In his 1951 poem “Subway Rush Hour,” the Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes sketched a portrait of an underground world, where people of all colors, ethnicities, and backgrounds are packed so tightly together that there’s “no room for fear.” Late last week—in an effort to convince New Yorkers that the subways are safe despite a rash of recent stabbings and slashings on the transit system—NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton made a similar point. “It’s amazing anybody can assault anybody because you can’t really move on some of those cars,” he said.
Bratton’s attempts at reassurance clash with the growing sense among New Yorkers that the city’s celebrated public-safety gains are increasingly under threat. Ten people have been slashed or stabbed so far this year on the subways. Overall, such crimes are up nearly 20 percent. “I’ll chop you up right on this f—-ing train!” 37-year-old Ras Alula Nagarit allegedly yelled at two women after bumping into them on a crowded platform in Brooklyn. “The police aren’t here now. You’re trying to get help from the crowd. They can’t help you! I can just chop you and they can’t do nothing!” The argument continued on the train, where Nagarit pulled out a machete and slashed one of the women on the hand.
After several slashings over the weekend, Bratton appeared on the John Gambling radio show, again trying to tamp down concern. “This is New York and occasionally the media and police get focused on a series of incidents, and that’s what happened here,” the chief told Gambling. An hour later, cops arrested a 37-year-old schizophrenic who picked a fight with two strangers, slashing one in the face with a folding knife. SLASH AND SPURN, blared the front-page headline of Wednesday’s New York Daily News: “Just 1 hour after commish dismisses rash of random attacks as ‘abberation,’ 10th victim in just a month is sliced on subway.”
Subway crimes always strike a nerve with New Yorkers. As the Hughes poem reminds us, an underground train is an intimate, shared space. There’s no place to hide. “The subway isn’t Greenwich Village or Coney Island or Harlem or the South Bronx,” said Transit Authority police chief James B. Meehan in 1981. “The subway is all of those places . . . If a New Yorker lives in Brooklyn, he may not care about a crime that occurs in the streets in the Bronx or Queens, but if he rides the subway every day he cares very much if the same crimes occur in the subway anywhere in the city. In a real sense, the whole system is his neighborhood.” Things got so bad in the 1980s that even MTA chief Richard Ravitch said that he wouldn’t let his teenage sons ride the trains at night. The system lost hundreds of million riders over the course of that decade. But New York’s reclamation of public order began in the subways.
What’s causing the surge in knife crimes now? Mayor Bill de Blasio’s progressive administration insists that it has nothing to do with the highly publicized move away from stop-and-frisk as a crime-prevention tool. The city has never been safer, de Blasio and his supporters say, and statistically speaking that’s true. In every major category—murders, rapes, robberies—crime remains down by massive percentages from the bad old days. Total crime is down by 80 percent since 1990. New Yorkers, though, are savvy enough to know that statistics never tell the whole story. And they don’t mean much when someone pulls a knife on you in the subway.
Maybe, despite these reassuring crime numbers, the subway is becoming a more troubled space because bad guys (and the mentally ill) have gotten a message from the first two years of the de Blasio administration: go ahead and carry a knife or a gun, there’s a new sheriff in town—but this one puts handcuffs on the cops. “[Criminals] just don’t fear us,” a police officer told the Observer. “They know we’re unlikely to stop and question people acting in suspicious ways. And we’re not. It’s not worth getting called on the carpet and risking our livelihoods.”
The outbreak of subway slashings and stabbings may have as much to do with the city’s abysmal record of dealing with the violent mentally ill as it does with policing methods. What is abundantly clear, however, is that these crimes aren’t causeless; nor are they nothing to worry about. They are the proverbial canary in the coalmine—the first sign that things may be turning ugly, at least underground.
Photo by Ed Yourdon