As Ridership Ticks Up On Subways, Some Asian New Yorkers Still Fear For Their Safety

The NYC subway system is arguably the most unnerving public place that Asian New Yorkers are forced to navigate during this period of rising bias attacks against Asians in the city. At times desolate due to a pandemic drop in ridership, the subway can feel at once confining and indifferent, a place where bystanders minding their own business may seem even less inclined to get involved in stopping an unprovoked attack. In recent months, Asian New Yorkers have been slashed and nearly pushed into oncoming trains.

The MTA, in an attempt to make riders feel safe, hired a hundred private security officers last year, and updated its existing anti-hate campaign to include posters and signs written in Chinese and Korean.

But none of the efforts deterred a man from allegedly targeting one Korean-American woman on a recent Friday at Atlantic Terminal. Nor did it change the way others in the subway reacted after the incident, raising the question of what role the public plays in helping prevent the continued attacks on Asian New Yorkers.

Leslie, who asked that we withhold her last name because she fears further harassment, was at the terminal to change trains around 5 p.m. She wore a Chinese silk jacket with a mandarin collar, which she now thinks drew attention to her.

While waiting, she said she became aware of an older Black man she described as someone that looked like a dad, staring at her. He then raised his middle finger at her, Leslie said.

I didn’t really want to run away from him or indicate that I was afraid of him,” Leslie said. “But I also didn’t want to provoke anything. And in my head, I was just saying, ‘this train’s supposed to arrive any second now this will all be over. Just make sure you don’t get on the same subway car as him and this will all end.’”

As the train pulled into the station, Leslie said the man pulled out his phone and started recording video as he tried to kick her.

Leslie said she managed to dodge him, and his foot only grazed her. But she was humiliated.

She told the conductor someone tried to commit a hate crime against her. Then the man she said was harassing her came over and started talking to the conductor himself. It was noisy and Leslie said she couldn’t hear exactly what was said, but did hear him say: “she is racially profiling me.”

She recalled she was stunned and just got on the train, her heart racing.

She watched a young man sit down and asked him if he saw what happened. The man nodded, then pulled out his phone to play Candy Crush.

Leslie was stunned for a second time.

“Even if this person didn’t want to interject himself physically into the altercation of what was going on, I felt like the very least that could happen was to just recognize me as a person that was like hurting and just being like, ‘Yeah, that was crazy. Like what that person did was not right.’ And there was zero acknowledgment,” she said.

The third shock of the day came soon after. She realized she hadn’t seen whether the man got on her train or not. At the next stop she asked the conductor if the man who had harassed her had gotten on the train.

The conductor confirmed the man had gotten on the train, and he told Leslie to leave him alone.

“This is why things like this happen is because you don’t know when to leave things alone,” Leslie said the conductor told her.

Leslie, who has photos of the man, eventually reported the incident to the NYPD, but hasn’t heard back from police about it. Asked about the incident, an MTA spokesperson said it would not be possible to investigate further without knowing which conductor was involved.

At 34th Street she got off, hustled out of the station looking over her shoulder. But she never saw the man again. Later, in the safety of a hair salon, she began to cry. The woman cutting her hair is from Korea, and told Leslie that she too is fearful riding the subway. Her advice was to make yourself seem as small as possible so people won’t notice you.

“This is the world I think a lot of us live in,” Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation. “I’m very mindful of not going out very often. If I have to go grocery shopping then I take a car or I take a bus, because, sadly, I guess it’s a little safer because it’s above ground and you can run out.”

Listen to reporter Stephen Nessen’s radio story for WNYC:

The MTA recently conducted a survey of 25,000 current subway riders and those that used to ride but don’t anymore. 87% said that feeling safe from crime and harassment was a deciding factor in whether they’ll ride the subway again.

While subway ridership is slowly ticking back up, it remains at about 2 million riders a day, down from 5 million a day before the pandemic.

“We have always said that the work of keeping our customers safe in the subway system is multifaceted. Bolstering the presence of uniformed officers is a big part of this work, but making the subway system safer also requires increases in mental health resources and substance assistance from the city,” MTA spokesperson Andrei Berman wrote in a statement.

Subway conductors and bus drivers are often put in the position to mediate disputes, although they’re not equipped or expected to intervene. There are stories of heroic MTA workers putting themselves in harm’s way, but the typical procedure is for them to contact the Rail Control Center, which then dispatches police, the fire department or EMS to the scene.

MTA bus drivers and train operators are increasingly the victims of harassment and violence themselves, and are pushing state lawmakers to increase the penalties for spitting on MTA workers.

Since last April, the MTA has hired 100 private security guards, and it continues to send its own MTA police from the commuter rails lines to the subway. The agency has also greatly increased the number of surveillance cameras in the subway last year. While most subway crime was down last year, there were more murders and rapes than the year before in the system.

Citywide, the NYPD reports a 450 percent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes over last year, or 66 attacks so far in 2021 compared to 12 last year. According to the NYPD’s Hate Crime dashboard, there was one anti-Asian hate crime in 2019. There have been 20 hate crimes in the subway this year, compared to 28 last year, but there have been seven anti-Asian hate crimes in the system, compared to none last year. And advocates for Asian Americans say attacks against Asians are widely underreported in NYC.

For Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City, the way to make riders feel more comfortable is for them to see more police.

“I would like to see a uniformed presence in every station and frankly on every platform,” she said recently.

As the Daily News tallied, for that level of policing, with three shifts of officers, it would require 6,000 police officers, more than the number of troops the U.S. has in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“That translates to me as hopes and prayers,” Yoo said. “That’s not a solution, so what’s the real solution?”

Both Leslie and Yoo don’t think more police is the best solution. In part because non-English speakers can’t always talk to police or are afraid of them. And because of ongoing issues of Black and brown people being targeted by police. And there’s also concern if there is an attack or harassment incident that it won’t be properly classified as a hate crime.

Yoo recommends more people take bystander training classes.

“Most New Yorkers are good-willed, and they’d like to do something, they just don’t know [how] you freeze up, like ‘What should I do’?” said Deborah Lauter Executive Director of the city’s Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes.

Bystander intervention classes teach how to assess a situation, intervene when it’s safe, and help people who are being attacked either physically or verbally. She recommends taking classes at either the Center for Anti-Violence Education or with the group Hollaback.

“There’s a way to distract what’s going on. If you see someone yelling at someone across the train with racial epithets you can move in between the harasser and the victim,” she said.

Leslie isn’t counting on the public to sign up. She’s considering buying a face shield she can wear on the subway, so people can’t see her face. And she’s organizing with other women to get pepper spray in as many hands as possible.