In his years of working as a bus driver in West Palm Beach, Terrence Barber says he had seen it all: people using alcohol or drugs on the bus or having sex. Others peeing or defecating.
But what happened this past Mother’s Day cut through his ability to remain calm and professional. It also cost him his job.
A man who appeared intoxicated boarded the bus and refused to pay, Barber said in a phone interview. And after a verbal dispute, the man, who is white, began to call Barber, who is black, the n-word. Video of the incident recorded on a camera in the bus depicts the man, carrying an American-flag-themed bag, swaying near the front of the bus. He appears to repeatedly call the driver the n-word and “a punk,” though the driver does not respond.
“What do you want to do,” the man says at one point.
In a letter to Barber informing him of his dismissal, Clinton B. Forbes, executive director of the Palm Tran bus system, said that Barber “deliberately passed” a couple of bus stops instead of servicing the passenger’s request for his stop. Audio and video evidence showed Barber telling the passenger that he was “locked” in, Forbes wrote, although it was not clear if that was included on the video that was released.
That video captures what happened next. After the man appears to spit in the direction of the driver’s seat, the driver stops the bus, walks toward the passenger and repeatedly strikes the man with a closed fist, shouting about how he shouldn’t have spit in his face, until the man lies crumpled on the floor. The driver then picks up the bus’s phone and requests emergency medical technicians as well as the police.
“You better get somebody to help him here right now,” he said.
Forbes’s letter said that the passenger was knocked unconscious for several minutes. He accuses Barber of failing to render aid.
In an interview with The Post, Barber, 45, spoke about the May incident, saying he could have handled the verbal abuse, as vicious as it was, if it wasn’t for the man spitting at him, which he said he considers an assault.
“The gentlemen refused to pay,” Barber said. “I was fine with the n-word because we’re trained to have thick skin and take verbal abuse. And I’m fine with the verbal abuse, but then he spit in my face. I’m a human being, and I reacted.”
The man has not been publicly identified, but Joe Harrington, a spokesman for the Palm Tran transit system said he was banned from the bus system and all Palm Tran facilities for his behavior.
The West Palm Beach Police Department could not be immediately reached for comment, but Barber said he was not charged for punching the man.
He said that he was disappointed in what happened — “I’m not proud of it,” he said — but ultimately had no regrets, given the context.
“I wouldn’t do anything different,” he said. “I would have given him a free ride [again]. But I can’t allow the assault.”
Barber said he had worked for Palm Tran for about five years. He was suspended for 90 days after the incident, he said, before the letter this week announced his termination. Barber said he fractured a hand in the incident but continued his route that day.
“I finished the route for them and don’t believe that was taken into consideration,” he said.
He said his experience driving the bus was common to all public transit operators.
“The abuse is out of hand,” he said. “I’ve been called the n-word so many times it’s not funny…. I ignore the foolishness, but at the same time, we are human beings and we got feelings. I’m speaking out here for anybody that’s a transit operator.”
A brief search of coverage by local news outlets in the past year or so shows incidents in which a Palm Tran driver was allegedly threatened by a passenger with a knife, and another in which one was punched and pulled out of the bus by an aggressive rider.
“When you open those doors, you have no idea or clue what’s walking inside,” Barber said. “There’s no partition between us; there’s no protection. If someone’s having a bad day, you have to adjust to their way of thinking.”
“Palm Tran is committed to maintaining a safe transit system,” system spokesman Harrington said in a statement. “During the past year, there have been two instances out of nine million boardings in which customers touched bus operators — and both times the operators were not injured.”
Forbes’s letter spoke about Barber’s behavior in harsh terms, telling him that he “engaged in an egregious and abhorrent level of misconduct when you physically assaulted a passenger in front of other customers.”
“At a pre-hearing, you explained that when the passenger spit on you, you felt attacked and proceeded to defend yourself. However, you never offered a plausible explanation as to why you did not simply service the passenger’s bus stop, which would have allowed him to exit the bus and effectively eliminate the problem,” the letter read. “Furthermore, when you elected to physically attack an obviously inebriated, defenseless passenger by plummeting him to the ground and punching him unconscious, you became the aggressor. Your actions and conduct of May 13, 2018 are reprehensible.”
Representatives for the Amalgamated Transit Union local 1577, which represents the drivers, told CBS 12 that they believed the driver should have been retrained and less severely disciplined.
“Emotionally the driver lost it, and reacted in self-defense as well as reacted to being spit upon,” union president Dwight Mattingly said. “I think there’s no place in our society for that use of language, and I think anybody’s going to have a reaction after being spat upon and racially degraded.”
Barber declined to comment on his termination letter, saying that he had not yet seen it.