NYC's Deputy Human Rights Commissioner says she was spat on by a menacing racist while riding the subway with her family last week, and that NYPD officers brushed her off when she tried to report the incident.
On Friday morning, Marissa Jackson was riding the 1 train in Manhattan when an irate man on the train began shouting the n-word at several black riders. Jackson said the man soon zeroed in on her, repeatedly calling her an "ugly n-gger bitch" as she tried her best to ignore him. She says he continued berating her for several minutes, then allegedly spit in her face and hair moments before fleeing the 1 train at the 50th Street station
The encounter was traumatic, Jackson said, and left her feeling "deeply violated and shocked" for hours afterward. But when she went to her local precinct on Saturday to report the assailant, she claims multiple police officers "tried to discourage me from filing, saying there was no point." She recalls being told by one officer: "If you do the report, we're not going to look at it. It's just going to sit here. You understand that, right?"
(Upon reflection, Jackson stressed that the officers were empathetic, if misguided.)
As reports of hate crimes and bias incidents have increased across the country, a growing body of evidence suggests police departments are struggling to adequately address the complaints—and may in some cases be outright ignoring them. But amid these alarming and increasingly commonplace stories, this particular incident stands out for another reason: Jackson is a top city government official charged with stamping out hate crimes and bias incidents across the city.
As Deputy Commissioner at the New York City Commission on Human Rights, Jackson was instrumental in formalizing the city's bias response platform, which is intended to streamline the process of reporting a bias incident to the police. Created in 2016 following a surge of reported hate crimes on public transit, the Bias Response Team's work has only become more urgent in the last two years, according to Jackson.
After he spit on me and left the train, nobody went after him. I screamed for someone to call the police or 911. Someone said it wasn’t necessary. A black woman brought me wipes and hand sanitizer. Everyone else stared and said they were sorry. One woman said I’d be fine.
— Marissa Jackson Sow (@MarissaEsque) November 30, 2018
"There's been a crazy uptick in bias incidents in New York City specifically, and I think across city government we're all just figuring out how to serve folks who are dealing with it," she told Gothamist, referencing multiple recent attacks, including the assault of an Orthodox Jewish man in Brooklyn this past weekend. "You're breathlessly trying to keep up with this hate, and each incident is more disgusting than the last."
She says her own attack was arguably a case of discriminatory harassment, as the assailant singled her out as a black woman—"a n-gger bitch," he said repeatedly—and appeared intent on causing harm. At the very least, it could be considered a bias incident (which, unlike hate crimes, don't necessarily include criminal activity) and a case of straightforward harassment.
Still, after waiting over an hour at the 44th precinct, Jackson says police officers repeatedly questioned why she would even want to file a report ("there's no point," one allegedly said.) Her response was that she wanted to have a record substantiating the incident, even if she didn't have much information about the attacker. Eventually, she was told to take it up with the transit police.
"I just felt super defeated by that," Jackson told Gothamist. "I felt confused by the process, like there really wasn't a lot of recourse for folks in my situation who are attacked by a stranger like this." She noted that her interaction with the transit cops was much more positive, and that they seemed to be taking it seriously as of Monday morning. A spokesperson for the NYPD did not return Gothamist's request for comment.
My brain is a scrambled mess right now and I'm still deep in my feelings about what happened to me this morning. but I already know that when I start to heal I'm going to make it my business to organize New Yorkers so this kind of thing stops happening to people.
— Marissa Jackson Sow (@MarissaEsque) December 1, 2018
Beyond her experience with the police, Jackson says the subway attack was an eye-opening window into the ways New Yorkers respond, or don't respond, to witnessing public harassment. She recalls that bystanders "gave her sympathetic stares, but no one tried to stop him," even as it became clear that the man was targeting her specifically. "I don't fault New Yorkers for this," she notes. "I think we need to learn how to become 'upstanders', to teach people how to do what someone else can't do."
There are a variety of things observers can do besides directly intervening, she said. In her own case, it would have been helpful if someone had videotaped the incident or noted the number of the subway car where it occurred, so that she'd have some additional info to give police officers when she attempted to file a report.
Following the attack, she says passengers were helpful, giving her hand sanitizer and wipes. But that sort of team effort would have been welcomed minutes earlier, when an intimidating man had been shouting racist and sexist slurs in front of a largely silent group."If everybody had stood up and shouted him down, he probably would have gone away," Jackson speculates.
Above all else, the Deputy Commissioner says she wants survivors of attacks to have access to a more efficient system of justice. "When you have been victimized, it can be hard enough to just get out of bed, much less explain your story over and over again only to be told there is nothing anyone can do, that you're in the wrong place, that you should come back," Jackson said.
"I can see how it discourages people from seeking justice in the first place. I feel inspired now to get a handle on the process—or what that process could or should be—so that we can better support people who have been victimized the way I was. When I get back to work, that will be at the top of my agenda."
Gothamist received this tip through ProPublica's Documenting Hate project.