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As violence spikes on CTA buses, drivers plan Michigan Avenue march

“The last few months have been the worst violence I’ve ever seen on operators,” said Keith Hill, a veteran driver and head of the union that represents bus drivers.

Michelle Townsend, a CTA bus driver, says she does not feel safe after 30 years on the job. She spoke at a press conference at the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 241 headquarters Friday.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

CTA bus drivers plan to march down Michigan Avenue Saturday to demand something be done about the seemingly unprecedented amount of violence and aggression shown toward them in recent months.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 241 President Keith Hill said his members previously demonstrated at City Hall and CTA headquarters — efforts that yielded “no results.”

“We’re going to inconvenience the holiday shoppers ... let’s march where they hurt, let’s stop some of this money from flowing,” Hill said at a news conference Friday at the union’s headquarters in the South Loop.

“The last few months have been the worst violence I’ve ever seen on operators,” he said.

“Enough is enough, we’re fed up,” he said.

The drivers plan to meet at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at City Hall and then march to the Christmas tree at Millennium Park.

Hill said it’s gotten so bad the union is working with a private security company that’s offered to temporarily volunteer about 100 guards who will be stationed at various bus stops along routes that have experienced the most violence to check in with drivers as they pick up and drop off passengers.

“I don’t think they’re angry with bus drivers,” Hill said of the violence. “I think they’re angry with the situation of what’s going on in their environment and the world today. It’s not just bus drivers, we’re just the first person they see, the first person they get to take it out on.”

Hill said CTA leaders and Mayor Lori Lightfoot have pointed to increasing police presence to alleviate aggression against drivers, but it’s not enough.

Chicago Transit Authority bus drivers and union members attend a press conference at the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 241 headquarters in the South Loop Friday.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Hill said the Chicago Police Department is “overworked” and “understaffed” and more needs to be done.

“Metra has their own police department. Why can’t we have our own police department? No one can secure us better than us,” he said.

The police department and mayor’s office referred questions to the CTA.

“The safety and security of our employees is our top priority, and we have zero tolerance for anyone seeking to harm them,” CTA spokesman Brian Steele said in an email.

The CTA employs unarmed security guards who patrol the public transit system, and additional guards are being added in 2022, Steele said.

“Whenever a CTA employee is assaulted while discharging his or her duties, the CTA works closely with law enforcement to ensure that felony upgrades are aggressively pursued against the offender,” Steele said.

Elsie Sessions, the wife of a driver who was pulled off a bus and severely beaten in September near 63rd Street and Stony Island Avenue, expressed her frustration.

“There has to be a stand in protecting these bus drivers,” she said through tears. “I just hope that this never happens to anybody else.”

In another incident that occurred in September, a man shot a CTA bus driver in the jaw after the driver asked him to step off the bus when it reached the end of the line in the Loop.

Michelle Townsend, a nearly 30-year veteran who drives a bus on the South Side, said the current situation has been weighing on her.

“Every day I go to work I do not feel safe when I’m out there on the streets, but we have to do a job, and we’re trying to provide for our family, and plus we want to go back home the same way that we came to work,” she said.

“It was so much smoother when the pandemic first started and CTA for a time allowed passengers to enter through the back door to promote social distancing. There was no conversation or interaction,” she said.

Rear boarding resulted in many free rides. Now drivers are again requesting fares.

“We’re doing our job, requesting a fare one time. And we get attacked or spat on. And we’re trying to defuse situations, but we’re not a therapist out there,” she said, noting that unaddressed mental illness seems to play a large role in some encounters.

“It’s like ever since the pandemic it looks like everybody is just losing their mind. It’s sad,” she said, adding onboard security cameras don’t seem to deter crime.

Some drivers carry weapons, even though it’s agains the rules, acknowledged one driver.

Hill said one thing that would help is to more fully enclose the driver’s area. He said the CTA agreed to do this months ago but has yet to implement the change.

He also acknowledged the issues driving the violence are deep seeded.

“There’s nothing in the communities for anybody to do anymore,” Hill said. “It’s time for us to really start digging deep and invest in these communities and give the younger generation some other alternatives other than looking to violence or running with a bad crowd.”