All Aboard the Moral Panic

With each horror story from the city’s winding tunnels, increasingly documented in spectacular photos and videos, a collective fear resurfaces and takes hold in the media, typically helping to consolidate support for law-and-order ideologies. Violent crime, whether real or perceived, is seen by default as a crisis of public safety; but on trains and buses it is equally a matter of workplace safety.

Now is the time to imagine alternatives to the endless cycle of crisis-primed carceral crackdowns

180th Street Station, 1983. Photo by Camilo J. Vergara.

On a southbound A train, on February 29, Alton Scott, a subway conductor and 24-year MTA veteran, was performing his job as he had so many times before. At each stop, the conductor peers out at the public from their cabin, making sure the doors close safely, sometimes amid the hectic rush of New York commuters. At 3:40 AM, while Scott was checking the closing doors at Rockaway Avenue station, an unknown individual rushed up and thrust a knife into Scott’s neck, in an apparently random attack. The assailant fled, but luckily, a doctor on board was able to assist Scott, who survived, receiving thirty-four stitches.

A month before, in late January, a video had gone viral of two NYPD officers being beaten outside a migrant shelter near Times Square. Then, in March, apparently channeling anger projected onto this video, Dajuan Robinson decided to take it out on a fellow subway rider. “You think you can come here and beat up cops?” Robinson shouted at Younce Obuad, who thought Robinson had identified him as one of the many Latin American migrants recently arrived in the city. In the ensuing fight, a woman accompanying Obuad stabbed Robinson twice in the back. Robinson swiftly reached back to his jacket on the seat nearby, picked up a gun, and started threatening the two. (In the video, the camera angle shifts as other riders duck down, covering their heads as the train pulls into Brooklyn’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn station.) Obuad managed to wrest the gun from Robinson and, seconds later, shot him in self-defense.

Unlike the earlier one, this second subway assault was recorded on several smartphones and uploaded to YouTube, then screenshotted, enlarged, and soon printed on the front page of the New York Post two days in a row, with characteristically sensational headlines: “Hell Ride,” “Crazy Train.” In the daily newspapers, multi-page stories detailed the two men’s struggle, magnifying both the “migrant” and “mental health” crises in libidinal, testosterone-charged echoes of the “Fear City” of 1970s New York. Coverage of these incidents was peppered with threatening adjectives—“harrowing footage,” “violent clash,” “blood-stained shirt,” “relentless threats”—and headshots of gaunt men. The accused assailants, articles reported, were “recidivists with long histories of mental illness.” The portrayal of the migrant crisis was no less extreme: “the cash-strapped Big Apple is on the verge of turning into one big refugee camp,” wailed the Post.

Transit workers are on the frontlines of New York City’s most used public spaces and services. They are often the first and last city employees that millions of commuters encounter in their daily routines. Transit employees’ own working routines often expose them by proximity to city’s violent structural inequities, from the Covid-19 pandemic to homelessness to mental illness. Their bodies often bear the brunt of this urban life.

Accordingly, the subway has long been the symbolic subterranean nexus of these social disorders, caught somewhere between reality and paranoia. With each horror story from the city’s winding tunnels, increasingly documented in spectacular photos and videos, a collective fear resurfaces and takes hold in the media, typically helping to consolidate support for law-and-order ideologies. Violent crime, whether real or perceived, is seen by default as a crisis of public safety; but on trains and buses it is equally a matter of workplace safety. In New York, as transit employees’ fears for their physical security intersect with media-driven crime panic, punitive policing, and anti-migrant backlash, a severe test of labor solidarity is unfolding.

New York Mayor Eric Adams, no friend to the many migrants who have arrived in the city in the past year, has also invoked mental illness to account for the current sense of crisis. Pushing his controversial policy of involuntarily removing and institutionalizing homeless New Yorkers who show signs of mental distress, Adams characterized the Hoyt-Schermerhorn shooting as a case of “real severe mental health illness.” “We want riders to be safe,” he told CBS New York. “I know how it plays on your psyche when you hear about random acts of violence,” he continued, announcing random bag checks and an additional deployment of police on the subways. In other respects a tireless and corny New York City booster, Adams has done more than anyone else in power to foment the current crime panic.

Adams’s critics on the left too often forget how deeply, albeit cynically, he personifies the experience of many city workers. Adams is a former transit police officer, born in Brownsville and raised in Bushwick and in South Jamaica, Queens; his parents were two of the roughly five million African Americans who left the Jim Crow South for Northern and Midwestern cities between 1940 and 1970, in search of better opportunities. Like many other working-class people of color in the city, Adams enjoyed upward mobility made possible by the municipal welfare state (even in its diminished post–fiscal crisis form), received an affordable public education (at John Jay College of Criminal Justice), and found a stable, well-paying union job with the city, launching him on a long civic career. “I am you,” Adams told members of the city’s municipal employee union, DC 37, during his first mayoral campaign in 2021.

While his political heart has long been closer to real estate and finance than to labor, and his support among Black and Latino New Yorkers has plunged, in his origins and outlook Adams can still speak credibly to his most loyal voter base: outer-borough strivers who have joined the middle class, many of them people of color, often homeowners or small-time landlords. With a civil ethic founded on the welfare state but invested in regimes of private property, many of these New Yorkers share the desire for social control and stability that Adams is seeking to tap with his reelection mantra: “jobs are up, crime is down.”

On the subway and buses, at least, the latter statement may not hold up. In 2023, the NYPD registered 4,953 complaints in the transit system, up from 3,378 complaints in 2015, the earliest year with available data online—even as overall subway ridership has yet to recover to pre-Covid levels. At the same time, policing has increased: 2020, the pandemic, and NYPD reaction against anti-police protests contributed to a decrease in the ratio of arrests to complaints in the transit system, from .40 in 2015 to .17, but the proportion has since ticked up again, hitting .26 in 2023. I spoke to several MTA workers who said they felt a new sense of threat acutely. “Now the subways are crazy. People are crazy now,” said one former station agent, whose father had also worked for the transit authority. New immigrants and the mentally ill, she said, were creating an awful situation underground. “They have all these other people coming, the migrants, and people who should be in a mental hospital, they’re not taking their medicine. So much is going on in the subway.”

In early March, citing the attack on Scott, Governor Kathy Hochul announced the “Five-Point Plan to Protect New Yorkers on the Subway.” The program has deployed one thousand uniformed New York State Police, the MTA police, and even the New York National Guard into the subway to “protect” transit riders and workers. The plan also includes $20 million from the state to increase the number of Subway Co-Response Outreach Teams, a pilot program sending mental health clinicians to interact with mentally ill subway riders—backed up, of course, by MTA police. In the days after Hochul’s announcement, images abounded online of rifle-toting, stern-faced National Guardsmen in army beige, checking bags at the system’s most visible stations—Times Square, Penn Station, Grand Central. Random bag checks echo the unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policy of Ray Kelly, whose leadership of the NYPD was challenged by young Black officers in the 1990s, among them a young Eric Adams. As an outspoken leader of the advocacy group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, Adams began his political career trying to fix the NYPD from within, inspiring admiration among many of the Black officers in a racially fraught institution. As mayor, he seems to have changed his mind.

Amid this official mobilization, one would never know that the most horrifically violent act on the subway in recent years wasn’t perpetrated by a new immigrant, or a mentally ill person, or a homeless person—it was by a white former Marine. On May 1, 2023, Daniel Penny took it upon himself to strangle and kill Jordan Neely, a young Black man suffering a mental health crisis on the F train last year. As a white military veteran, Penny simply stands outside the prevailing panic narrative. But even without the uniform, state authority brutally reasserts itself.

TWU Local-100, the union representing the city’s transit workers, has consistently supported increased subway policing. The union’s rank-and-file are more divided. On a sweltering May Day, thirty or so members gathered in front MTA headquarters in lower Manhattan. One veteran worker from Bedford-Stuyvesant told me that increasing police presence was a “knee-jerk reaction” that didn’t get at the root of the problem, which, he said, was serious homelessness and mental health issues. “What happened to the banging pots and pans? We were heroes during Covid,” a bus driver told the crowd; she said she too was recently assaulted during her shift in Manhattan. Many workers faulted local politicians, who had full security details and bulletproof vests. “Eric Disco-Daddy Adams,” another bus driver quipped, was busy partying in the Hamptons and Miami while the city was becoming ungovernable. “All they care about is schedule, they don’t give a damn about the workforce.” Regarding solutions, workers’ feelings toward the carceral state were conflicted, even ambivalent. “Homelessness and mental health are not a crime, how they deal with it is a crime,” blasted Trammell Thompson, who in recent years hosted a popular podcast about transit labor issues, and leads a faction of a coalition opposing the current union leadership. “But where the police at?” he continued. “The NYPD are not our enemies.”

“Subway crime carries a special kind of terror for me,” said one Brooklyn senior citizen, Birdie Steinman, on a local radio show in February 1980. “To be trapped in a subway car with no opportunity for escape is the stuff nightmares are made of.” Steinman went on to complain of the inconveniences that living in Fear City imposed: one cold night, afraid to take the train, she had tried and failed to hail a taxi from Brooklyn. In desperation, she finally asked a truck driver to give her a ride. Each time she did ride the train, she made sure to remove her jewelry, carrying only essentials; at home she checked the burglar alarm system constantly. She and her family had “seriously considered relocating in another part of the country.”

Whether or not Steinman decided to stay, such apocalyptic musings by the New York’s white residents were often realized, through mass exodus to the suburbs: by 1980, at least 32 percent of the white working class had left the city. This outflow came a decade after a large influx of African Americans fleeing the South, as well as waves of nonwhite immigrants from around the world after passage of the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which abolished the discriminatory restrictions that had long blocked most non-Western European ethnicities from immigrating to the United States.

Beyond these demographic changes, the city was reshaped by dwindling manufacturing jobs and fiscal austerity. Since the 1930s, New York had been a bastion of municipal welfarism, incubating novel social and labor policies, including some of the first programs for subsidized housing in the US, and labor laws—including minimum wage, child labor, wage-theft, and work-hour regulations—that became models for the New Deal and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Historian Joshua Freeman writes that New York’s welfare state, built by labor unions and by working and poor people, defined not only the city’s political economy but its popular sensibilities: “generous; open-minded but skeptical; idealistic but deflating of pretension; bursting with energy and a commitment to doing.” By the 1970s, these collectivist ideals were undermined, culminating in the 1975 fiscal crisis. Denied federal aid by President Gerald Ford and unable to persuade major banks to underwrite municipal debt without fiscal austerity, the city resorted to massive cuts in public services.

As Kim Phillips-Fein points out in her 2018 book of the same name, the original 1975 “Fear City” pamphlet, which became emblematic of New York in this period, was written by public-sector workers. The Council for Public Safety was a group of twenty-eight unions of uniformed city employees—including police, corrections officers, and firefighters—organizing against the austerity layoffs under Mayor Abe Beame. Disgruntled officers reportedly printed one million pamphlets to hand out to visitors of the city. With a grim reaper on its cover, the “Survival Guide for Visitors to the City of New York” described a sinister and crime-ridden city. “Stay away,” it cautioned: the city was a dystopic wasteland without the police. And “never ride the subway for any reason whatsoever.”

Austerity touched nearly every aspect of the city’s public life, most of all its life-supporting public services, including the subway. Decreased funding and worker layoffs meant reduced preventative maintenance work, which led to frequent fires, derailments, and delays. The trains grew covered with graffiti, the artistry of kids who spent afternoons in trainyards and tunnels rather than at defunded schools in deteriorating neighborhoods.

Then as now, transit workers faced the pent-up tensions of the city head on. Routine delays and accidents in the system meant that the anger was deflected back onto those on the frontlines. For her doctoral research in sociology at Columbia in the mid-1980s, Marian Swerdlow worked as an MTA train conductor. In the 1998 book Underground Woman, she describes the verbal and physical assaults she suffered during her four years on the job: “Riders spit on me, threw things at me, or hit me with objects or even with their hands.” At times she thought it was retribution for some imagined offense, but mostly, Swerdlow thought, it was for fun: “Here was a chance to hurt someone—in my case, a white woman—and not suffer any consequences.”

The assault of a white woman jogger in Central Park in 1989 and subsequent wrongful conviction of five young Black men is imprinted in national memory; but for some city residents, the decade’s more lasting trauma was the murder of a Black transit worker at the hands of five young white men. In 1983, William Turks, a 34-year-old mechanic at an MTA trainyard, was beaten to death by a youth mob in Gravesend, a white working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. Three Black workers from the Coney Island Yards were leaving a bagel shop when a group of boys and young men, aged 15 to 20, started taunting them. The workers got into a car, but were hounded by racial slurs and increased aggression until the boys smashed the car’s windows. Two of the workers were able to escape, but Turks was dragged away and beaten to death.

The five teenagers arrested for the assault were neighborhood residents; a lawyer for one of the youths was quoted in the newspapers praising his client’s community ties, noting that he “was one week away from high school graduation,” and came from “a good family.” Eventually, two of the five convicted had their charges dropped, another served seven months in prison, another was convicted of second-degree manslaughter, and another pleaded guilty to assault. “Being Black in America is no joke,” said a worker who survived the attack to the New York Times, “but I don’t have anger for the people who did it. I blame the police and the system for letting them get away with this type of thing for so long.”

Stuart Hall describes moral panics as society’s response to “diffuse and often unorganized social fears and anxieties,” which are then projected onto specific social groups. In their 1978 analysis Policing the Crisis, Hall and his coauthors recontextualize the epidemic of “mugging” in London and the accompanying “law-and-order” ideology alongside several contemporaneous global crises. Mounting geopolitical tension in the postcolonial Middle East and Asia, antiwar protests, intensifying worker strikes, the women’s movement, and the rise of Black Power in the UK all became focalized in the wave of “mugging” supposedly sweeping London in these years. These subversions, they write, were “experienced and signified as the thin edges of that larger wedge: the threat to the state, the breakdown of social life itself, the coming of chaos, the onset of anarchy.” Muggings, sensationalized in the tabloid media and the collective imagination of a white “silent majority,” authorized a new authoritarian crackdown targeting the spectacle of urban crime without addressing the deeper social crises of which it became the face.

More than forty years later, crime panic is again rising, with no proportionate increase in regard for violence against city workers. A drug epidemic again shows its face in the subway, among other places, but this time the opioid crisis is manufactured in part by corporate interests. Meanwhile, the subway cars are laminated with advertising rather than graffiti, and many of the suburban children of white flight have returned to the city, now the world center of financialized gentrification. If the moral panic that Hall and others saw unfolding in 1978 was motivated by tensions between working-class whites and incoming Black and immigrant populations, this panic so far is more protean, still in the process of definition. But the general trends seem present: free-floating nativist anxieties around a palpable demographic shift in the city; a budding but vulnerable countercultural movement in the form of anti-police and pro-Palestine protests; and class tensions sharpened by diminished economic, social, and geographical opportunities for the marginalized.

We are not punching bags, read the sign held up by an elderly transit worker at the May Day gathering, his grey hair tied into a ponytail, neatly tucked into a Mets cap. The rally was small, but democracy is vibrant in one of the city’s biggest public sector unions. Transit workers span the whole spectrum of political dispositions, from the socialist John Ferretti, born and raised in Bensonhurst and radicalized by the murder of Yusef Hawkins in his neighborhood in 1989, to pro-punishment Denaul Jenkins, a Bronx native who appeared on the front page of the Daily News on Easter Sunday 2019, after stopping an assailant who stabbed him multiple times while Jenkins was on the job. Ferretti points to greedy politicians and bankers, calling the subways a “dumping ground for all the problems they don’t want to deal with,” while Jenkins ascribes his assaults to weak laws against perpetrators of transit worker attacks. “Why me?” he mused in a recent interview, and quickly answered his own question: “he chose to attack me . . . because I’m an MTA worker.”

Neither labor nor the left can afford to shy away from these confounding contradictions. Whatever the motives, the psychic life of aggression playing out in New York’s subterranean spaces is primed to follow a familiar historical script—but for the same reason, now is the time to imagine alternatives to the endless cycle of crisis-primed carceral crackdowns. But this can only begin with the voices and experiences of transit workers themselves, in all their contradictions and their power. “The crisis is permanent,” Karl Marx wrote in 1855, “the government only provisional.”

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