Barry Chamberlain’s troubles began on Sunday, May 20, when he stopped his 22-Fillmore Muni bus at Chestnut and Fillmore. As usual, the 62-year-old driver scoured the bus for stragglers — “sleepers” in Muni-speak — and found one. “I asked him to leave, said it three times, and then pushed the button,” Chamberlain recalled, referring to a “priority button” drivers hit when they need assistance.
“Before I knew it, I got hit in the back of my head — I got choked,” Chamberlain continued, telling his story from the wheelchair he’s still using, due to his injuries. “[The man] said: ‘Nigga, if I had a gun I would blow your brains out.’”
The man then threw Chamberlain off the bus and continued to beat him, Chamberlain said. The driver’s hospital stay, he says, stretched to two months. “I’ve been [driving for Muni] for 17 fuckin’ years, and this is what I’m supposed to go out like?” Chamberlain said, visibly upset.
Chamberlain said he has received workers’ compensation but is still waiting for his so-called “assault pay,” which is meant to reimburse workers for their loss of hours as a result of injuries stemming from on-the-job attacks.
The veteran driver will be in that wheelchair for some time yet. He says he can no longer feel his hands and feet.
On a recent Friday, Chamberlain and a half-dozen other Muni drivers met with Mission Local and other media outlets and relayed horror stories about being physically and verbally assaulted while on the job — incidents they say are too common.
The gathering was organized through Muni Drivers Union, Transport Workers Union Local 250A, because these operators say the volume of assaults has made their working conditions unbearably nerve-wracking, humiliating and dangerous.
Their stories included receiving death threats and racist remarks, being spit on regularly, being taunted with bloody syringes, having cups of vomit thrown on them, being blasted with a fire extinguisher — and, worst of all, being physically attacked, like Chamberlain was.
These incidents are par for the course for a Muni bus operator, they say — especially on “troublesome lines” like the 14-Mission and the 22-Fillmore, both of which pass through the Mission District. “To you … it’s shocking,” said Jay Epps, who has been driving a Muni bus for around three years. “To us, we pass the news around every day.”
Operators also bemoaned what they saw as the failure of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to adequately protect drivers and respond after they are assaulted. Some said their supervisors have discouraged them from reporting certain instances as assaults.
“The reality is, the job of an operator is dangerous — it’s unsafe,” said Roger Marenco, the president of the Transport Workers Union Local 250A, a Mission native and former bus driver. Management, he charges, does not provide safety measures for the drivers. “If we do get assaulted, we … become the criminal, we become the aggressor.”
SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose said in a statement that, “The safety of our operators is paramount. We agree that we need to do everything we can to keep these valuable people safe and that is why we are working so hard to find solutions.”
He said a newly-formed MTA “Assault Reduction Task Force” has added silent alarms to the buses, added better radios to communicate with control centers, added cameras, is working with the District Attorney to ensure bus driver assaults are prosecuted, and added enclosures to old buses. “We have had little to no assaults on an operator within an enclosure,” Rose said in an email.
He also said that MTA is staffing up at “central control” to better support operators. The agency will have added 16 staff to the support jobs to make 51 staffers by the end of the year.
Supervisors, Rose continued, “should not be discouraging operators from filing any sort of assault, and we haven’t received reports that they are.”
So far this year, Rose said drivers reported 316 assaults. They include verbal altercations, being spat upon, physical altercations and “operator altercation unclear,” according to data provided by the agency. Assaults on Muni drivers appear to be on a downward trend, according to this data. In the last five years, assaults on drivers were at their highest in 2015, with 771 reported assaults. Last year, in 2017, drivers reported a total of 532 assaults.
Yet some Muni drivers reiterated that their supervisors discouraged them from reporting assaults. One driver told Mission Local that, recently, a woman was riding his bus without securing her baby stroller. When he asked her to secure it, she told him not to tell her “how to raise her child,” and then proceeded to tell someone over the phone, “This Asian driver is telling us how to raise our child.”
Before the woman got off the bus, the driver claims she spit on him. But the driver claims his supervisor subsequently told him “you better not put that down as an assault. [Spitting] is not an assault anymore.”
While the MTA’s statistics indicate assaults on driers are declining, some drivers, like Deanna Lockridge, believe the protocols need to change.
Lockridge was driving a 22-Fillmore, stopped at 16th and Mission one day in 2012, when a man boarded and began “spitting on and attacking” passengers. She hit the priority button while the man was distracted, and discreetly asked for help. But as the man was getting off at the front of the bus, support staff answered Lockridge on speaker, for all to hear, asking for the man’s description for the second time.
“He heard everything they said, and he knew I called the police on him,” Lockridge recalled. “He stepped back on the coach, and he was spitting, he was swinging — I didn’t know what to do.”
Lockridge eventually used one of the bus’ wooden stop blocks to subdue the man. “It was either get hit or get spit on,” she said. “Spit was getting in my mouth, and was hanging off my eyelashes.”
And while San Francisco statistics indicate a downswing of incidents like this, the numbers here appear to be disproportionately high. Los Angeles Metro — a transit agency with well more than double the number of drivers employed by the SFMTA — reported 130 assaults in 2017, compared to San Francisco’s 532.
Nonetheless, Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-El Monte) introduced legislation at the national level that would require transit agencies to install driver-protection barriers in all buses (SFMTA claims it is already doing this), make plans to ensure driver safety, and report driver assaults to the Federal Transit Administration.
Sitting at the Starbucks across the street from the Potrero Division bus yard, Jay Epps was visibly distressed after sharing his story about a passenger following him to the end of his line and threatening to kill him — and his supervisor, after the incident, telling him to get back to work on the same line the aggressive passenger knew he would be driving.
“See this number?” he said, pointing to his four-digit driver identification number on his sleeve. “This is not my cab number — this is how many times I’m gonna run into some shit today.”