The Subway Diaries Part Deux: Mental Health and Human Rights

ImageNew York City is home to a whole lot of crazy. I mean that in the most literal sense of the word. I’ve been randomly insulted while waiting for the train by a man who came from some little nook between platforms holding a pizza box – “Why are ugly girls always so fucking insecure?” he shouted in my ear; shushed, for speaking too loudly – the average MTA worker goes into early retirement due to having become legally deaf: that is how loud New York subways are – on the subway while a woman covered in what can only be described as a paper blanket tried to take a nap with her beau in a two-seater; glared at weirdly while some man who had just previously entered the subway screaming touched himself; seen people talk to themselves out loud for as long as 45 minutes. The list is never ending, really.

The average New Yorker reaction, you ask? Shrugging and a whole lot of nothing. “That’s New York for ya”, said the person who was with me when the subway pizza man started screaming at me. It’s almost as if people understood that without the stability offered by having a home, or a support system or whatever it is, losing one’s shit in this city is a perfectly logical consequence. And I’m starting to see things that way too.

I imagine a world where I had to cope with the harsh realities of this city without being able to retreat back to my house with my loving boyfriend and cute cats and it seems fairly plausible that I would be depressed. Don’t get me wrong, living in New York is quite possibly the best decision I could have ever made. But I would be lying if I said living in this city is anything like being hugged by a teddy bear covered in fabric softener. In 2012, when I came to New York by myself for the first time – I’d been here in great company twice before – I left the city with a couple of sobering experiences regarding the social isolation you can feel in a place so filled with other humans who in their turn seem to be having some kind of staring competition with the floor as to avoid eye contact. It was harsh. But it did sort of prepare me for this move, so it was an enriching experience. The point, however, is that I get that even for a relatively mentally stable person such as myself, New York can mess you up.

I watch Law and Order SVU – which has recently been problematized as a spectacle of violence against women, as the murders/rapes add little to the actual story line aside from shock value. Also, the high resolution rate of cases gives women the wrong impression that they’ll be taken seriously as opposed to being asked what they were wearing or whether they were drinking when they ask for police help. And I get all of that, but rapists make the perfect villains and, even if rather unrealistic, I will keep being entertained by the show for the time being – which, of all possible fears, has instilled in me what I had until recently believed was the exaggerated fear that I would be shoved in front of a subway car by a lunatic. I have always stayed way behind the yellow line, begging those who were with me to do the same. I’ve shook my head at teenagers joking around near the edge and held my breath as trains arrived at the station. All of that because of an episode where a guy went on a murdering frenzy throwing unsuspecting people in front of subway cars.

Okay. But that’s TV, right? Well, yes and no. This may be, in the grand scheme of things, exceptional. But it happens. Just last month, a homeless man intentionally shoved a student in front of a Metro-North train – a line that connects commuter cities in Connecticut to New York City – after an unsuccessful interaction asking for money. Now, I’ll admit that when pizza crazy started shouting at me, my instinct was to give him some sort of reaction. Until, of course, I remembered this woman’s story and realized I was in the perfect position to be shoved in front of a train. So I did nothing. And decided to search deep inside myself for ways to keep my cool.

The news surrounding this poor woman’s fate – she broke both legs but apparently miraculously did not die – spread quickly. The comments section of each of the articles was just awful. Really, quite cruel. From wishing death upon the single man to horrifying generalizations about the homeless population as a whole. It became clear to me that extreme poverty is in America, at least to a few reactionary internet anonymous folk, the same issue that it is in Brazil. I’ll explain. Every other comment was about how “mental health advocates” would soon start flooding the comments and relativizing the situation, attributing the case to the country’s poor treatment of mental health issues, in particular of veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. When I spent a summer in Washington two years ago, I had heard from many people that a great deal of the city’s homeless were war veterans who couldn’t adapt to civilian life after having been made to kill civilians in other parts of the world. Whether that’s really as common as layman’s narratives will have you believe, I don’t know. But it seems very plausible. In a time where Rikers Island prison is where a lot of New York City’s mentally ill poor end up, for lack of a better system to aid their situation, the “mental health advocates” have a pretty solid point. Except that this narrative is, of course, reasonable and humane. And many “nice” middle class folk don’t want humane solutions to human problems.

About a week ago, a video started circulating the internet where an undercover police officer in Brazil gets mugged at gunpoint on his motorcycle. Having two uncles and a cousin who are motorcycle aficionados in São Paulo, I know very well that this happens. It turns out you’re more vulnerable to petty crime on top of a vehicle than inside one. Who would have thought? The video ends with another police officer shooting one of the men who stole the police officer’s wallet. Taking matters into his own hands, with no trial, no judicial procedure at all. Lucky for the man in question the shots weren’t lethal. But you hear quite a few of them and I’m willing to bet this police officer would have just as well killed the man. In my network, the video started being circulated by middle-and-upper-middle-class Brazilian professionals who were praising the police for “doing justice” and stating that “if only this happened every time, this country would be better off”. First of all: newsflash. This is exactly what happens all the fucking time. There’s practically an ethnic/social class cleansing going on in Brazil in the name of “pacifying” the favelas. So yeah, this type of “justice” is done all the time. And surprise, surprise: violence only leads to more violence.

The thing that was infuriating wasn’t just that I knew these psychotic idiots who have lost all sense of the value of human life. It was that two of these idiots were doctors and one was a lawyer! And none of them were anonymous. They weren’t ashamed of having no compassion or no sense of what real justice should look like. Their comments bared resemblance to those of anonymous New Yorkers: “it’s a good thing they didn’t shoot him in the head or the human rights crowd would eat this up”. Newsflash number two: just randomly shooting at someone who committed a petty crime is a human rights issue.

The concluding thought of this post is that I see, in societies where certain social issues aren’t addressed in a reasonable and humane way by their governing forces, a common pattern of apathy. And whether this apathy is directed at the mentally ill poor or at the socially marginalized poor, I would argue it is one and the same. I know first-hand that feeling threatened is one of those truly difficult things about living in a densely populated and unequal city. It can be scary and traumatizing to be the victim of violence, be it at gunpoint or simply verbal – and many long-term urban dwellers of such cities will tell you that they’ve experienced both.

Yet so long as we coexist with these inequalities silently, or demand repression and punishment for their inevitable consequences, I say we’re just as much to blame for their existence.

  1. Agnes said:

    Great text! I’ll share it.

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