Over the last month, Andrew Cuomo has made it quite clear what he thinks of the subway. He believes it is a crime-ridden, dangerous place. He thinks the subway needs hundreds more police officers to make it safe again. And he has ordered the MTA to spend $50 million a year on 500 cops to make that happen.
Now, it is factually untrue that the subway is unsafe. It is even untrue that the subway is getting more dangerous. Even the cops, who normally jump at any chance to talk about how dangerous it is out there to get more cops hired, say this Cuomo narrative is a load of crap.
This policy of sending hundreds of cops into a place where there is no crime problem to speak of has resulted in the only possible outcome: lots and lots of bored cops. And the bored cops are doing what bored cops do: either nothing at all or finding something to do. In the case of officers of the law, finding something to do means finding people violating it no matter how trivial the offense.
To pick the highest profile examples:
Cops forcibly removed a man from an L train because he placed his bag on an empty bench seat
Cops pulled guns on an unarmed teenager (and all the people sitting next to him) who they thought had a gun but it turned out didn’t so they cited him for fare evasion
Cops handcuffed women selling churros in two separate incidents for not having a license to sell items on MTA property
It’s not strictly necessary to a pick a worst or most galling example from this sordid lot. They’re all horrifying in their own way. But for whatever reason the churro ladies seem to have captured the media’s attention in ways the others didn’t.
“In the past I was just given tickets and it has never been violent,” one of the women, identified as Elsa, said during a rally Monday. “I’m afraid of going through the process of getting a license. It’s too much money.”
Perhaps the churro ladies made more news than others because we are a society that worships the entrepreneur. Or perhaps it’s because immigrant rights is on a lot of people’s minds. Maybe it was the fact that police officers handcuffing peaceful, nonviolent middle-aged women with a cart of pastries is emblematic of our worst fears of what our society has become. Or maybe there doesn’t have to be a reason, it’s all grotesque.
The most despicable aspect of it all is that this couldn’t have gone any other way. It was the only possible result of sending 500 police officers into the subway in a city with a long, troubled history of over-policing people of color and criminalizing homelessness. There was no other theoretical end result of sending a ton of cops to solve a non-existent problem.
The pointlessness of it all was highlighted in a video of the aforementioned incident of the man getting kicked out of the subway for putting his bag on the bench while he waited for an L train for 17 minutes.
The cops told him it was against the rules to put his bag on the chair. When the train finally came and he boarded, they pried him off of it even though he had paid his fare. The man asked “What did I do?” and the woman filming asked “What did he do?”
The cop replied, “you know what you did.”
If you would like to help Elsa and other street vendors caught up in the NYPD dragnet, you can donate to the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center. Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director of the Street Vendor Project, told Signal Problems “all donations made to SVP go directly towards helping vendors fight tickets, providing legal consultations, and fighting for just working conditions.” She added Elsa, the churro vendor quoted above, has an appointment with SVP tomorrow afternoon to figure out next steps, including applying for a license and fighting her ticket. Join me in donating here.
If the NYPD come for the dogs in bags there will be hell to pay.
Photo credit: Dan Miller