On Tuesday, April 12 during the morning rush hour in Brooklyn, a shooter set off smoke bombs and fired 33 shots into a crowded subway car. Passengers rushed onto the platform at the 36th Street Station once the train arrived at the Sunset Park stop. About ten people were shot and 23 were injured — thankfully, due to a gun malfunction, there were no fatalities. These events led to a manhunt for suspect Frank R. James, which lasted until the next day.
As part of their “tough on crime” approach since taking office, New York City Mayor Eric Adams and New York Governor Kathy Hochul are using this horrific incident as an excuse to bolster the already oppressive police presence and surveillance in the city’s transit systems. Yet these policies and this shooting have made even more clear that cops have nothing to do with public safety — they have everything to do with protecting private property and capital. Expanding the presence of police will only lead to more violence and devastation for working-class and immigrant communities like Sunset Park.
The Working Class Is the Most Impacted by Violence
After the shooting, subway lines were immediately shut down and many people avoided public transportation out of fear that there could be more attacks. As a result, workers had to find other ways to get to their jobs. With an increased demand for rides, rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft activated surge pricing, which cost commuters $70 to $80 for short trips. While the companies offered to refund individuals who were affected by the surge pricing after public backlash, their algorithms are designed to extract maximum profit when the need for transportation is the highest. Capitalists will take advantage of such tragedies to squeeze out even more profits, and working people are the ones who suffer.
In the aftermath of the subway shooting, many schools in the area were under shelter-in-place orders by Schools Chancellor David Banks. The NYC Department of Education told parents to expect additional police presence at the schools.
This incident has once again highlighted the priorities of the capitalist state: maintaining private property and profits over public wellbeing. New York City’s transit system, the MTA, has been chronically underfunded for years. While more money is being spent on cramming more cops onto its platforms and trains, the subway system doesn’t have the funds for MTA worker salaries, better accessibility for people with disabilities, and public restrooms.
And as the shooter’s social media posts and videos show, he likely had mental health issues that were not adequately cared for by the for-profit health system in the United States. Mental health services, let alone basic healthcare, are inaccessible for the vast majority of the working class in this country. But while politicians slash healthcare budgets as they try to “move on” from an ongoing pandemic, they are always able to find more money to fund the police.
A Society Built on Mass Violence
If you have read news from New York City in the past few months, you have probably seen the onslaught of reporting about ostensibly skyrocketing crime rates. There have indeed been several incidents in recent months that received heavy media attention due to their horrific nature — Michelle Go was killed after being pushed in front of a train and Roland Hueston died attempting to help an assault victim. An article in The Atlantic contextualizes these stories in overall crime statistics:the crime rate has indeed increased, but in absolute terms, has not substantially risen to constitute public panic.
But public reaction, understandably, doesn’t simply correspond to statistics. This is partly due to the random and terrifying nature of the crimes, and also partly due to intense media coverage which heightens levels of public fear. The subway shooting also comes in the context of several other gun-related incidents across the country — six people were killed during a mass shooting in Sacramento in early April and three shootings occurred over Easter weekend.
While there is a tendency to individualize or pathologize these horrific acts of violence such as that of Frank R. James, we cannot separate them from the brutal nature of the capitalist state. We live in a society where mass violence, especially against working people and communities of color, is normalized.
As Tatiana Cozzarelli wrote for Left Voice in the wake of the Parkland shootings:
From the genocide of indigenous people to annex the land we now live on to the imperialist wars in the Philippines, Hawaii, Vietnam, Iraq and around the globe, the history of the U.S. is bathed in blood. The carnage in the Middle East continues; three bombs an hour during the last year of the Obama administration. On the ground, soldiers are given a free pass to rape, murder and torture, as the horrific Abu Ghraib photos showed. The new CIA chief oversaw a clandestine prison in Thailand in 2002, one of the horrific “black sites” where supposed “terrorists” were tortured.
In this context, these mass shooters and perpetrators of mass violence are a continuation of U.S. policy carried out by both Democrats and Republicans, by the police, the military and security forces like the CIA. They are the last link in a long chain of state sanctioned violence.
Cops Don’t Protect Us
While public officials are using this incident to increase policing in the city, we have to be clear that cops do not keep us safe and were never meant to — their job is to repress class struggle and enforce the state’s criminalization of poverty.
James was finally found on April 13 in the East Village. It was not even the police that found him, but Zack Tahhan, a 21-year-old security camera installer. NYPD officers were busy sweeping a homeless encampment nearby. The NYPD has had a massive focus on clearing homeless encampments over the past few weeks, especially in heavily gentrified areas like the East Village, in order to make an environment “more desirable” for businesses, real estate interests, and rich tourists. While such policies have existed for decades, Mayor Adams in particular has prioritized the destructive and wasteful policy of encampment sweeps.
Many offered sharp critiques of the police in the days following the subway attack, drawing attention to the contrast between the stated role of the police and its true nature. While cops actively displace unhoused folks, catch and fine people jumping turnstiles, harass vendors, brutalize protesters, and otherwise tyrannize working-class people, they are unable to catch a person who shot a gun 33 times in a crowded subway car, and left his keys and credit card behind. Their presence does nothing to prevent premeditated incidents like the Brooklyn subway shooting or the many other violent acts that have occurred in NYC this year.
Many rightly argue that police are incompetent at fulfilling their stated mission of “public safety”. But this incompetence argument suggests that policing can be reformed. This notion conceals the real function of the police in upholding the capitalist state. The truth is that the police are actually doing their jobs — protecting private property, brutalizing people of color and low-income people, and repressing class struggle. Time and time again, police murder Black, disabled, and poor people on thes streets and in their homes, and brutalize protesters. And while cops criminalize and murder the working class, they are rarely brought up on charges, such as the recent refusal to prosecute the murderers of Adam Toledo and Anthony Alvarez in Chicago.
More Cops and More Copaganda
Predictably, “tough on crime” Mayor Eric Adams appeared on television (while sick with Covid) just hours after the attack, vowing to double the number of cops in subways, never letting an opportunity to push copaganda go to waste. The NYC Police Commissioner applauded the police’s “second to none” detective work and “never ending” dedication.
With an $11 billion police budget, the subways and city streets are already crawling with police. January showed record-breaking numbers of cops stationed in NYC transit as part of Adams’ agenda to create an “omnipresence” of law enforcement on trains and platforms. Since his first month in office, he has sent an additional 1,000 officers underground. This was in addition to the additional officers his predecessor, Bill deBlasio, flooded into the subway system.
In February, Adams, along with Governor Hochul, announced a plan to deploy police officers and teams of social workers and medical professionals into New York City’s subway, pledging to remove more than 1,000 unhoused people who regularly shelter there in the middle of winter. More cops in the subway will mean more terrorizing poor people and communities of color.
Adams has considered installing “weapon detectors” in the city’s transit system — a major logistical and financial investment for New York’s 472 subway stations. Millions of New Yorkers are already subject to such surveillance in Lincoln Center, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History and MoMA. Even if the MTA had the budget for weapon detectors, this would increase government surveillance of marginalized working-class people. The subway would subject millions more workers, for whom the subway is their only method of transportation, to this level of surveillance, which would undoubtedly disproportionately harm commuters of color.
An Attempt to Win Back Authority
Adams and other capitalist politicians are using these horrific incidents as “opportunities” to win back the authority that the police lost during the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising. The BLM movement catalyzed a historic delegitimization of one of the key institutions of state power — its “special bodies of armed men”, as Lenin described in State and Revolution. Slogans like “defund the police” and “abolish the police” gained major traction and remain popular demands two years on.
Representatives of the capitalist state are now using these violent incidents to whitewash the exposure of racist policing practices that the BLM movement revealed. Meanwhile, and tragically, these murders are only increasing; so far this year, police have shot and killed 241 civilians, 14 of whom were Black. In 2021, there were 1,055 fatal police shootings, up from 1,021 in 2020. According to Statista, “The rate of fatal police shootings among Black Americans was much higher than that for any other ethnicity, standing at 38 fatal shootings per million of the population as of April 2022.”
While using progressive rhetoric, the Democratic Party funneled the energy of the BLM movement into the voting booths, co-opting the movement in order to get Joe Biden into office. Biden, meanwhile, has only increased police and military spending. In Minneapolis, the origin of the George Floyd uprising, City Council members paid lip service to defending the police in 2020. Two years later, Minneapolis City Council members are considering a contract agreement that would give police officers raises and $7,000 payments. Capitalist politicians like Adams are eager to use stories such as the subway shooting to justify increasing their police budgets, measures that are supported by Biden and the Democrats.
We Need a System That Puts Human Needs First
Bombarded with seemingly endless news of mass shootings and violence, many people are asking themselves: Why is this happening? What drives people to hurt each other in such senseless and tragic ways?
We cannot begin to answer this question without considering the circumstances of workers and oppressed people under capitalism. At its core, it is a system that extracts an incalculable human toll on working people. A continuous thread connects the violence that we see on an individual- and community level and the violence on which our society is built.
The long-term fight to end mass violence goes hand in hand with our immediate struggles to protect the working class — particularly people of color and low-income people — from state violence, as well as putting forward working-class methods to solve the problems we face. This is why we demand to kick cops out of our unions, where they exist first and foremost to secure impunity for their brutality and repression. This is why we have to get cops out of our subways and streets to fight the destruction of unhoused encampments and evictions, and demand that the city provide free, clean, safe, community-controlled housing for every unhoused person in the city. We need to massively invest in mental health services, for which funding is meager compared to the ever-flowing stream of funding for the police. We need to fight for socialism — a system that puts human needs first.
The past several years of struggle have exposed a need for deep change in our society, and masses of people around the world are beginning to question capitalism and its institutions. People are drawing connections between their oppression and their working conditions. They are seeing links between their own struggles and those of workers around the world. These last years have shown that we are capable of funneling our exploitation and oppression into class struggle, carrying the seeds of the society we will build.