Racial tensions flare on RFTA bus from Aspen to Carbondale
October 2, 2017
Some statements by a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus driver to Hispanic passengers recently led to a tense argument over whether he was being demeaning and racist.
A Glenwood Springs Latina accused the RFTA bus driver of discriminatory remarks aimed at another Hispanic rider on the bus. RFTA officials say that was not the driver's intent, but he has since been coached by his supervisor about the incident.
At about 5 p.m. the day of the incident, the only passengers on the bus from Aspen were four Hispanic women. As the bus traveled downvalley on Colorado 82 and approached Ranch at Roaring Fork, one woman mistakenly pulled the cord to request a stop.
On the bus's surveillance video recording, the driver can be heard asking who needed to stop at Ranch at Roaring Fork, holding his hand up to his ear to listen: "Hello? Hello? Hablo Ingles? Ranch of the Roaring Fork?"
As he learned that it was a mistake he said, "OK, that's why you've got to listen. I was asking you. OK? Learn your stops, please." He pointed up to the digital sign listing the upcoming stop. "Look, read," he said.
He soon pointed back up at the sign. "Now it says Carbondale, right? Now you pull it," he said.
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A few minutes later, while stopped in traffic, the driver pointed back at the sign and announces loudly to his passengers: "OK, what's our next stop? Hablo, habla. What's our next stop?"
At this point preschool teacher Vanessa Caro stepped in to stop what she felt was a demeaning interaction that the driver was carrying on because the woman was Hispanic.
"You're acting like she's a kid. That's not nice," she shouted, chastising the driver. "She understands English and Spanish. You are belittling her, and you know it."
"No," he retorted. "I'm talking to her like she's in elementary ed. And you're shouting like you're really angry."
Caro later told the Post Independent, "At this point I felt upset how cruel he was speaking to the passengers. As I looked around I saw the ladies looking down, silent and sad."
Caro said his tone was cruel, slow and condescending, as though he was talking to a child.
As they continued shouting at one another, she told him he needed to treat the woman like a human being, not an elementary student.
The driver continued: "You're wrong because you think I'm being derogatory or condescending to this woman," he said. Later he added, "You're projecting whatever negativity you've had with other people onto me."
Their argument spiraled on and continued to escalate until the bus reached the Carbondale stop. The driver then got up, went to the woman he was initially talking to and asked if he insulted her. He then told Caro that if she said another word he would have the police escort her off the bus. They continued arguing, and he then told her to get off the bus. But she refused, saying he had no reason to throw her off.
Eventually, they both called police. Caro said that she called the police "because I was nervous and scared."
"I felt so uncomfortable and scared that he was going to get closer," she told the PI.
Carbondale officers removed Caro from the bus. RFTA officials say that police have a general policy that when a driver asks for a passenger to be removed, they remove the passenger first and ask questions later.
"I was involved in a situation that left me questioning my human rights and feeling defeated," Caro said. The bus driver "dehumanized my fellow passengers."
"I experienced discrimination and spoke up, yet I'm the one that had to get kicked off the bus like I did something wrong," she said. "I feel like Latinos in this community do not have a voice. It isn't fair and so cruel to treat humans this way."
RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship said the driver did not intend to be demeaning, and certainly not racist. The RFTA executive described the driver's personality as "larger than life." On the video the driver can be seen being rather loud and boisterous in his interactions. Blankenship said his personality probably contributed to a misunderstanding of his intent.
According to the driver, he was simply trying to be instructive about how to use the bus system.
When he said "habla Ingles" he was genuinely trying to make sure the passenger understood, said Blankenship. The driver continued the argument because he was trying to defend himself from being called a racist, though he's since been coached about how he should de-escalate those kinds of situations, said Blankenship.
Still, the perception that he was being demeaning led to a shouting match on the busy Colorado 82 during the afternoon commute, a time that Blankenship stressed is not an opportune time to confront a driver who needs to focus on delivering passengers safely to their destinations.
The driver and his supervisor watched the bus video together, going over how his statements could be taken as insensitive, said Blankenship.
After watching himself on camera the driver was genuinely remorseful and ashamed that his words were taken as discriminatory, said Blankenship. And the driver gave assurances that this kind of incident won't happen again, according to RFTA officials.
The driver was also a new addition to RFTA's fleet, having been brought on for the expanded services during the Grand Avenue bridge project. Still, Kent Blackmer, RFTA co-director of operations, said he received the same training as any other driver, including diversity and customer service training.
On Friday, Caro said she had not heard from RFTA since filing her complaint a week before and was disappointed. "I wasn't looking for anyone to lose their job, but definitely an apology. And an apology for the other lady on the bus."