During my first summer in New York City, I was reading a magazine while waiting for the subway when I realized a man had been staring at me while masturbating. I froze. Once he realized I’d seen him, he slipped away. When I finally pulled it together and looked for a police officer, I didn’t see one. (This was before camera phones. Yep, I’m that old!) The pervert had ruined my day but I decided not to let him ruin my internship by making me late. I hopped on my train as soon as it arrived, and never told my parents, who already thought the city was a scary place and would have insisted I move home.
I’m glad I didn’t but I have thought of that experience many times, most recently after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted her support Saturday morning for the protesters from the night before who opposed the idea of police enforcing the fare, even as some of them reportedly spit on officers and vandalized police cars.
While her tweet focused on fare evasion, where arrests have declined dramatically as most people now receive a ticket if caught, the protesters were there in broader opposition to an increased police presence on the trains. And they were there after two recent incidents, one in which officers aggressively pinned someone who hadn’t paid their fare (the police say they’d been told he had a gun, but he did not though he did have an outstanding warrant) and another in which an officer punched a teen following a fight between a group of teens that resulted in arrests.
New York’s subways have long been a symbol of New York’s political and cultural wars. In 1984, Bernard Goetz, who is white, made national headlines when he shot four black teens he claimed were attempting to rob him on a subway train. Goetz, dubbed the “Subway Vigilante” by some news outlets, claimed his reaction was triggered in part by a previous robbery attempt in a subway station years before. Rudy Giuliani, then the Southern District U.S. Attorney, determined that race didn’t play enough of a role in the shooting to warrant a federal civil rights prosecution, helping to legitimatize the rage and fear felt by plenty of New Yorkers, many of them white, that he’d eventually ride into City Hall.
Crime in New York City today is at a record low, and the trains are nothing like they were in the “bad old days” but the debate over fare dodging and the police presence in the subway system has become a lightning rod. How to fairly regulate those who evade paying subway and bus fares is a legitimate policy issue worthy of debate. The MTA says that it is on track to lose $260 million this year to farebeating, in a system in desperate need of repair. That hurts everyone who depends on public transportation. While New York just began offering a half-priced ride option for low-income New Yorkers, even that can be a strain.
It is admirable for Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and others to advocate for those individuals. But the other reality is that I have seen plenty of people jumping turnstiles wearing sneakers that cost more than my entire outfit, or going through the exit gate and then pulling out the latest iPhone. Not everyone engaged in fare evasion is disadvantaged, and if we don’t hold the ones who can afford to pay but choose not to accountable, the rest of us pay.
But my real frustration with Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet and Friday’s protest is how many subway stories need and deserve lots of coverage, but don’t receive it. In January, a woman was sexually assaulted on a subway train in Brooklyn. In August, a woman was raped as she exited a subway on the Upper East Side. In September a woman was sexually assaulted in an Upper West Side subway station.
And those are just the stories that warranted coverage—as minimal as it may have been. We know sex crimes are woefully underreported. I never reported what happened to me on the subway years ago and now that I know that men like that are often repeat offenders I am haunted by the fear that he did that to other women or even escalated his behavior and physically hurt someone. In 2017, there were 376 reported incidents of public masturbation on New York public transportation. Among serial offenders, behavior will often evolve to include groping or grinding against women as well.
And yet, many of the repeat subway offenders are still permitted to ride the trains upon release and continue trawling for victims, since banning them from trains remains a contentious civil liberties issue. This means that the presence of police are often the only potential deterrent and safety net for many women on public transportation.
One would think a female elected official would care about those crimes. Plenty of other women in New York City do.