By Ben Joravsky

For Eric Tobiason, Thursday, May 31, started off like any ordinary workday morning, with a mad scramble up the stairs at the Morse Avenue el station to catch a Loop-bound train. “I’m still surprised about what happened,” says Tobiason, a 28-year-old art director at a downtown advertising agency. “You just don’t think an incident like this will happen to you.”

The incident might not have happened had he not been in such a rush. But he didn’t want to be late for work, and he heard a train pulling into the station. So he snatched his fare card out of the turnstile slot, dashed through the gate, and bolted up the stairs, just behind his wife, Mie Tobiason. “My wife and I got on the platform just before the train,” says Eric. “We were going to board the train. Then someone grabbed me.”

It was a woman. “I didn’t see her at first,” he says. “She grabbed me, and I turned around and saw this burly older woman–she looked like some ordinary person on the street. I thought she was homeless and was trying to get money out of me. She said, ‘Wait.'”

Within an instant, Tobiason and the woman were surrounded by three men who were also dressed in ordinary street clothes. “They all had their hands on me,” he says. “They were saying I didn’t pay. I didn’t know what was going on. I was thoroughly confused. Then I saw the woman had a badge dangling around her neck. I realized, these are cops–I’m getting busted.”

But why? His wife, a recent Japanese immigrant who speaks fluent but accented English, was nearly hysterical. “We just want to take the train, no? And they grabbed my husband. Why?” says Mie Tobiason. “I was shocked. Who are these people? They look like homeless, and suddenly they’re grabbing my husband. I was screaming at them, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing?’ Then I too realized, they’re cops.”

The officers quickly handcuffed Tobiason, hands behind his back. “The woman cop was saying, ‘You didn’t pay.’ I’m saying, ‘I did pay.’ She says, ‘I saw you didn’t pay.’ I’m thinking, ‘How could you see me not pay when I paid?’ My wife is saying, ‘My husband paid.’ Meanwhile, all these people are on the platform staring at me with my hands cuffed.”

It was, he says, like a bad parody of a stupid cop show. “My wife understands English, but at first we started speaking in Japanese. One of the officers tells me I’d better tell her to go or she’ll be arrested too. I was wondering, what is she going to get arrested for? Out of spite?

“I never got all their names–they weren’t wearing identification. The cop who did the most talking looked like James Gandolfini from The Sopranos. He did all the interrogating. He started in on me like he was trying to break me down. He says, ‘Why don’t you be a man and tell your wife what you did?’ I said, ‘She knows what I did.’ He says, ‘Oh, she does?’ I said, ‘Yes–I put my card in the turnstile.'”

Tobiason says the police officers searched his bag, uncovering a magazine and a few computer discs, and announced that they were taking him into custody. “They were going to take me in for a crime I didn’t do.”

Then his wife had an inspiration. “I suddenly got this idea that they can check my husband’s fare card,” she says. “I knew that the card would indicate he had just paid, because it would be credited for transfers. I said, ‘Why don’t you check my husband’s card?'”

Tobiason says her suggestion sparked a debate among the officers. “Gandolfini said, ‘Does that work?’ And the woman cop said, ‘Yeah, it could work.’ I don’t know what’s worse–him not knowing or her knowing and not saying anything about it. I mean, if she knew that they could have checked my card she could have brought it up right away when I insisted that I had paid. Instead they were ready to haul me to the station.”

The police settled on a strategy. Gandolfini escorted Mie Tobiason to the main entrance, while the others stayed on the platform and guarded Eric Tobiason. “The cop was holding my husband’s card, so I kept watching his hand,” says Mie Tobiason. “I have seen a lot of cop movies, and sometimes they cheat. I didn’t want him to switch the cards.”

She says the CTA operator at the main entrance swiped the card through a machine. “The guy at the station said, ‘Yeah, he paid. He has two more rides,'” she says. “I said, ‘You guys were wrong.’ The cop said, ‘Now you feel better?’ I said, ‘No, they should have never done this.'”

The police uncuffed Eric Tobiason. “After they took off the cuffs I told them that I wanted to file a complaint,” he says. “Gandolfini’s first response was, ‘That’s not a good idea. You might need a police officer someday.’ I think he was saying that the police wouldn’t look out for me if I said something bad about them. Then I started thinking about what a hassle it would be to file a complaint, having to go to the station and everything. So I let it go. The woman cop went back to her place looking down the stairs. My wife and I went further down the platform and caught the next train.”

Still, the incident left a bad taste. “They didn’t apologize, they didn’t indicate that they were wrong,” says Eric. “My wife pointed out that from where the lady cop was standing at the top of the stairs she couldn’t even see the turnstile. In other words, she couldn’t tell if someone paid or not. My wife said, ‘Why don’t you go further down the stairs so you can see the turnstile?’ Gandolfini said, ‘We used to do that, but people wouldn’t try to sneak in if they knew we were watching. So we moved back.’

“Think about that for a moment. Are they there to prevent people from committing a crime? Or is this like a speed trap? In other words, do you want to prevent a crime or just catch people whether they’ve committed a crime or not? I still don’t know why they thought I had cheated. Was it because I was running up the stairs? But dozens of people run up the stairs every day to catch their trains.”

He also can’t understand why so many police officers would get involved in such a relatively trivial matter to begin with. “There were four cops–getting paid whatever they get paid–spending all that time arresting me for supposedly hopping a turnstile,” he says. “I mean, we’re talking about a $1.50 CTA fare here. Don’t they have better things to do with their time? I can see if uniformed police are stationed on the platforms to reassure riders that the trains are safe. But these guys were undercover. They weren’t reassuring anyone–because most people wouldn’t even know they were cops.”

Noelle Gaffney, a CTA spokeswoman, said the police had no record of an arrest or incident so they couldn’t verify that anything had happened at the Morse Avenue station. But she did say no technology to check fare cards the way Mie Tobiason says the station operator did exists at the Morse stop. “You cannot check a card that way,” she said. “The technology is available, but not at that site.”

Meaning not at that particular station?

“Yes,” she said. “To check the transfer, the operator would have to give the number of the card to the CTA, and we would check it out. We could use the computer to run the history of the card. We can tell you when it was purchased, how much money was put on it, and where it was used–but we can’t do that on site. In theory, someone could phone in for that information, but that’s not our normal procedure. And the CTA did not report that happened in this case.”

So I went to the Morse station, and there was a machine below the window of the old ticket-taker’s booth, right where Mie Tobiason said it would be. When I swiped my fare card through the machine, it told me how many hours and minutes remained before my tranfers expired. By subtracting the time, I could tell when I had last used my card. I reported this to Gaffney, and she said she must have been misinformed.

She also defended the work the police on train detail do. “The officers who work the trains are Chicago police officers assigned by the police department, and they work very closely with us,” she said. “Fare evasion is not a high priority. Their main priority is safety for the passengers. They patrol the rail system.”

She added that the CTA doesn’t keep track of how many people hop the turnstiles without paying. “Fare evasion is a problem at some stations,” she said. “We get reports of turnstile jumpers from other riders. People who pay their fares don’t want to see other people avoid it.”

Eric Tobiason says he doesn’t plan to sue the police over the incident, though similar matters have gone to court. “You probably recall the recent case out of Texas,” says Edwin Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union. “That’s the one where the woman was taken to jail after being stopped for driving without her seat belt on. The Supreme Court ruled against her. The fact is that you can be detained even on fairly minor matters in the grand scheme of what we think of as law enforcement. This underscores the incredible powers the police have to detain and search us and all the possibilities for abuse.”

Tobiason thinks that what happened on the Morse platform raises another issue. “I’m about six feet tall,” he says. “I have curly, wild hair. My mother’s African-American. My father’s Norwegian. I have kind of tan skin and brown eyes. All the officers were white.”

He wonders if the officers would have detained him if he’d had blond hair and blue eyes. “We’ll never know,” he says. “I don’t want to make an issue out of something unless I’m sure it’s an issue, but I’ve thought about it.”

All in all, he says, it was a humiliating experience. “Yesterday I was getting on the train and I heard two young women say, ‘He’s the one who was arrested last week.’ It’s not nice going to work every day and knowing that people in my community think I’m some sort of criminal. The funny thing is that I’ve known police officers. I always liked them as people. I grew up on the south side–in Englewood and Woodlawn. I was always happy to see police officers around. This experience hasn’t completely changed my view of police officers. But it’s shaken my view.”

Schmidt Comes to Bury Vallas

In the avalanche of adulation that washed over school CEO Paul Vallas after he quit, not a word was heard from George Schmidt.

Too bad. The former south-side high school English teacher has an interesting perspective on Vallas and his six-year reign at the board of education. At Vallas’s urging, the board fired Schmidt and then sued him for $1 million, after he’d published portions of the system’s standardized high school tests in Substance, a monthly newspaper Schmidt and his wife, Sharon Schmidt, publish.

Schmidt contends the board’s copyright claim was a ruse used to camouflage its real purpose–to silence him for his outspoken views. If so, it didn’t work. He’s as outspoken as ever. “Why did Mayor Daley force out Vallas? It’s not a great mystery,” says Schmidt. “The numbers were collapsing–especially the teachers’ union election.”

In the May 18 election, the teachers ousted longtime Chicago Teachers Union president Tom Reece and elected Debbie Lynch-Walsh, a southwest-side eighth-grade teacher. “The one thing Daley can do is count election returns,” says Schmidt. “Anyone who follows these things can tell you that the teachers hated Vallas and resented Reece for selling them out. But for the last six years right up until the bitter end I’m sure you had Reece telling Vallas and Vallas telling Daley, ‘Don’t worry, we’re doing fine. The teachers love us, they’re on board.’ Then Daley wakes up one morning and sees that Walsh’s won in a landslide–with over 57 percent of the vote. To Daley that means his guys weren’t telling it straight. He’s probably wondering, ‘Who’s reading the precincts?’ It’s no coincidence that within two weeks both [board president Gery] Chico and Vallas are out.”

Schmidt calls Vallas a clumsy overseer of the capital improvement budget, spending millions to build two north-side high schools for high-achieving students despite a pressing need to alleviate overcrowding in many neighborhoods. “Vallas had it easier than the superintendents who came before him,” says Schmidt. “The economy was booming–he had more money than Ruth Love or Manford Byrd to spend. With this kind of money they could have fixed up the outsides of some schools too. I don’t know if we’ll ever have so much money to spend again. It’s a great opportunity lost.”

Schmidt saves his strongest criticism for Vallas’s educational initiatives. “Paul Vallas destroyed tens of thousands of kids who were kept back with his asinine retention policies. We’ll never know the full extent of the destruction caused by putting so much emphasis on standardized tests. It’s become the end all. Teachers are told to teach to it. Kids are told to study for it. What’s the value? If you become a really good multiple-choice-test taker at math you destroy your ability to do complicated mathematics. In math you have to know the process. If you just answer a, b, c, d, you’re not learning process.

“I’m not sure things will change anytime soon now that the Bush administration has taken this test-taking thing national. So much funding is tied to these imbecilic and moronic tests that come at the expense of teaching kids how to think and create. I’m afraid it’s going to continue taking an ugly human toll long after Vallas is forgotten.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.