Credit: Darrow Montgomery

D.C. councilmembers on Tuesday gave a sharp rebuke of Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s argument that “lawlessness begets lawlessness” on the District’s transit system.

Bowser vetoed a bill that decriminalizes fare evasion on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority system—only her second ever veto—and the Council voted 11-2 to overrule her. Chairman Phil Mendelson and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans dissented.

The bill changes fare evasion from a criminal charge to a civil citation, eliminates the possibility of jail time, and reduces the fine from $300 to $50.

Ahead of the vote, Councilmember Robert White likened the mayor’s “lawlessness” argument to “Ronald Regan‘s use of the term ‘welfare queen’ to garner support for welfare reform, or Donald Trump‘s claim that Mexican immigrants are rapists.”

In White’s view, jumping the Metro turnstile or not paying $2 bus fare is no different from failing to pay a parking meter.

“I dare you to go to your constituents and call them thieves when they’re parked at an expired meter,” White said from the dais.

Councilmember Charles Allen, who shepherded the bill through the Council, called the mayor’s “lawlessness” argument a “line of ‘broken windows’ thinking,” referring to the outdated and failed theory that policing small crimes can reduce other, potentially more serious crimes. “Maintaining this penalty doesn’t say to fare evaders that we mean business,” Allen said. “It says that ‘We don’t know the answer to the problem, so let’s perpetuate the status quo no matter the cost.’”

Specifically, the mayor has expressed concern that decriminalization would worsen Metro’s estimated $25 million to $50 million per year losses due to fare evasion. WMATA, in a news release supporting Bowser’s veto, claims that decriminalization would lead to more assaults on bus operators and station managers. 

Following the Council’s override, Bowser reiterated her concern for making sure “everyone follows the rules of the road.” The mayor suggested that fare subsidies would be a more appropriate solution—though one that falls short of many councilmembers’ frustrations that skipping a $2 fare can mark a person with a criminal record.

Mendelson, who along with Evans has opposed the measure from the start, stuck with his previous argument that fare evasion is theft, and theft is a crime.

“It does not matter if it’s a $2 fare, a $2 soda, or pick pocketing $2 from a wallet,” Mendelson said.

Evans read from a letter from WMATA president Raymond Jackson, which included an anecdote about a woman who peed in a cup and threw it at a bus driver. Jackson lamented the fact that the cup peer could have served up to 90 days in jail, but instead was banned from using that specific bus line. 

“To date, the D.C. Council has failed to address the light penalties of operator assaults in the District,” Evans read from Jackson’s letter. “With this bill, it will only make the situation on our buses worse because fare evasion is the primary cause of transit assaults.”

Evans said that overriding Bowser’s veto would be a “slap in the face” of Metro employees.

Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, speaking directly to the Metro workers who were sitting in the Council chamber, explained that his brother drives a bus and two other friends work for Metro, and he has heard personal stories about assaults and bad treatment of workers. 

But he’s also heard from friends who’ve been denied a job at Metro, or were hired and then fired due to a criminal past. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund sued WMATA in 2014 for racially discriminatory hiring practices.

“There are people who say this invites theft and more people to evade fares,” McDuffie said. “I don’t believe it. I don’t think there’s any evidence that supports it.” He added that criminalization “does significantly more harm to folks that look like you all and look like a lot of folks on this dais than the financial impact [it has on] Metro,” when riders avoid a $2 fare.

Multiple councilmembers also pointed to the racial disparity in citations and summons for fare evasion. An analysis of WMATA data by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs shows that 91 percent of the 20,000 criminal summons and citations from 2016 to 2018 were given to African Americans.

“Shame on us if we spent yesterday making social media posts quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and turn around and fuel racial disparities,” White said. “I urge my colleagues to override this veto.”