A pink stun gun sits buried in 20-year-old Britney Low’s purse.
Katja Vehlow, 51, avoids the edges of the subway platform. She sticks to the center until her train arrives.
But 44-year-old Danyelle Terry isn’t worried.
“I’m not afraid,” Terry told Gothamist. “Do I look afraid? Because I’m not.”
Some are going to work or school. Others are visiting friends. One thing they have in common: They all caught a train from the Times Square-42nd Street subway station on a recent afternoon, from the same platform where 40-year-old Michelle Go died a few weeks earlier after being pushed into the path of an oncoming train.
Subway shovings like the one that killed Go are rare. But the incidents can trigger a cascade of grief from New Yorkers, promises from elected officials and fear from commuters. Some riders change their behavior, like Low and Vehlow. Others, like Terry, carry on, if a bit more watchfully. The responses are as varied as New Yorkers themselves, reflecting their identities, biases, past experiences with violence and trust in their fellow commuters.
“There’s no one size fits all response to tragedy,” said Dr. Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychology professor at the University of California, Irvine. “Any implication that there is one right way and one wrong way does not fit the data.”
After Go’s death, much of the media coverage centered on the horrific nature of the crime, while other pieces played on stereotypical fears of people dealing with homelessness or serious mental illness. Some stories also explored the unique resonance of the killing for New Yorkers of Asian descent, who’ve faced many more hate crimes in recent years. Such framing can itself shape New Yorkers’ feelings of safety (or lack thereof), experts say.
The suspect in the January 15th shoving, 61-year-old Martial Simon, had untreated mental illness and was homeless at the time of the attack. Shortly before Go’s death, Mayor Eric Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul promised to improve subway safety by putting more officers on patrol and sending so-called “safe options support teams” out to help people experiencing mental health crises. About 1,000 more officers are working in the subways now, the New York Police Department’s Kathleen O’Reilly told Gothamist.
But advocates for New York City’s homeless say that adding more police to the system won’t address the systemic problems that led to Go’s death.
“Too often, in the wake of a tragedy, there is a focus on policing and involuntary commitment instead of looking at the structural forces that led someone to that situation,” said Jacquelyn Simone, policy director of the Coalition for the Homeless.
How mass trauma affects the community
Pre-existing mental health diagnoses, like anxiety or depression, can predispose people to feel especially disturbed by a traumatic event. The same goes for people who are socially isolated or have a history of trauma, said Silver, who’s studied the emotional aftermath of tragedies since the 9/11 attacks.
Research also shows a strong connection between how much news you consume about an event and how much it scares you. During a study of the psychological effects of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, Silver and her colleagues found that participants who read and watched more news about the attack also scored higher on a survey of stress symptoms. Silver and her colleagues also found this to be the case with 9/11 and other tragedies.
On the other hand, Silver explained, people with strong support systems tend to weather tragedies better than those without. Limiting news consumption and having healed from past traumas can also make people more resilient to future stressors.
The fear inspired by subway shovings is also not necessarily proportional to their likelihood, Silver says. Car crashes and COVID exposure are much more likely, but don’t loom as large in our minds.
Crime in the subway system is the lowest it’s been in 30 years, according to the MTA, though more assaults were recorded in 2021 than in 2019.
“These rare, terrible tragedies capture our attention,” Silver said. “But in general, we navigate through a lot of risks on a day to day basis.”
“A greater perception of safety”
If a subway shoving makes commuters feel afraid, what would help them feel safer?
Some New Yorkers say more police.
Sean Ye, 38, from Queens, said he’s not fearful riding the subway. But he’d like to see additional officers in the subway system, particularly to help move people living there into shelters at night.
“It’s much better, for everybody’s sake,” he said. Other commuters agree: 64% of riders surveyed by the MTA recently said more police officers would help them feel safer. Police officers were on the platform when Go was killed, but they weren’t able to intervene.
“I’m sure that the additional cops are to send the perception of safety and security,” Dorothy Schulz, a retired captain of the Metro-North Police and professor emerita at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said of the decision. “And despite the naysayers for most people, I’m sure it will.”
Others interviewed by Gothamist said the presence of police wouldn’t affect their sense of safety one way or the other.
Vicki Lu, 18, stood on the uptown platform, not far from a man seated on a bench, shouting loudly and smoking a cigarette with his belongings all around him. A pair of cops spoke briefly with the man, who continued smoking after they had moved on.
Asked whether the cops’ presence made her feel any safer, she replied, “I don’t feel any different.”
Instead, Lu carries a self-defense tool to feel safe: a shiny silver pen with a spike on the end. Her friends carry pepper spray and other self-defense items, she added, and they feel better traveling in groups. Still, when she takes the train to school or her internship, she feels on edge, particularly in the face of rising hate crimes against New Yorkers of Asian descent.
Simone from the Coalition for the Homeless added that homeless people and those living with mental illness are overwhelmingly non-violent. In fact, she said, they’re more likely to be the victims of crimes.
“These are people who are living their lives outdoors, and don’t have the same sense of safety that those of us who have stable housing are fortunate enough to have,” Simone said. She added that instead of doubling down on policing, the city should invest in safe shelters and supportive housing. Such options would give people like Martial Simon a stable place to live while they receive treatment.
Also close to the screaming man was an MTA station attendant, who asked that his name not be shared because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. He said the man wasn’t dangerous, but added that riders need to be mindful of their safety as they travel through the subway system.
“What’s reported to the public is nowhere near as much as actually happened,” he said. “They’d be scared to death to get on the trains if every incident that was reported to us, they knew about.”
Regardless of their fears, many New Yorkers depend on the subway to get around. Kate Merlino, who’s lived in the city for more than 30 years, disembarked at 34th Street-Penn Station, where NYPD data suggests that commuters report the most subway crimes. Merlino said that while she’s had some scary encounters on the subway, she’s not going to stop riding anytime soon.
“I ride the subway daily, and it’s my major way of getting around,” she said. “And so I have to just keep on keeping on, really.”