiety of the time get to me, and therefore the one who lost sight of better judgment towards the situation.

Today, looking back at that night in jail, and all of the hours of community labor and weeks of classes I accepted for the case, I’ve learned not only how to reflect more objectively on what happened, but also how to avoid similar situations going forward with my life and career.

This isn’t to say that I no longer deal with stressful circumstances or anxiety, or that I’m no longer made uncomfortable when I’m asked for my tap card while riding the subway, however. I’m an immigrant, or essentially, viewed as one by the system of surveillance enforced by so many sheriffs or police officers throughout L.A.’s public transportation services, which makes me a target, albeit not at the rate which Black men and women are targeted.

In hindsight, it’s been nearly seven years since that dreadful morning off the subway, but I’m aware that the same system of surveillance is still testing and trying my community into the present day. Every day, from morning into the evening, somewhere on the Metro cases like mine and even more exacerbated forms of criminalization are being executed, justified, and taken for granted against the predominantly Black, Immigrant, and “other” minority communities that make up the ridership. It is as unacceptable today as it was seven years ago, and one way or another, the ridership must learn to resist.

In Spring 2012, the same year that I ‘took the deal’ with the Pasadena Central Courthouse, I finally passed the statistics course which held me back the year prior and subsequently transferred to UC Davis to major in English literature.

In Spring 2014, I graduated from UC Davis as the first in my family to earn a college degree, and the rest is Los Angeles, that is, work for youth and education in Los Angeles. In other words, I’ve moved on from what happened at the Memorial Park station that day, but not without a greater understanding of the environment that led to episode to begin with, and just how important it is for our communities to be patient when mired in such a stressful environment. I know it’s not easy, and that sometimes we will not be able to tolerate further agitation. Ultimately though, I also believe that it’s the moments like these from which we learn and grow the most.

Let us grow Los Angeles.

…With this in mind, I’m grateful for the opportunity to state my case for an appeal on the bar facing my application for employment with L.A.U.S.D., as well as for the opportunity to present three letters of recommendation from my colleagues regarding my qualifications. If the reviewers of this appeal have any further questions or concerns, I am only a moment away…

Thank you once again for your time,

J.T.