FULL ARTICLE from the Commercial Appeal
By: Katherine Fretland
Mary Godwin stood at the Downtown bus terminal and pointed to the spot where bus rider James “Semaj” Gray suffered fatal injuries on the concrete.
“Semaj was pushed off the bus right in this spot, right there,” she said.
A private guard with Pro-Tech Security was charged with aggravated assault resulting in the death of Gray, who died Aug. 3 after a 12-week coma. Now the Memphis Bus Riders Union is asking MATA to keep records of every use of force by its new private security guards and make the data available to the public.
Members of the union are also distributing forms for complaints and public input about the bus system. Pro-Tech’s contract expired July 31 and Ambassador Worldwide Protection Agency guards took over.
The union recently investigated how a child bystander was hit with pepper spray when a guard with the new company sprayed a woman at the Downtown terminal. It happened the day before members held a vigil for Gray, said bus riders union co-chairman Bennett Foster.
MATA spokeswoman Alison Burton said the pepper-spraying happened toward the outer edge of the property at 444 N. Main and was not captured on camera. The station’s 23 cameras are focused on the interior of the building, the parking lot and bus area. The guard alleged the woman who was pepper-sprayed had pushed her hand into the guard’s forehead.
“Due to recent events involving the use of force by (MATA) contracted private security, it is imperative that MATA install more security cameras at the Hudson Transit Center,” Foster said.
Foster said the Ambassador guards are required to record incidents in a log book at the end of each shift, according to their contract.
“We need access to these reports to observe any patterns of violence, and to compare them with customer complaints against guards,” he said.
Members are also asking for sensitivity training for the guards.
“(The guards) need to know how to talk to you,” Godwin said.
On Saturday, Godwin and Georgia King carried stacks of bright yellow fliers to raise awareness about the bus riders union.
Godwin, 69, and King, 74, are longtime bus riders. Godwin has been in the union for about a month and King is a founding member of the group, which formed in 2012.
King is concerned about dirty seats on buses, overcrowding and drivers moving their buses before people sit.
Burton said MATA received an e-mail from the bus riders union last week and the staff will meet about it.
“MATA is fully committed to our customers’ safety and overall comfort on buses and at MATA facilities,” she said. “We are willing to work with the resources we have to make things better.”
Some riders have also raised concerns about a lack of crosswalks to access buses quickly at the Downtown terminal.
“One of the biggest conflicts between guards and riders at the moment is due to the enforcement of an unwritten rule that riders must only walk at the crosswalk in the terminal,” Foster said. “Many riders are forced to break this rule when transferring between buses.”
He said transfers are often disorganized due to late buses and some drivers will stop short to allow riders to jump off and rush to an outbound bus.
“If this policy is to remain, it is only right that there be signs posted in the driveway,” he said. “The two crosswalks on either side of the terminal should be painted yellow as well to help communicate to riders where it is safe to walk.”
The next bus riders union meeting is noon to 2 p.m. on Sept. 13 at Memphis Center for Independent Living, 1633 Madison, on bus route #2.
For more information call 901-205-9737.