I’ve never liked pranks, and I’ve always thought of them as a “white people” thing, but it’s not until this guy on TikTok “dropped” a large quantity of milk and cereal onto a subway train that I figured out why: White people can get away with a lot of this stuff that Black people would be arrested, prosecuted, or even killed over. (Sources have shared with me on background that the NYPD is now investigating this incident.)
s @saltyarabdoes he think this shit is funny.... https://t.co/tXTRJXUGjr
Consider this TikToker: He carries a large tub of milk and cereal onto the a New York MTA subway train and spills it all over the carriage, to the annoyance of the other passengers and to the MTA employees who have to clean it up. This would be deplorable under any circumstances, but is particularly despicable given that the country — and New York City especially — is grappling with a coronavirus pandemic that has upended and continues to threaten lives of lowly-paid and vulnerable front-line workers.
It isn’t innocent. While I understand that New York is a strange place, nobody gets on board a subway train with a plastic tub, a gallon of milk, and a friend with a camera to record the entire event by accident.
I want to contrast this with another event on Twitter: this tweet by the NYPD Transit department, posted May 2, 2020, also in the midst of the pandemic:
In this case, the department celebrates several officers who apprehended an individual for possession of marijuana and a digital scale — and for fare evasion.
Look: possession of marijuana is currently illegal under US federal law, and sale of such are still illegal under New York state law and federal law. (New York decriminalized the possession of small quantities of marijuana in 2019, although people will still have to pay fines.) Fare evasion is also a violation of the MTA’s rules on carriage, since, the MTA currently isn’t free.
We can and should get into how these rules are applied disproportionally against Black, and Hispanic/Latinx popoulations, and how the New York City police department has a long history of discriminating against Black and Brown communities under the “broken windows” theory of policing crime, which has never proven effective.
New York police are also currently dealing with accusations of continued racism for their “race-disproportionate” enforcement of social-distancing rules, as nearly 9 in 10 people arrested for breaking those rules are Black. The police commissioner and city mayor have both dismissed these accusations and said that individual officers would be held responsible — an expected response, and one that resembles the official responses given by authorities during other situations when people in marginalized communities and data suggest that the police might be racist.
The MTA, like most transit agencies in the United States, is facing a funding crisis. And yet, as this tweet quoted by Vox shows, New York is spending a lot of money on fare enforcement:
Why New York seems to think that people not paying $2.75 for the subway is a serious issue worthy of hundreds of thousands of dollars in aggressive enforcement, but that a guy disrupting subway services and forcing an unnecessary cleanup isn’t as big of a deal is beyond me.
The claim put forward by the MTA that fare evasion is costing the agency millions of dollars has been doubted by the authority’s own inspector general, who pointed out concerns and flaws in the survey conducted to estimate those numbers.
When that TikToker spilled milk and cereal all over the train, there wasn’t a massive law enforcement response chasing him from station to station. Plainclothes officers didn’t follow him and yank him off the bus afterwards. It’s only after this has come to light — after thousands of Internet users have called him out for this highly problematic behavior — that the NYPD is investigating.
It’s not my place to decide how New York should prioritize its transit budget and law enforcement resources, although I sympathize and believe in the arguments put forward by New York citizens’ groups that the current policing of their subway system is discriminatory and problematic, and that the MTA’s budget would be better spent on facilities and train upgrades rather than on punishing poverty-related incidents like fare evasion or historically discriminatory crimes like marijuana possession. Spending more money on more police is likely not the answer to New York’s racism and poverty woes.
But I do wonder, and it is my place to wonder, whether it might be more appropriate for the city of New York to prioritize deterring people from committing nuisance and mischief acts on the subway that directly affect other people, rather than going after New York’s poor that have to struggle daily between paying for transit to get to work and paying for food so they don’t go hungry. And after the MTA received $500 million in emergency coronavirus funding from the US federal government and and asks for $7.8 billion for operating expenses, it is my place to wonder: How much of my tax money, and yours, is going to support the MTA’s “racially-disproportionate” policing priorities?
As of when this was published, the New York Police Department’s media relations office and the New York City Mayor’s office have not responded to questions about law enforcement priorities during the pandemic.