A large demonstration, numbering around 1,000 people, marched through downtown Brooklyn Friday evening to protest alleged police brutality in the subway system. Protesters chanted familiar slogans such as “No justice, no peace/Fuck these racist police,” and the message was intensified by calls for violence. Choruses of “punch a cop in the face/every nation, every race,” were echoed by large banners reading, “Ante Up! Punch that cop!” Vehicles were tagged “NYPD KKK,” and eggs and garbage were thrown at a police cruiser.
The “#FTP” (fuck the police) action was inspired by two recent incidents where police made arrests on subway platforms. In one case, an early-morning melee spilled underground, and cops were filmed using force to break up the fighting and subdue people resisting arrest; one teenager shoved a cop and was punched in the face; he’s suing the city for $5 million. In another instance, a group of police swarmed Adrian Napier, whom they believed was carrying a gun; they found no weapon but arrested him for jumping the turnstile. The incident, captured on video, received national attention. “Officers should be working to deescalate,” former HUD secretary Julian Castro commented, “not putting dozens of lives at risk over $2.75.” But Napier was apprehended after fleeing the police and escaping into the subway; his arrest was not precipitated by jumping a turnstile.
These incidents took place in the context of a campaign against fare evasion, which has accelerated dramatically following the announcement that local prosecutors would no longer pursue “theft of service” charges against arrestees. Arrests for turnstile-jumping are down about 40 percent since last year. The NYPD now largely writes tickets for the violation, reserving arrest for serial evaders.
Part of last Friday’s protest included a mass refusal to pay subway fares, with scores of people clambering over the turnstiles in reaction against what advocates call the “criminalization of poverty”—or enforcement of fare collection. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted her support, explaining, “ending mass incarceration means challenging a system that jails the poor to free the rich. Arresting people who can’t afford a $2.75 fare makes no one safer and destabilizes our community.”
But almost nobody goes to jail for fare evasion, as Ocasio-Cortez surely knows. The Mayor’s Office for Criminal Justice reports 32 jail admissions for fare evasion in the first three months of 2019, though on any given day roughly two people get incarcerated for the crime. Over that same period, 992 people got arrested for fare evasion, and another 18,000 received summonses for theft of service. A miniscule fraction—about 0.2 percent—of people stopped and charged with jumping turnstiles wound up in jail, likely repeat offenders.
Outrage about fare enforcement has been brewing for months, but it exploded after Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he would hire 500 new police to patrol the subways. Driven more by Cuomo’s political rivalry with Mayor de Blasio than by necessity, the proposal infuriated activists, especially when it emerged that the new officers—as agents of the MTA, not the NYPD—would not have to wear body cameras. State senator Alessandra Biaggi of the Bronx tweeted, “Let me get this straight—cops are underground surveilling NYers who can’t afford the rising costs of the MTA, without any mechanism for objective documentation to maintain accountability & transparency . . . am I getting that right? Are you kidding me?”
As he prepares to run a reformist campaign against District Attorney Cyrus Vance in 2021, Manhattan state assemblyman Dan Quart has introduced a bill that would cap the penalty for fare evasion at the cost of the fare, in order to “lessen the burden on poor people and prevent them from being unnecessarily tangled up in the criminal justice system.” Quart calls fare evasion “an economic decision” and decries the “long-term, adverse effects” that result from involvement with the criminal-justice system—that is, with breaking the law. Lowering the penalty for theft to restitution of the value stolen eliminates any incentive not to steal. If the only penalty for fare evasion is paying the fare—what law-abiding people do with no prompting—then paying becomes voluntary.
A rising and vocal element among the activist Left favors free transit as a measure for economic and racial justice; certainly the hundreds of people who marched in Brooklyn believe that there should be no fare. Echoing elected officials such as Ocasio-Cortez, one protester commented, “The police have been extremely violent toward black kids for skipping the $2.75 fair when they make millions of dollars off the MTA’s funds.”
Aside from Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet in support of mob activity, other elected New York officials maintained a studious silence regarding Friday’s mass lawbreaking and calls for violence against police. Instead, de Blasio snarked against President Trump for announcing that he had changed his official residency from New York to Florida. Neither Comptroller Scott Stringer, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, nor Council Speaker Corey Johnson appear to have denounced the anti-cop rhetoric from the protest.
In less than two months, New York’s new criminal-justice reform laws will take effect. Thousands of people arrested for serious charges will no longer be eligible for even temporary incapacitation, but will be issued desk appearance tickets and sent on their way; only the most violent criminals will even be considered bailable. The city is contemplating enticing people with baseball tickets or gift cards to show up for their court dates. New York appears all too eager to write some new, dark chapters in a war on civility and public order.