Last year, as I was riding on the train with a friend, I was punched in the head twice, and had my phone knocked out of my hand.
It was a random attack, and the assailant was a kid probably no more than sixteen. He was wearing a hoodie with the insignia of a local Catholic school, and was traveling with an adult male who appeared to be a relative. When I pushed back at the kid, the adult male who was sitting across from him lunged for me. My friend, an elderly Haitian gentleman who had just come from immigration court where he had translated for me in a case, had also been attacked.
While my Irish-Italian nature urged me to stay and do battle, my attorney instincts propelled me and my friend to the train doors where, as soon as they opened, we ran out. Looking back over my shoulder, I heard the adult male screaming curses and threats at me.
I later made a report to SEPTA, the company that runs public transportation in Philadelphia, and they took down my name and information but weren’t able to do very much.
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I actually don’t blame them. Violence like this is common on subways, buses and elevated cars in the city, and they have to do triage, focusing on the most serious cases.
In fact, just a couple days before I was attacked, a woman had been sexually assaulted on that same route, and other passengers filmed it. Not one person intervened to help her, and it was reminiscent of what we remember as the Kitty Genovese case where a New York woman was stabbed to death in the early ‘60s while neighbors, who heard her screams, reportedly did nothing. (I say “reportedly” because new evidence suggests that perhaps some neighbors either did not hear the cries or that they mistook them for consensual activity. There is also some evidence that the police were, in fact, called.)
But that’s really beside the point. We have become used to believing the stories of victims being attacked and no one intervening, because it’s the truth. It happens every day, in cities large and small. My incident was one of thousands that occur on a yearly basis.
That’s why, when I heard about the man who died after he was put in a chokehold by a marine on a New York City subway, I had a flashback to what had happened to me last year, and I immediately sympathized with the passengers on that train. The man who suffocated was a homeless person (everyone is now using the term “houseless,” which I think is some deliberate PC attempt to bring dignity to a nomadic existence, but I honestly don’t see a difference) and he had been tormenting the other passengers by demanding food and promising he would hurt them if he didn’t get what he wanted. The man apparently had already been in jail with a number of prior arrests, and he was heard to say that he wasn’t afraid of going back to jail.
Imagine being trapped in a subway car with a violent man screaming that he was going to hurt you unless you gave him what he wanted. Imagine not being able to escape from that metal capsule hurtling through subterranean tunnels. Imagine, if you can, having children with you on that journey through an urban hellscape.
We have become used to believing the stories of victims being attacked and no one intervening, because it’s the truth.
I immediately thought “Bravo Zulu,” the term marines use when describing a job well done. Yes, there was a casualty, and that is regrettable. Perhaps it wasn’t necessary to use the force that was used, although we are not in a position to second-guess a man who jumped into the line of danger to protect strangers.
But there is no question that what followed is repellent. The usual race hustlers started screaming that a black man (because the deceased was black) had been killed by a white man (the marine was white) and that this is an example of the dangers that minorities face in this society. No one wondered if there were other black passengers on that train who would have been grateful to be protected from a mentally ill vagrant threatening them while they were trapped in a crowded space. And the idea that race is even an issue is disgusting. Dead is dead, and all blood is red.
I mentioned before that I had been a victim on public transportation. I did not mention that my attacker and his “guardian” were black. It didn’t matter, even though they were screaming racial epithets at me. I didn’t care, because in the moments when your life is in danger, you are not thinking about the color of your skin. The same can be said for my Haitian friend, who was attacked despite sharing the same race as that feral child and the adult who wouldn’t rein him in.
It’s already bad enough that decent people risk their lives when they pay their fares and descend to the lower depths of our urban nightmare. Adding race to it is the dishonest, despicable salt in our collective, gaping wound.
Christine Flowers is an attorney and lifelong Philadelphian. @flowerlady61