Civil Rights Investigation of the MBTA

Police Accountability, Racial Justice


Unwarranted Shut-down of MBTA Services After Black Lives Matter Protest Cited As One Of Many MBTA Practices Harmful To Communities Of Color

Following the one-year anniversary of the abrupt decision by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) to shut down service to numerous train stations following a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) has issued an open letter to the MBTA raising racial justice concerns about the shut-down and is calling on federal authorities to review the MBTA for compliance with federal civil rights laws.

The MBTA’s extensive shut-down of public transportation services on the evening of May 31, 2020—a first since the system-wide MBTA closure during the 2013 Marathon bombing manhunt—effectively stranded hundreds of peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors throughout downtown Boston.  LCR’s letter calls the MBTA’s decision an “overreaction [that] appears to be race-based and connected to the identity of the protestors and their affiliation or association with Black Lives Matter.”

Citing MBTA internal documents uncovered through public records requests, LCR reconstructs a timeline of events, from an MBTA Supervisor’s report at 8:40pm that “[t]he protest is still peaceful and the stations are still clear,” to the abrupt decision approximately 30 minutes later to shut down Park Street, Government Center, Downtown Crossing, and numerous other downtown stations.  Records indicate no factors that went into this sudden decision, or any consideration of the legal or practical implications of the shut-down.  As an MBTA Manager questioned the following day, “Why did we shut down so many stations last night, stranding protestors and essential workers through the end of service…. What policies do we have, or are we creating?”  The Manager noted the heavy impact the shutdown had on “Black and transit-dependent people.”

Indeed, public records reveal a complete lack of formal policies or procedures pertaining to the suspension of public transportation services for any other reason other than weather or maintenance.  LCR’s open letter raises concerns that this makes the MBTA’s decision-making vulnerable to bias and discrimination. As a public and federally-funded entity, the MBTA is prohibited from discriminating against or refusing service to any individual or group on the basis of race, color, or national origin. 

Unfortunately, the MBTA’s May 31, 2020 shutdown, which stranded hundreds of people—and primarily people of color—in downtown Boston, is not the first instance of inequitable conduct by the MBTA.  LCR’s call to federal authorities to review the MBTA for civil rights compliance cites numerous other recent examples, including: 

LCR’s open letter calls on the MBTA to:

(1) immediately develop written guidance to ensure that it cannot and will not arbitrarily shut down public transportation in violation of federal and state civil rights law; and

(2) undertake an equity analysis, conducted by an independent consultant, of the MBTA’s policies and practices to determine whether they disproportionately burden communities of color.

LCR’s letter to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg calls on federal authorities to immediately review the MBTA for compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws.

Click here to download the letter to Secretary Buttigieg.

Click here download the letter to the MBTA.