‘It’s constant verbal abuse’: San Francisco bus driver recounts assault after enforcing mask rule

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A San Francisco bus driver who was assaulted last week said that both he and his Asian passengers have faced racist abuse when they have asked other riders to wear their face masks during the pandemic.

The driver said he was hit in the face and struck with a miniature baseball bat last Wednesday after asking a group of teenagers to put on their face masks.

Before he was assaulted, the driver said, one of the young men told him that because he was Asian, he was the one who was likely to have coronavirus.

“It’s hard right now being a bus driver, especially being an Asian driver,” he told the Guardian, asking that his name not be published to protect his privacy.

Related: 'Coughing while Asian': living in fear as racism feeds off coronavirus panic

Since the early weeks of the pandemic, bus drivers across the United States have spoken out about anger and assaults from passengers, particularly when they try to enforce public health rules about social distancing and mask-wearing.

Just in the past month, bus drivers have been beaten after asking passengers to wear masks in San Francisco, New York city, and in Lubbock, Texas, where a bus driver was hit with a large wooden board and left bloody. A New York City driver reportedly left with a broken bone near his eye in July was one of dozens of Covid-related violent incidents involving bus drivers in New York, according to The City, a local news outlet. In France, a bus driver died after a brutal beating in early July, prompted once again by asking a group of passengers to put on their masks.

Bus drivers and other transit workers across the US have also described being spat on and threatened when they try to enforce safety guidelines. In Detroit, Michigan, bus driver Jason Hargrove died of coronavirus less than two weeks after he posted an emotional Facebook video about his frustration with a passenger who was coughing on his bus without covering her mouth.

“It’s constant verbal abuse from passengers all day long,” said the San Francisco bus driver, who has worked for the city for two years. “We have to enforce this mask rule. People don’t like being told what to do.”

“It adds a tremendous amount of stress to what you’re doing on a daily basis,” the driver said.

Last Wednesday, a small group of teenagers boarded the bus in downtown San Francisco, the driver said. They had masks on, but were letting the masks dangle beneath their chins. The driver repeatedly reminded the passengers to wear their masks, but whenever he started driving again, they would take the masks off.

Eventually, the driver stopped the bus and said he was going to take it out of service. The young people got off the bus, but the driver saw one of them opening a panel on the outside of the bus. When he exited the bus to deal with the situation, the young man, who the driver estimated to be about 17 years old, spat in his face, then hit him twice with a miniature baseball bat he had in his backpack, and then, when the driver grabbed that away from him, struck him twice in the face and ran away.

The attack left the driver with a fractured finger, and with even greater mental stress. “I keep thinking to myself: that bat he pulled from his backpack could easily have been a gun.”

A spokesperson for the San Francisco police department said they were investigating the incident, but did not yet have any confirmed arrests, and that they were not releasing descriptions of the suspect.

It’s not the first time that the driver, who has lived in San Francisco since he was a small child, has experienced racist abuse while working on the front lines of the pandemic, he said.

About two months ago, he said, an older Asian couple on his bus politely asked some other passengers to put on their masks, the driver said.

The young passengers called the couple “Chinamen” and told them to shut up and “go back to where you came from, you’re the reason we have this disease”, the driver recalled.

No other passengers intervened, the driver said. In response, the older couple just stayed silent and moved away.

The driver said he was “upset” and stopped the bus and reminded the passengers that they had to put on their masks or get off the bus.

Since he was physically assaulted last week, the reaction from his family and from fellow bus drivers after the attack has been “outrage”, the driver said, but not surprise.

Roger Marenco, the president of the local chapter of Transit Workers Union of America, confirmed that bus drivers in San Francisco have faced verbal assaults and racial slurs “on a daily basis”.

“Keep in mind – spitting on somebody in this moment, it could even be considered assault with a deadly weapon, if that person has Covid-19,” Marenco said.

The driver said he believed it would be helpful to have a security guard, police officer, or other person on public buses whose sole job is to enforce mask rules, so that drivers can focus on driving.

“My plea would be for the passenger and the general public to assist the operators whenever he or she is trying to do their job,” Marenco said.