In 1986, in response to the racial killing of a black man Howard Beach, Al Sharpton and several protesters stood on the express subway tracks in the Brooklyn Bridge station of the Lexington avenue 4,5 & 6 line. The brakes were pulled on a 6 train already in the station, so occupying the express track shut down the 4 and 5 line. All subway service on this route was temporarily shut down until police could remove the protesters from the tracks, and MTA personnel could reset the brakes, charge up the air, and send that 6 train on its way.
This was a bold and dangerous move on Sharpton’s behalf. A train entering the station might not have know of his presence, or he could have accidentally touched the third rail – both of which would lead to a very swift, sudden death. But Sharpton was always a bit more about appearance than substance back then (as seen in the twana brawley fiasco). Still – this grand gesture of personal safety indifference in support of the cause made him a successful leader.
Fortunately, for any Occupy Wall Street protesters taking part in tomorrow’s protests geared towards ‘occupying the MTA’, such risky tactics are not required to effectively shut down entire subway lines. As you can see, pulling the brake worked just as well.
At the end of every subway car, either high up or flush against the wall behind a small door, lays the emergency brake. When this brake is pulled, the subway train comes to an immediate full stop, and will not be able to move again until the reason behind the brake being pulled is resolved (as per MTA procedures), and the pneumatic brake system recharges. This used to take a few minutes on older trains, but is probably significantly faster today. In any case, you’re looking at hauling that train for between 5 and 30 minutes. Just one stuck train can cause operational chaos and back up all trains behind it. Two stuck trains blocking both tracks on the major north south lines would grow the delay exponentially. Riders get frustrated, they get off trains and end up in the streets.
An effective protest tactic would be to go from train to train, across platforms and at major transfer stations, and pull these brake cords while the train is in the station.You would not want to do this while a train is in the tunnel, as that may lead to passengers being trapped underground for long periods of time – a dangerous situation in and of itself. It also wouldn’t help the cause at all. Afterall – do you really want to piss off a lot of working stiffs and then be trapped in the train with them?
All it would take is 10 people to pull this off simultaneously. Let’s use 14th street as an example. 1 person can pull the chord on a local and an express. 2 people on either uptown or downtown platform could temporarily shut down all traffic in both directions. So you get a set of people at the 456, a set at the NRQ, another set at the BDFM, 123, and the last on the ACE line. A coordinated brake pull on every major north south subway line would slam the entire system.
NYPD could not stop this. The only way to do it would be to stop people from entering the subway system – again – shutting it down or severely disrupting service. Since this form of protest could take place just about anywhere in the system, there’s no way they can protect against it. And as we’ve seen time and time again lately (with the pepper spraying, mass Brooklyn bridge arrests, and even this morning), if there’s one thing the NYPD is not good at it’s improvisation in the face of a large crowd. They turn towards tactics that are unsound and further the image that they are corrupt and only in place to protect the moneyed 1%. Pulling brakes at Woodlawn still cuts service on the 4 line for a time… It’s slightly less affective at outlying stations but still sends the message to the moneymongers: get your hands out of my pocket.
Make no mistake, we’re not advocating anyone do this, nor are we planning such an action ourselves. This post is purely for informational purposes. Had good ole’ Sharpton just waited for an express train to come in and ‘pulled the air’, he wouldn’t have had to risk his life or those of the police that had to go retrieve him.
I might not always protest, but when I do, I do so wisely. Stay thirsty for freedom my friends.