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City of Thugs

(Giuseppe Milo)

If, on the other hand, we as a society make excuses for thugs and use pretextual claims of racism to emasculate law enforcement, we will promote the continuation of our rapid race to the bottom.”

During my commute on the New York City subway one recent morning, I was again reminded of how thoroughly powerless ordinary citizens are today against the thugs and bums that have besieged this city, as so many other cities across America. 

A certain bedraggled old bum who has haunted the subway station at Canal Street and Broadway in the heart of Chinatown for many years has recently taken up residence at the nearby Grand Street station that I occasionally use for my morning commute. Today, as on many other days, he was occupying the bench, rendering it essentially uninhabitable for others, but what is worse, he was smoking a cigarette, the noxious smoke choking out what little fresh air there was in that polluted underground enclosure. Just at that moment, a transit worker happened to pass by. She saw and smelled him smoking, of course, but said nothing, going about her business. As she passed by again, I asked if there is anything that can be done. “No,” she said flatly. “You have to call the police,” she added, indicating the emergency intercom further along the platform. She would not be doing it herself, naturally. And then she went right along, passing through the shameless bum’s thickening fume-cloud on the way back to her destination.

(Photo Courtesy of Alexander Zubatov)

So here I was, finding myself in this no-win situation: Press the “emergency” button and call the cops on an old homeless black man smoking in the subway, undoubtedly getting branded a racist “Karen” (or “Terry,” her lesser-known male counterpart) for speaking up, or else sit in a cloud of fumes, fuming on the inside. As countless subway riders do on countless occasions, I waited out my few minutes, got on the train, sat down, opened my book, and went on my way. 

It did not take long for the universe to intervene and disturb my peace again to remind me that issues of this sort thrive on our apathy. One stop later, a thug came on board, blasting his profanity-laced music through a Bluetooth speaker connected to his phone. I caught the usual annoyed looks among the other riders, but, as always, no one did or said a thing. We were again in the very same ridiculous predicament: Pull the emergency brake and bring the train to a halt that would only delay and inconvenience all aboard, or else grin and bear it.

There is a third option that Chirlane McCray, the clueless wife of our universally despised outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio, had proposed earlier this year, even as her husband had handicapped and defunded law enforcement after the #BLM riots of 2020’s summer of hate. With crime going up citywide and the subways being a particular locus of the problem, she had suggested that New Yorkers step up and take on the city’s responsibility by confronting wrongdoers. Needless to say, thugs and bums do not tend to respond well to critique. People who ask thugs to turn down their tunes get their faces slashed, and even city bus drivers get clocked for making such requests. The third option, in other words, entails taking your life in your hands.

In the meantime, filling the vacuum created by municipal apathy, the thuggery has only escalated. Smoking in the subway used to be a rarity, and I would go months without seeing smokers on trains and in stations. Now smoking is commonplace. Just last night, I had to switch out of a subway car because a bum with a massive stash of belongings in tow was lighting up. Not a week goes by without two or three similar incidents. 

The same is true of those blasting music on the trains. In the past, save for the occasional outlier, all we had were the “It’s Showtime” thugs sporting their ribbed white tank tops, do-rags, and oft-sagging black hip-hop pants, who would come on to the train in gangs, demand that riders clear an area for them, pump up their ghetto blasters, take to the subway poles and handrails to start performing acrobatic dance moves reminiscent of strip club pole dancers, and then expect to be compensated for the disturbance they had caused. Kids and tourists would gawk at the “show,” and the rest of us would bury our heads and grind our teeth, some grinding so hard that I was sure they had succumbed to the guilty pleasure of fantasizing about a latter-day Bernhard Goetz rising up to repel the assault on our senses. 

But today, I can reminisce fondly about these comparatively halcyon pre-de Blasio days, when this was the worst of our problems. Today, during any given subway ride, it is a near-inevitability that at least one thug who does not understand or care that other people may not want to be shaken by booming hip hop beats punctuated by profanity and epithets will get on board at some point along the way. I keep wondering what will happen if two thugs with competing soundtracks decide to board the same subway car, whether the result will be a merely technological contest to see whose device can crank up the volume to the highest register or whether these combatants will skip straight to the punchline in an exchange of gunfire. I am sure that my curiosity will be satisfied any day now, but, for the time being, one musical marauder per trip is plenty for me.

We have an epidemic of individuals going out in public dressed in a fashion that is demeaning to themselves, disrespectful to others, and harmful to children growing up in a society in which vulgar displays are normalized.

The onslaught of thuggery by which we are besieged does not end here. Another trend I have noticed taking shape over the past several years is of people who put their dirty shoes up on the subway seats. Neither snow nor rain stays these thugs from sullying the subways…and speaking of which, public urination, both on the subway platforms and on the city’s streets is likewise increasing apace. Turnstile jumping, too, is on the rise, with nearly one out of every eight subway riders and nearly one out of every four bus riders not bothering to pay their fares, costing an already cash-strapped system millions in potential revenue. Despite what the AOCs of this world might want us to believe, even as they openly encourage people to break the law, the problem is not driven by poverty or limited to obvious miscreants. Just yesterday, I witnessed a group of five 20-something Asian women, dolled up for a night out, resort to absurd contortions in an effort to maneuver their miniskirt-clad legs over the turnstiles without baring their buttocks to the world. 

It goes on and on. We have an epidemic of individuals going out in public dressed in a fashion that is demeaning to themselves, disrespectful to others, and harmful to children growing up in a society in which vulgar displays are normalized. We have parades of profanities hurled every which way as unceremoniously as our thugs and bums heedlessly hurl trash on streets, subway platforms and tracks, causing frequent track fires and resulting in delays in service. We have people no longer bothering to offer seats to the elderly; they go about punching elderly men and women instead. We have, in short, cities devolving to barbarism before our very eyes. 

Although our epidemic of rising criminality has grabbed all of the headlines, criminality is just the jagged tip of the iceberg. The problem of thuggery runs deeper, is broader and more thoroughgoing, and outright criminality is merely the most irksome symptom of that underlying cancer. What spills over into full-on criminal behavior in its more extreme manifestations takes the form of the smaller but far more pervasive drip-drip-dribble of attacks upon our everyday quality of life. These attacks are a constant stressor. They ruin our rides, spoil our walks, turn days to slogs, dampen our spirits, sap our morale, and ultimately demolish that sense of community that is a sine qua non of the desire to share a city, a state, and a nation with one another. When we wonder why, increasingly, our nation’s seams seem to be coming apart, we need look no further. 

The incisive journalist and social critic Christopher Lasch expressed this truism clearly back in the mid-1990s:

“[I]t is our reluctance to make demands on each other, much more than our reluctance to help those in need, that is sapping the strength of democracy today. We have become far too accommodating and tolerant for our own good. In the name of sympathetic understanding, we tolerate…second-rate standards of personal conduct. We put up with bad manners and with many kinds of bad language, ranging from the commonplace scatology that is now ubiquitous to elaborate academic evasion. We seldom bother to correct a mistake or to argue with opponents in the hope of changing their minds. Instead we either shout them down or agree to disagree, saying that all of us have a right to our opinions. Democracy in our time is more likely to die of indifference than of intolerance. Tolerance and understanding are important virtues, but they must not become an excuse for apathy.”

Patterns of behavior, both laudatory and blameworthy, can be taught and rewarded or punished through systems of incentives, benefits, proscriptions, and penalties. But such patterns spread like wildfire through imitation. If everyone in the subway is polite and orderly, sitting upright, occupying a single seat, conducting their conversations quietly, listening to their music on headphones, offering seats to the elderly or others in need and, of course, never smoking in trains and stations or urinating in public, then our would-be-thugs will fall in line. If infractions against public order are readily penalized and if bums are prevented from loitering and panhandling in public transportation networks and on city streets, then people will get the message, and we will have a city that is vibrant, thriving, clean, and safe for locals and tourists alike. If, on the other hand, we as a society make excuses for thugs and use pretextual claims of racism to emasculate law enforcement, we will promote the continuation of our rapid race to the bottom. As long as law-abiding citizens walking along the street or commuters riding the subway have no recourse against thugs, bums, derelicts, and criminals, we will never succeed in holding the disorder at bay. The system cannot rely on private citizens like me to press an emergency button to summon the cops to stop a bum occupying scant subway seats from smoking in a train station. Transit employees must be armed with the tools they need to deal with such infractions. That inveterate bum should never have been there in the first place. If he is mentally ill, he must be treated or institutionalized. If he is not, he must be forced to move along again and again and again until he understands that his disrespect for himself and others will not be tolerated. 

But, of course, in any contemporary discussion of such issues, one glaring objection, the elephant in the room, must be addressed. The conventional media narrative is one of “systemic racism,” in which a helpless, racially marked underclass of “marginalized and vulnerable” individuals is imagined to be perpetually oppressed and persecuted by the powers-that-be. Most of us who are not blinded by that media disinformation campaign know in our hearts that this conventional narrative, which might have been accurate as of 1865 or 1965, is an inversion of the truth in 2021: Today, as I have described, America’s cities are under siege by thugs empowered and enabled by dangerous political rhetoric that has made it difficult to keep the thuggery and criminality in check. Today, it is not the racially marked underclass, but rather, the rest of society—including the law-abiding majority of that same racially marked underclassthat is nearly powerless to stop the attack upon the norms and standards that permit our cities and communities to be functional. To quote a recent interview with our mayor-elect Eric Adams, who promises to be worlds better than Mayor de Blasio, New York “has become a place where lawlessness is the norm,” a place where “we’ve lost our ability to understand what it is to be a good neighbor.” Solving that problem means “having acceptable codes of conduct of how you live in a diverse city like this,” Mr. Adams correctly concludes. 

Thuggery, which does not come packaged with a skin color, is a plain and simple matter of rudeness, of disrespect, both for others and for oneself.

Let us not hide from this other, obvious truth: Although the issue is ultimately about standards of civilized behavior that are not reducible to race, there is certainly a racial component to what we are seeing. Let us not hide from the fact that African-Americans—and not black people but, specifically, African-Americans rather than African or Caribbean immigrants—are disproportionately the ones we are seeing flouting societal norms. Pretending otherwise while trying to browbeat anti-racism into people’s heads has been shown not to work and even to be counterproductive, especially when our own eyes repeatedly tell us a very different story from the one being pushed by our cultural commissars. Aggressive “anti-racism” campaigns may force some of us to use different words or to hide our true thoughts in public, but they will not change how we feel, and eventually, drip by drip, that reservoir of suppressed feelings will spill over into actions that are more drastic and extreme than they otherwise would have been. Modern-day “anti-racism,” in other words, is the best recruiting tool white supremacists could ever imagine.

To shield ourselves from that slippery slope into actual racism, we must also be crystal-clear about this: What looks, on the surface, like a racial issue is actually a cultural issue. The problem is not one limited or inherent to black people or inevitably associated with dark skin but, rather, of a norm-flouting counterculture spawned in concentrations of poverty and dysfunction in America’s ghettos. It is what sociologists have termedcool-pose culture,” a culture that glamorizes certain flashy, outré styles of speech, dress and behavior and demonizes conformity to conventional societal standards, including standards that hold out academic achievement as a gateway to prosperity. Young people, including young people of all races, ever eager to rebel against their elders, naturally gravitate towards such culture, and our entertainment industry, jumping at any opportunity to make a quick buck, no matter the fallout, repeatedly rushes in to further glamorize, monetize, and mass produce such culture. When academia and media—opinion-makers that we have, in the past, depended on to give us perspective on our situation—intercede in the fray to tip the scales against us still more decisively, telling us that any attempt to combat such culture is racism, the deck is stacked against us at every level.

Finding our way out of this morass begins with recognizing the issue and conceptualizing it as clearly as we can. The issue is not white supremacy or “whiteness,” as our race-hustling politicos and infotainers would have us believe, nor is it black people or blackness, as white supremacists would have it. The issue, rather, is thuggery. And “thuggery” is not just a dog whistle that really means “black people,” nor is it some racist name for some different cultural standard, some more vibrant, expressive manner of living and being. Thuggery, which does not come packaged with a skin color, is a plain and simple matter of rudeness, of disrespect, both for others and for oneself. It is wrong in this society and wrong in every society. If community is about trust, about harmony, about caring for others and treating them with courtesy and respect, then thuggery is its very opposite. We need not and must not tolerate it. It is time for this “City that Never Sleeps,” for cities all across America and for that shining “City upon a Hill” that America used to be to wake up and realize this: We have become a city of thugs.

Alexander Zubatov is a lawyer in New York, as well as an essayist and poet. 

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