Buscaino Calls for Investigation into Union Pacific Thefts

RANDOM LENGTHS NEWS - On Jan. 26, Los Angeles City Councilmember Joe Buscaino called for an investigation into the Union Pacific rail thefts calling this a “crisis.”

Multiple entities have been pointing the finger about who is ultimately responsible for the protection of rail cars, and the responsibility for arrests and prosecution of those responsible for the thefts.

Buscaino, who is now running for mayor, thinks that the city council is an investigative body like Congress and he should hold hearings to investigate the current incidents of train robbing in LA.  I doubt he knows what he’s talking about and I doubt even more he understands the historical context. Let me explain.

Many of America’s most well known folk heroes have been bank robbers and train bandits. Think Jesse James, Pretty Boy Floyd, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to name just a few. The folklore of the “wild west,” popularized in paperback novels and Hollywood films, have only exaggerated the myths of these bandits beyond recognition but rarely contextualizes the history behind their banditry nor their economic motivations.

The first known train robbery in the U.S.

On Oct. 6, 1866, one of the first train robberies in America took place when a group of bandits known as the Reno brothers boarded an eastbound train in Indiana wearing masks and toting guns. After emptying one safe and tossing the other out the window, the robbers jumped off the train and made an easy getaway. A wave of train robberies followed the Reno brothers’ startling hold-up success. Within two weeks, two trains were derailed and their safes were robbed. During another robbery in Indiana, an expressman aboard the train was thrown out the window before safes were emptied of $40,000.

During and after the American Civil War, there were many disaffected Southern Confederates and Copperhead sympathizers in the North. Most of them had been left without jobs or property, but with training in warfare. Some, like Jesse James and his brother Frank, chose to make their living by robbing banks and trains because as the famous bank robber Willie Sutton once quipped, “that’s where the money is.” They probably thought it was justified as the railroads were mostly owned by wealthy Northern interests and carried large cargoes of gold and cash. The post-war era wouldn’t end until the late 1890s. 

What a review of American history tells us is that great inequities following war often aggravate the conditions where robbery seems like an opportunity, and not just a crime. Just where are we today?

We are in the post-Afghanistan war era. We’ve been at war for 20 years and a number of trained war veterans have now come home, many suffering PTSD or homelessness. There are news reports about billions of dollars of cargo stuck in the supply chain starting at our ports but parked right in the middle of Lincoln Heights, one of the poorer neighborhoods in Los Angeles. To top it off, the Union Pacific poorly guards one-hundred-car-long container trains. Each container is secured with a simple padlock — easily broken with a bolt cutter. This is sort of like dangling red meat in front of a hungry tiger.

So as any junior detective could assess, there’s motive and opportunity. And yet the Union Pacific and others are blaming George Gascón, the LA District Attorney, for his “liberal prosecution” policies and never once thinking that they might want to beef up their own security for what is ostensibly their corporate responsibility to keep their trains secure.

What has become even more troubling about all of these train robberies is the revelation that some of these shipping containers are carrying weapons and ammunition, which one can only presume have been the target for LA street gangs trying to restock their arsenals with untraceable guns. This, of course, is in direct response to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies attempting to take illegal firearms off the streets as the homicide rate increases.

All of this and much more can be ascertained without Buscaino grandstanding and calling for “an investigation” of facts commonly reported in the press. This “investigation” would only result in months of testimony, more grandstanding and a report issued that would be better used as a doorstop than a plan of action. What the railroads need to do is hire more security, use better padlocks, perhaps use some drones to surveil their trains and keep the cargo moving. 

What Buscaino and others at city hall need to do is figure out how to end the economic disparities with job creation, and provide housing and better options for people other than robbing trains­. Yet, it is understandable (without condoning it) why breaking into a parked container on a lonely railroad track in the middle of this city that holds conceivably ten times what a low wage worker makes in a year would be a tempting option. 

Buscaino has had a decade to bring better options to the people of Los Angeles, particularly his district, and yet we are still plagued by homelessness, street crimes and homicides. And with him being a former Los Angeles Police Department officer who thinks more ordinances against the unhoused is the answer, I only have one piece of advice: If ordinances, police enforcement and posting “no camping signs” could solve the homeless crisis, it would already have been solved!   

In the end, he states the obvious: “The communities that UP tracks go through in Los Angeles already suffer disproportionately from quality of life issues.” 

This only calls into question the one area that city council members actually have some power to change — quality of life issues. Where’s the budget item for this all along the railroad tracks through the city and the neighborhoods that are invisible to the rest of us? Joe Buscaino only reacts to the problems once he sees them on TV. He’s had a decade in office to address them before they became a “crisis.” 

One just might ask, “who is actually being robbed?” 

Jesse James might have argued that he was just “redistributing the wealth.”

(James Preston Allen, founding publisher of the Los Angeles Harbor Areas Leading Independent Newspaper 1979- to present, is a journalist, visionary, artist and activist. )