Kristal Bayron-Nieves, Michelle Go, Dorothy Clarke-Rozier, and now, Christina Yuna Lee—four women, all making their way in the big city, all murdered by strange men in the first six weeks of 2022. Over the past two years, New York City has become increasingly unsafe for everyone—men, women, and children. But an explosion of horrific male violence against women in public spaces is a particularly acute sign of the city’s failures. Textbook urban policy holds that cities thrive only when women feel safe in public spaces; no sane woman feels safe in New York right now.
Early Sunday morning, Lee, a 35-year-old producer at a digital-music firm, took a cab home to her Chinatown apartment after a night out. A stalker followed her from the curb, trapped her in her apartment, and stabbed her to death. Just a week earlier, Clarke-Rozier, 50, walking to her job at a Brooklyn supermarket, was stabbed to death by another stranger. Clarke-Rozier died just a month after Go, a 40-year-old professional at Deloitte, was pushed to death in front of a Times Square subway train. Just a week before that, on January 9 of this year, Bayron-Nieves, a 19-year-old aspiring nurse, was shot to death during her shift at a Harlem Burger King. The four killings represent an acceleration of a trend that emerged last year: Maria Ambrocio, a 58-year-old nurse, killed last October in Times Square; Than Than Htwe, 58, a garment worker, pulled to death down a set of subway steps last August. Though no woman should feel safe in the city, Asian-American females are in particular peril: Lee, Go, Ambrocio, and Htwe were all of Asian descent.
Even with New York’s City’s overall murder rate up 53 percent in two years— from 319 in 2019 to 488 last year—these murders are especially dislocating. In each case, there was nothing the victim could have done to prevent her death. There’s no excuse for any murder, but most murder victims, now as always, are men who know their killers, and many, if not most, are engaged in high-risk criminal activity. Nor does robbery appear to be the motive behind any of these recent murders, save for Bayron-Nieves’s. (Ambrocio’s killer was allegedly fleeing an earlier robbery). Even in Bayron-Nieves’s case, the alleged killer shot and killed her after she had complied with all his requests, implying an extra level of malice. It’s impossible to recall so many fatal stranger-on-stranger attacks on women in such a short time, seemingly motivated by nothing other than misogynistic and, perhaps, racial hatred. We all like to think we have some measure of control over our own public safety, but what could any of these women have done to remain alive, besides not go outside?
The same cannot be said of New York State and City, however, which could have prevented at least half of these deaths. In the latest instance, Lee’s alleged killer, 25-year-old Assamad Nash, has a disturbing criminal history. Last year, Nash allegedly punched a stranger in a subway station near the scene of Sunday’s murder so hard that the victim needed four stitches—one of four crimes for which he faced arrest in 2021. Late last year, too, he allegedly damaged or destroyed dozens of Metrocard machines at three subway stations, crimes for which he was arrested this January. These crimes aren’t minor: attacking someone with no provocation is a deeply antisocial behavior, as is wanton destruction of public property. Yet Manhattan prosecutors in both the Cy Vance era, ending last year, and Alvin Bragg era, starting this year, charged Nash only with misdemeanors, and he went free on “supervised release.” Where was the supervision? Similarly, Go’s alleged killer, 61-year-old Martial Simon, has a long history with state and city criminal-justice and mental-health bureaucracies. Five years ago, he told mental-health officials at a state hospital that he would push someone in front of a train someday, according to the New York Times—but they let him go. Ambrocio’s alleged killer, Jermaine Foster, was free on no bail after an earlier incident, having been accused of forcibly touching a stranger near Times Square a month earlier. Again, such behavior isn’t an incidental, isolated crime; it’s a sign of pathology.
In the aftermath of Lee’s killing, New York’s elected officials are continuing to back away from any notion that these men should have been behind bars in the first place. Sunday night, Manhattan borough president Mark Levine expressed “heartbreak and anger,” saying that “the broken mental-health system must be fixed.” Even Mayor Eric Adams, who won office on a tough-on-crime agenda, said that “while the suspect who committed this heinous act is now in custody, the conditions that created him remain.”
What system? What conditions?
The only specific point of failure here is that New York State and City had four chances to incapacitate Nash last year and earlier this year—after he punched a stranger in a subway station, and after he committed acts of antisocial vandalism. Yet with a state bail “reform” law that prohibits pretrial incarceration even for most “major” crimes, Nash didn’t face such incarceration for those supposedly “minor” crimes. Nor did city government do anything to employ the mental-health system to ensure that Nash could not escalate his criminal behavior. Will Bragg’s office now conduct a full review as to why, during his first few days as DA, Bragg’s prosecuting attorneys declined to consider the totality of the allegations against Nash when they processed his arrest for the destruction of Metrocard machines? Prosecutors could have asked for bail on one charge he faced in connection with that crime—attempted escape from police—but did not.
Levine is seemingly excusing Nash’s alleged killing by claiming, with no evidence, that he was mentally ill. Nash had the mental capacity allegedly to target an attractive young woman walking alone, follow her to her residence, and attempt to escape from police after killing her, including by impersonating a woman’s voice to tell police from within the apartment that “she” did not need any help. There’s no doubt that any man who targets and kills women for some sort of gratification, sexual or otherwise, is not in tip-top mental shape; the late 1970s “Son of Sam” serial killer David Berkowitz heard voices directing him to kill five young women and one man. But if mental disorder is enough to excuse one of personal responsibility for such violence, then women are in terrible trouble.
Nearly 40 years ago, in 1986, the feminist poet Katha Pollitt walked through Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan a half-decade before the park’s revival became a symbol of New York’s 1990s resurgence. “Distracted by one of the park’s resident drug dealers, who invited me to take off my clothes, and by another, who wanted to know why I wasn’t smiling,” Pollitt wrote, “I looked around and noticed an interesting thing. In Bryant Park . . . were perhaps 50 men, strolling, ambling, striding along eating hot dogs, sitting on benches and reading the paper . . . and three women, all walking quickly and grimly, as I was now doing. . . . A great deal of what we call public space is, in fact, male turf. . . . Fear of rape and attack, of which low-level aggravation is a reminder, plays a part in keeping women from claiming public space.”
That changed. Under Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, women increasingly felt safe, and for good reason. Stranger-on-stranger violent crime, let alone murder, wasn’t nonexistent, but it became extremely unusual over a generation of remarkable public safety in New York. In December 2019, when three teenagers held 18-year-old Columbia University student Tessa Majors down in Morningside Park and stabbed her to death, the crime was rare and shocking. Not today. With Lee’s death making four in six weeks, a woman isn’t even safe walking briskly from a taxi to her own apartment.
Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images