Need on Subways: Security and A Sense of Community
BY CHRIS PHILLIPS | I spent that Saturday afternoon in 2008 grilling hamburgers at my church’s Pride picnic. Then I met my partner for a celebratory margarita or two at the Monster. As it started to rain, we headed across Christopher Street for the downtown subway.
I remember being glad we didn’t have to stand on the steamy platform for too long. I wanted to get home to Brooklyn quickly so I could prepare for the Pride March the next morning. We squeezed on to the cool, crowded subway car at about 6 p.m.
While the 3 train, going local, traveled downtown, a man in white shorts and a white hat sprung up from his seat shouting anti-gay slurs at me and saying I made him sick. He punched me in the face and smashed my head and teeth against the subway poles. I lost my flip-flops as I flew through the moving train car. His punches snapped my glasses in half and cut the skin under my eyes. A woman traveling with the man grabbed me and scratched her long fingernails down my neck. She laughed as she held me in place, making me a punching bag for her companion. The subway car was so crowded my partner couldn’t get to me.
When the train doors opened at the Franklin Street station, the others passengers in the car ran away. I tried to get away from the attackers, but even on the subway platform, the couple continued to hit me and call me a “faggot.” I was barefoot. My eyes were full of blood. My mouth was full of what felt like sand. It took me a few minutes to realize that sand were pieces of my front teeth.
I’ve been thinking about my story again this week because on the night of February 18 another gay couple had a sadly similar experience to ours on the same train line. Urena Morel Frankelly and his partner were attacked on the 2 train.
“An argument erupted, and the two women, joined by another plus three men, attacked Frankelly, police said,” the Daily News reported. “His partner tried to intervene, but the victim was repeatedly punched.”
“23-year-old gay man attacked on Manhattan subway as riders fail to act” was the Daily News headline for Frankelly’s story. Which raises the question I’ve carried around since my attack. Why didn’t the people on that subway train do something to help us? I’ve physically healed from the attack and I’ve forgiven or at least tried to forget about the attackers, but I still fault my fellow New Yorkers for not standing up for us.
The afternoon I was attacked, there had to have been over a hundred people in that train car. Only one older woman stopped to offer some tissues to wipe the blood off my face. No one took a cell phone picture of the attackers, offered to flag down an ambulance, or waited with us until help arrived. There were no MTA workers on the downtown platform to help us.
To get help, my partner had to flag down a cab. Several wouldn’t stop for two bloody men, soaked and standing in the middle of a thunderstorm, so I’ve always been thankful for the driver who took us to the emergency room at St. Vincent’s.
I want to tell Urena Morel Frankelly and his partner that I am sorry. I tried to do what I could to prevent this from happening again. I worked with the city and state government and the NYPD hate crimes task force. There were no cameras that recorded activity on the train or the platform, so the police didn’t have much to go on.
As a 2010 New York Times article reported, “Nearly half of the subway system’s 4,313 security cameras that have been installed — in stations and tunnels throughout the system — do not work, because of either shoddy software or construction problems, say officials with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority… the subway’s video surveillance system, one of the key tools the city has in deterring and investigating attacks of any and all kinds in the subways, remains a patchwork of lifeless cameras, unequipped stations, and problem-plagued wiring.”
Without witnesses or video footage, I helped the hate crimes officers with their lower tech approach: We handed out flyers around the Franklin Street station asking if anyone had information about the attack.
I tried to meet with the MTA in person to discuss what happened to us and find out more about their camera system, but they refused.
I asked the offices of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and State Senator Tom Duane what we could do to try to prevent another attack. The staffers were empathetic and listened to my story — which is more than what MTA did — but nothing concrete happened. That fall, the speaker’s attention shifted to the political battle over whether the mayor would be eligible to run for a third term and we never met to discuss subway security.
When we go down to the subway, we’re giving up the basic security we New Yorkers take for granted. We can do better than this. Please contact MTA New York City Transit president Thomas Prendergast and tell him that some of the funds from next month’s fare hike must be used immediately to improve safety and security on our subways.
The man and woman who attacked me were never found. As of this past Saturday, police are still looking for the three men and three women who were involved in last week’s subway attack.