On the Subway

Edna Bonhomme

‘My My Metrocard’ by Le Tigre (1999) is a raucous hymn to the New York subway and an attack on the then mayor’s much vaunted efforts to ‘clean up’ the city: ‘oh fuck Giuliani/…/next stop Atlantic Avenue’. The song came to mind when I was in New York towards the end of last year and every subway station was saturated with the NYPD. The current mayor, Eric Adams, had announced plans to ‘target transit crime’ and further criminalise homelessness.

Adams, a former police captain, was elected on a Democratic ticket in 2021. Although overall crime has decreased in the city, the NYPD’s justifications for the increased police presence include the subway shooting in Brooklyn last April, which left nearly thirty people injured, and the US Supreme Court decision in June that overruled state firearm restriction laws. Adams’s opponents, however, argue that the extra policing will lead to more profiling of marginalised and vulnerable people. In particular, social workers have criticised orders for the police to take mentally ill people to hospital against their will.

In the 1960s, President Johnson’s Great Society programme created Medicare and provided federal funding for education, but it also instigated the so-called War on Poverty, which heightened punitive measures in working-class Black communities, as Elizabeth Hinton documents in From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime. White politicians weren’t the only ones responsible. In the 1970s, in cities across the United States, the Black political elite introduced legislation (often related to drug offences) that penalised poor Black communities, as James Forman describes in Locking Up Our Own.

Some Black citizens lobbied for more policing, thinking it would make their communities more secure. Over time, though, as it became clear that the tough-on-crime measures did little to improve safety, they were increasingly challenged, not least by Black women, ‘long the backbone of efforts to resist state violence’, as Andrea Ritchie puts it in Invisible No More (2017).

In the Black Lives Matter uprisings of 2020, activists were not only opposing police brutality but calling into question how city funds should be distributed. The then mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, announced that he would shift a billion dollars from the NYPD to ‘civilian agencies’. It didn’t happen. One place where the money could be better spent is on the subway: the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s ‘proposed 2023 budget assumes $600 million in additional governmental funding or alternatively, significant additional cost-saving MTA actions’.

You might think the policing in NYC is a US anomaly, a reflection of a gun-zealous society that has become numb to mass shootings. And yet, as Jordan Camp and Christina Heatherton note in Policing the Planet, the US has not only exported its policing strategies around the world, but expanded our notions of criminality. New York is hardly the only place where a mayor will order the police to round up individuals the city has failed to provide with safe housing. And it isn’t only American society that places more value on an individual ‘popularising’ a lucrative electric car brand than on expanding and funding public transport.

Nostalgia distorts the past. As the novelist Mohsin Hamid has put it, ‘we are drawn like lovers to the unreachable past, to imagined memories, to nostalgia.’ Returning to New York last year, I was drawn to memories of when I first lived there in 2008, and the subway, with all its defects, was one of the things I loved about the place. It was a microcosm of the city. Now, filled with police, it felt like a ghostly shell of one of my many homes.