Till Arrests Do Us Part

The Passenger Liberation Front wants to deliver you from boredom.

Inside a BART train screaming through the Transbay Tube, a flutist and accordionist stumble through a rendition of “Here Comes the Bride.” A young man in a gray suit invites the unassuming Sunday transit riders to join a colorfully dressed wedding party and gather in “rebellious, renegade matrimony.”

The unshaven groom, “Otto Matik,” swings from the railings in a suit, sporting dark shades. His cherub-faced bride, “Naan Shawlance,” picks at her ruffled wedding dress as flowers are thrown in front of her. The wedding party quickly drapes a gaudy faux-garland over the car’s door and attaches artificial white flowers and plastic wedding rings to hand railings. “Take each other’s hands, and hold on to the rail,” the fake minister says.

Commuters jockey for a better view of the ceremony, standing and kneeling on the plush seats with wide grins on their faces, or craning their heads and looking askance through dark sunglasses.

“I hope if I marry here, BART will always be adventurous for me,” Naan says melodramatically as part of her mock vows. The couple met on BART, she says, an event that “completely changed our experience of public transportation.” Then the minister gets right to the point. “Do you take Naan Shawlance to be your bride?”

The groom pauses a little too long to think it over.

“Do it! Do it!” the crowd chants.

“Come on, Otto baby, you know I love you,” Naan pleads, a tiny braid falling over her forehead, tied with a large white ribbon matching her dress.

Finally, Otto says, “Sure, why not?”

Naan Shawlance lives up to her name in response to the same question: “I guess.”

The wedding is the latest in a chain of BART interventions thrown by a loosely organized group of East Bay artists and activists united under the tongue-in-cheek moniker of the Passenger Liberation Front. The happenings belong to the same art-as-activism family as Reclaim the Streets, which stops traffic for street parties, or the Situationists, a group of 1960s artists and activists who sought to alter people’s perceptions of the modern city. The NYC Club Kids, who held dance parties in subways and fast-food chains in the late 1980s, may also have inspired a prior Passenger Liberation Front event, an ’80s dance party held in March. BART police, who made an arrest and confiscated boom boxes, stopped that event short. But the transit takeovers are generally playful, and today’s mock marriage could hardly be considered rowdy.

That is, until the flutist objects to the union. In a classic Jerry Springer moment, the groom throws off his jacket and wrestles the nattily dressed musician to the floor, amid shrieks and laughter from the others. Another objects and is brought down, his black wig and gray suit disheveled in the process. “You were supposed to be my best man!” Otto yells.

“This is so California,” says Maris Maraga, a clean-cut tourist from St. Louis. “It’s totally fun and crazy.” Her mother, Sue, agrees: “It definitely brought joy onto the train. I was telling my husband the other day that I broke the rules on BART and spoke to the woman beside me.” Maris adds: “This definitely breaks BART etiquette.”

This is just what the organizers were hoping for, says the accordionist “Zephyr,” a young woman with green-highlighted hair who lives in an Oakland cooperative house along with many of the other core participants. “BART is a public space, but people don’t really interact with each other,” she explains. “So we’re trying to create a space where things can be creative, using BART as a form of art that can engage people.”

Elizabeth, 27, a painter and dancer who lives in North Oakland, agrees. “We have the potential to interact in a more creative way with each other,” she says. “Doing unusual things in public places raises people’s awareness of the potential for fun, creative interaction, and play. We are amazing, creative people, but we don’t interact.”

One of the first Passenger Liberation Front events was an art gallery opening. “Everyone’s always getting on the BART and they always look so bored, and the environment is so office-cubically,” says Vanessa Gravenstine, 24, also of the Oakland collective. “So we were trying to reclaim that and put art out there and liven up their commute.” Held on a weeknight BART train a few months ago, artists “dressed up really fancy,” served hors d’oeuvres, and hung their paintings and photographs. One artist posed as an oracle and gave free advice to passengers.

About fifty people arrived for the next BART event, an ’80s dance party held on St. Patrick’s Day. Some people from the St. Pat’s parade “just loved it, and treated it as a continuation of the festivities,” Gravenstine says. “They’d come in and start dancing on the train with us, and if they didn’t like it they’d go to a different car.”

Jesse Sanford, a 27-year-old anthropology graduate student at UC Berkeley, remembers the BART car being transformed. Modified boom boxes appeared “from nowhere,” he says, “with extra-loud amplification and batteries attached to them.” Streamers were hung from the railings by costumed revelers. But this isn’t just a way to blow off steam, Sanford claims; it’s a political act. The BART happenings, he says, “bring people together through solidarities that are deeper than the solidarities of disgruntled, sleepy commuters.”

BART spokesman Linton Johnson doesn’t quite see it that way. “We are in the business of moving people safely, securely, and efficiently from point A to point B,” he says. “We have zero tolerance for anybody violating BART law.” Using a “sound device” is one such violation.

After a 10:00 p.m. complaint from the SFO station, Johnson says, three BART police officers boarded at the 16th Street Mission station and found fifty people “screaming and yelling.” When police proceeded to confiscate their boom boxes, one of the partiers allegedly kicked the radio away from them. Jan Chmelik, 31, was arrested and charged with battery on an officer and resisting arrest, both misdemeanors, after he allegedly “body slammed” a BART police officer at the Montgomery station, Johnson says.

Gravenstine disagrees. “If anything, the police were assaulting him.” She remembers the cops’ attempts to confiscate the boom boxes. “Then the next thing I knew, there were about three cops holding him down.” She theorizes that they may have targeted Chmelik because of his boisterousness. “I think maybe the cops were intimidated by the fact that we were fifty people who were so well organized.”

In video footage of the arrest taken by one of the participants, partiers chant: “Please don’t beat us; we don’t have any fajitas.” Chmelik, in a sailor’s costume, sprawled on the floor with several BART police over him, holds out his hand to the camera, saying: “Look at this — it’s red. Do you see how red it is? I didn’t do anything.”

Chmelik faces up to a year in county jail, his attorney John Viola says. Viola declined to describe the arrest, but maintains that his client did nothing, and that charges should be dropped. A pretrial conference will be held on June 9.

Johnson clearly hopes there won’t be any more parties. “The message is out there that there’s zero tolerance,” he says. “As long as you respect the rules, you’re free to ride BART.”

But Chmelik’s arrest has not deterred the wedding party, and BART police do not make an appearance. Instead, heads turn and smiles appear as the group works its way through the cars, laughing and humming “Here Comes the Bride” along the way. “Welcome to our wedding! Thanks for coming!” one excited participant yells. They stop a few cars down from the first wedding, somewhere past the Powell station, where the flute and accordion start another duet and decorations are hastily attached to rails. An identical wedding begins, this time with Vanessa Gravenstine playing the bride, and “Locust” in the role of groom.

“Do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?” the minister intones. Vanessa thinks it over. “I feel like, we can sleep in the same bed and stuff,” she says. They kiss, fall to the floor, and then suddenly the party is rushing out to the platform and hopping another train. Then they’re off again at 16th Street, the wedding procession continuing up the elevator. A large plastic bag full of cookies appears at the street-level plaza, and curious pedestrians come closer to partake.

Malinda Williams, 36, a surgical technician living in Oakland, is visiting her friend Edward, a BART station agent. Most men are “dogs,” she says, but this gives her hope. “It’s cute to get married where you met,” she says of Otto and Naan’s professed meeting. Gritting her teeth and directing her comment toward Edward, she adds, “That’s the way it should sometimes be.”

With a laugh, he shoots back, “But I would never get married in my high school.”

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