October 28, 2004 -- The final public CTA Budget Hearing began at 4pm Wednesday, but Chicago riders signed up for the speakers list as early as two hours earlier at the Hilton Palmer House fourth floor ballroom in the Loop.
The hearing was formatted similarly to the three past ones, where riders and workers sign up in the entrance of the room, and choose whether or not to speak, while the CTA Board of seven members sits at the front of the room silently, listening to each speaker's three-minute arguments. This time, however, the hearing was scheduled to be able to go as late as 9pm, two and a half hours longer than the three earlier hearings on the South Side, in Humboldt park and in Evanston, and some of the riders made interesting use of their time.
Disabilities access groups came out in especially large numbers in the rowdy crowd that numbered over eight hundred. Arguments included South Siders frustrated with the racial bias of the cuts, workers who would lose jobs, outraged blind and wheelchair-bound riders, and downtown business leaders, and a fray broke out as two Midwest Unrest activists began expressing their opposition, leading to their forced removal from the building.
The hearing began late, as one of the Board members was speaking to press outside, and the Midwest Unrest Mr. T banner ("Cut the Jibba Jabba, No Service cuts or fare increases, fool!") made its appearance. The evening's mediator, Greg Larkin, announced that there were hundreds on the speakers list, and the Spanish translator and sign language interpreter introduced themselves. Carole Brown announced that the board had to submit the budget by November 15th, leading the crowd to grumble and jeer. The first speaker, Larry Pearlman, started the evening off with fury by proclaiming that the service cuts would literally "kill disabled citizens and elderly riders," and force disabilities advocacy groups like Watchtower and Access Living to close down.
"We have been forced to choose between medication and food, but you're going to force us to choose between transportation, medication and food," declared Mary Wilson, another disabled rider.
Patricia, who is the president of the alumni at her alma mater and is visually impaired, angrily wondered why these hearings had not been held earlier since the Board must have known of their precarious budget situation for years.
Alex Claire, who is hooked up to a voicebox, wondered the same, and at least six other disabilities access organizers and activists spoke in the first hour and a half of the hearing, including Lois Montgomery from downstate Illinois, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois, and some of her local colleagues, as well as activists from Access Living and other local groups. Carolina, a blind resident of Rogers Park, announced to the audience that the unemployment rate for the blind is currently at 74%, and that the proposed service cuts and disabilities access rate increases would devastate the blind community more than their lack of sight has.
"Ain't got no fare to go no where," said South Side resident Magnolia, who declared that "[S]omebody pocketed the money." She was quite clear that she thought there were racial and gentrifying motives behind the service cuts, shouting at the Board "You want us out of this city. We ain't got no where to go."
"This is my family in here, and when you mess with my family, you mess with me," said another South Sider, Juliet Walker. "Who audits your books? It's a shame the way you're treating us."
The crowd, almost as rowdy as it had been at the second hearing on 95th street on October 19th, gave lots of support to most speakers, and jeered the Board or Mayor Daley with any excuse. They occasionally broke into chants of "Let Her Finish" or "Answer Her," and many stood and whistled or shouted angrily at the stoic Board members.
Other speakers discussed the all ready burdensome costs of gas and energy on poor residents, and that the problems went straight to City Hall and Mayor Daley. Activists from Citizens Taking Action and the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs gave well-detailed speeches dissecting the problematic budget proposal, and mentioning the day's news that one thousand pink slips had all ready been mailed to CTA operators and drivers. But several somewhat surprising speakers came to the podium, including members of the Metropolitan Civic Federation, the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents, and the Greater Michigan Avenue Association, representing affluent communities and businesses who worried that their South Side and West Side employees would not make it to work. The Civic Federation, after having conducted an extensive survey, noted that at least 92,000 less riders would be able to use the CTA per day.
After the first twenty-two speakers, a Midwest Unrest activist's time to take the mic came. He gave an angry speech drawing together disabilities access issues, unemployment, race, Boeing [a strike there was underway] and the occupation of Iraq, the lay-offs and other issues. Many in the crowd began to get rowdy and loud. Another MWUR militant rushed the stage, took the CTA Board's Budget Proposal sign and began ripping through it. Suddenly, and without warning, the MWUR speaker was wrestled from the behind by plain-clothes Palmer House private security, and forced out of the room while many in the crowd chanted "Let him go."
Both MWUR militants were forced out, onto the elevator and out the main entrance, as one continued to shout "What are you doing with me." Several people, including fellow MWUR activists and others, followed the fracas outside. One short security guard threatened the MWUR militant who had been speaking, and both were aggressively manhandled on the way out. According to both activists, there was no warning, no demand that they leave the premises, and they are considering legal action and charges of assault against the Palmer House.
This report will have to end at this point as one of the removed MWUR activists was me...