MIAMI (CBSMiami) — A day after Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez defended his decision to shutdown bus and rail service last weekend throughout all of Miami-Dade County in response to isolated protests in downtown Miami, community leaders continued to express dismay.
“I don’t think that there was a good enough reason to inflict that sort of wide-scale damage,” said Azhar Chougle, Executive Director of the Transit Alliance, a non-profit group created to improve and promote public transportation.READ MORE: COVID-19 Testing Sites In South Florida
“The shutdown on Sunday was unprecedented and just stranded so many people had so much collateral damage for the working families of Miami-Dade County,” he continued. “And we just have no evidence that it was actually effective for what it was designed to do, especially because we’re the only city in the country that had this sort of all-day transit suspension.”
On an average Sunday, nearly 40,000 riders depend on Miami-Dade Transit. Chougle noted that 36-Percent of the county’s essential workers depend on public transit to get to work.
During a press conference on Thursday, the Mayor said he eliminated transit service because “the safety of this town is my utmost concern.”
“When I spoke to my police director, I think on Zoom, we talked about public transit,” Gimenez said. “And one of the things he said is that, yes, protesters and not just a few, right, protesters do take advantage of public transit, to then go to other parts of the town and then start spreading trouble there. And so, my concern is always public safety, number one, loss of life and that’s number one.”
Gimenez’ decision to eliminate bus service throughout the county as a way of curtailing protesters from being able to attend the lawful, peaceful and legitimate protests that took place in Miami on Sunday, was seen as a way of trying to stifle free speech.
But beyond the impact on protesters, it also left people trying to get to work stranded because many didn’t realize bus service had been cancelled.
“You’re waking up on Sunday just trying to put food on the table and you’re waiting there and you have no idea that the entire county wide system has been shut down,” Chougle said. “Because you might have known that there were protests last night. But it’s not like the protest lasted the entire night or continued into the morning or that you would have any indication that an entire transit network would be shut down, because that’s not what it’s not a normal thing to do as a response to the localized violence.”
Chougle says he respects Gimenez and is working closely with him to improve the county’s overall transit strategy, nevertheless, believes the mayor overreacted and doesn’t seem to realize the consequences of what he did.
The Transit Alliance wrote a letter seeking answers from Gimenez. They have not heard back and given his response during Thursday’s press conference, the Mayor doesn’t want to be questioned about his decision.
When pressed by CBS4’s Jim DeFede, the mayor twice tried to summarily shut down any questions.READ MORE: COVID-19 Vaccination Sites In South Florida
“I’m not having a discussion Jim,” he said at one point when asked about the impact his decision had on poor, working people.
A minute later, he abruptly declared, “Jim we’re done, we’re done.” He refused to take any questions on his decision after that.
WATCH: Mayor Gimenez responds to questions about shutting down public transit
Jeffrey Mitchell, the president of the transit workers’ union, said there were better ways for the mayor to handle any concerns about violent protests in downtown Miami.
“If there is a hotspot, we have bus traffic control who can take care of that by rerouting buses,” he said. “It just really was unnecessary to [shut down service]. It wasn’t like it was a county wide protest going on. There were locations that they knew exactly where they were. So, we could have scheduled around that.”
Mitchell said he was not aware of any problems involving protesters on buses on Saturday that would have precipitated shutting down the system.
Valencia Gunder is a community activist in Liberty City, where people often depend on the bus to get to and from work. She also is concerned the Mayor’s intention was to prevent people who wanted to peacefully protest downtown from being able to attend by taking away bus service.
“We need to make sure that this never, ever happen again,” she said. “We invest a lot of money at Miami into our public transit. It’s not like, we got the best public transit to start off with, taking away the midst of a pandemic and then uprising was definitely irresponsible.”
Chougle said whether the Mayor intended it or not there were clear racial implications to his actions.MORE NEWS: South Florida’s Sky-High Rent Is Squeezing Longtime Locals Looking For An Affordable Place
“I think it’s also important to note that the majority of transit riders are minorities,” he explained. “Thirty-four percent are black, and 51 percent are Hispanic or Latino. And when we have a situation where we have communities that are really hurting from generations of injustice, especially when it comes to police brutality, to shut them off from the transit system that they depend on, I don’t think it helps.”