I have long felt that the US is a nation living in fear: of itself and others. My first week here has, sadly, confirmed this, to the point that if feels like I’m in a city on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Of course, there’s a lot of America beyond NYC and it’s always a mistake to take too many social readings from the media. But in a way, it’s no surprise that things feel a bit edgy here. It is extremely hot, which doesn’t help, but more significantly, the US/NYC are emerging from triple shocks to the system: Trump, #BLM and COVID, all on top of a pre-existing socio-economic and political crisis, within which housing is particularly important.
These things converge in people’s everyday lives. On Tuesday, I was on the Subway, heading downtown, when a woman I guessed was homeless, got on the train and sat next to me. It was obvious she had problems and you could almost feel the carriage tense as she boarded. I was conscious of her fidgeting and talking to herself, but that’s not particularly unusual, even in London. Suddenly, there was an outburst of anger from the well-dressed woman sitting on the other side of her. I don’t know what provoked it, but the aggressor started waving her walking stick at the homeless woman, who quickly got off at the next stop.
However, as though to illustrate the complex, volatile mix that is US society, the woman waving the stick was African-American. She spent the next few stops shouting things like “I don’t trust a single white person” and repeatedly using the N word. Her parting shot was “Any white person here can kiss my black arse”. As though to complete the tragi-farce, after she’d got off the train, a white man said to the carriage at large “The problem with this country is people like that”.
All of this happened in little more than a New York Minute. But as the lurid coverage from one of the city’s papers (albeit a particularly reactionary one) shows, the type of incident I witnessed is both shaping and reflecting a political narrative. It’s too early for me to interpret this accurately, but one thing seems clear. Hoisting the “law and order” flag is the new establishment strategy against the left.
Without belittling the impact on people who are victim to it (who, of course, are overwhelmingly poor and black), deadly violence in NYC today is nowhere near the scale of past times. The New York Post, itself, points this out. In 1990, the city recorded 2,245 murders, ten times the amount this year.
I was at the meeting with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to in the Post below. She attempted to put the relative spike in violent incidents in the context of deepening poverty and discrimination, but that’s not what some people want to hear. For example, the possible (there are now doubts about the count) new NYC Mayor, Eric Adams, has used the need for more policing as his main campaign demand. In effect, he is coat-tailing Trump, appealing to people’s fear and loathing and turning them against each other, to win political office and maintain the status quo.