During the morning rush hour on April 12th, an individual, after putting on a gas mask, set off one or two smoke canisters in a subway car on the Manhattan-bound N line just outside the 36th Street station in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. He then fired 33 shots from an automatic handgun at passengers. (According to one account, the train was delayed from entering the station because another train was stopped in the station, presumably allowing the shooter more time to fire). The car rapidly filled with smoke and blood splattered on the walls, seats and floor. The doors opened and riders rushed out. Some tried to help the wounded in the car and on the platform. Remarkably, no one died. But ten were shot, including 3 teenagers, some seriously. Thirteen others suffered from smoke inhalation, falls or panic attacks. It was, by all accounts, a terrifying event.
The terror almost happened close to home! Our two oldest granddaughters, thirteen-year-old cousins, attend middle school in Sunset Park. Each morning, they take a Manhattan-bound F train to 9th Street & Fourth Avenue and then transfer to a local Brooklyn-bound R train to go to the 36th Street station. The school is just a few blocks further on. They travel together, usually with another friend. Over the last two years, they have become relaxed about using the subway—so much so that when one or the other has to travel alone, it’s no big deal. Contrary to probably lots of popular conceptions (even within New York City), the subways typically carry thousands of young children safely travelling on their own every school day. Ultimately, the assault on April 12th potentially posed a threat to all those kids.
The girls had gotten off the subway about ten minutes before the chaos exploded. After they got to school, the staff was ordered to “shelter in place”—meaning no one could come in and no one could leave. While their parents were able to confirm that the girls were OK, they weren’t able to talk to them until the end of the day. in the meantime, the parents were left to worry about what their daughters were thinking and feeling. Shortly afterwards, all of the schools in District 15, encompassing more than a half dozen neighborhoods, were also ordered to “shelter in place”. Across a broad section of Brooklyn, people were confused and scared.
The streets and avenues around the school were quickly filled with police cars and emergency vehicles; traffic was blocked in all directions. As is typical in these kinds of situations, hundreds of cops, in uniforms and plain clothes (some equipped with automatic rifles, flak jackets and military helmets) suddenly appeared as if they had been waiting off-stage and then spent hours mostly doing nothing in small and large groups, walking back and forth and talking on their cell phones. Whatever they were doing, it was certainly a lot safer than actually trying to catch the bad guy. As more than a few have observed, they all seemed to be completely useless.
But they were doing something, After a cop has shot someone or after a cop has been shot, the quick assemblies of large numbers of cops at the scene are designed to send a message. The intended message is pretty obvious—they are united and they are strong. But maybe, just maybe, the real message is a different one—maybe it’s that the cops are scared and the only way they can stop being scared is by being together. The media images turn reality into its opposite.
The gunman left a lot of evidence in the subway car—a credit card, a key to a rental van, a gun, and some additional smoke cannisters. So much stuff that you might think he was asking to be found! The police were able to use the things they found to piece together an initial identification of 62-year-old Frank James, calling him “a person of interest,” and to track down the truck he had rented—parked a few blocks from the Kings Highway station on the N train (about five miles from the shooting scene). That led them to photographs of James that they used to search through the footage of hundreds of surveillance cameras in the subway system and on the streets. Eventually, the video documentation of the events also included lots of images recorded on phones—especially after the FBI urged everyone to send in whatever they had.
The cameras revealed that James had entered the subway system at around 8 AM at that Kings Highway station. He was wearing what looked like an MTA jacket, carrying a helmet and pulling a small shopping cart. He went into action just before 8:30. Video also showed that, when the N trains stopped and its doors opened, he ran across the platform and got onto an R train which had entered the station a minute later. That train all but immediately left the station. Before the video footage was reviewed and released, the operators of the R train received accolades because it seemed that the train had taken people away from danger. It was also transporting at least one seriously injured victim. Little did anyone know that the train was carrying the man responsible for the danger. The crew probably still deserved some high-fives.
Subsequent accounts captured something about the responses of those who were caught in the crossfires. A man, who had been sitting next to James and who was shot in the back of his knee, was in serious pain the next day after surgery. He said: “I feel shocked; I feel shaky; I don’t know if I can ever ride a train.” Another rider, who witnessed the shooting up close, said: “I started running. He aims at me first. I got lucky. The bullet went through my pants.” He tried to get into the next car but wasn’t able to open the door. When the doors opened, he shouted to other riders to cross over to the local train. A high school freshman who was on the R train said that when the doors opened, the conductor urged people on the platform to get on. “I didn’t know what was happening. There was just panic, and everyone started to get crowded onto the R train. I was just scared.”
Mr. James exited the train at 25th Street, the next stop, a few minutes later. Another video showed that he entered a subway station on the F train line about a mile away at around 9:15 AM, presumably having walked between the two stations. The shooter knew his subway lines. Soon afterwards, the police department put photographs of his face on TV and social media. And then they waited for the rain to fall. It didn’t. They had no idea where he was for more than twenty-four hours. For all practical purposes, they didn’t know where to look. According to reports, they seem to have looked anywhere and everywhere. But they failed to find him.
The cops did find YouTube videos that Frank James had been openly promoting for years. James often appeared to be a very embittered man—perhaps with understandable reasons. He expressed more than a few rather bizarre ideas, combining anti-white, black nationalist, anti-black and anti-immigrant themes. There is no coherence in what he said. But he also occasionally had some insights into complex realities. In a YouTube video posted in January, James mocked Mayor Adams’s pledge to stop subway crime. He insisted: “He may slow it down but he ain’t stopping it. That means you’d have to have police in every station and that’s just not possible.” His assault on the morning of April 12th provided convincing confirmation of the claim. Maybe the assault was intended to prove his point.
At the end of the school day on the 12th, one of our sons-in-law walked a couple of miles to avoid the traffic blockages and picked up our two granddaughters at school. Somewhat amazingly, they seemed fine. They were able to get a lift back home from another parent who had completed a complicated drive-around to get close to the school. In spite of their quite sophisticated views about many things, my impression is that the two girls didn’t really understand how worried their parents had been. Truth be told, after a certain moment in my childhood, probably the most frequent words I spoke to my mother were: “Don’t worry!” As if you can turn off parents’ worry instinct!
Meanwhile, the shooter seemed to be almost enjoying his return to New York, the city of his birth, after having lived in Milwaukee and Philadelphia. He went to Chinatown; he went to the famous Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side. He spent the night at a hostel in Chelsea, near midtown Manhattan.
In the middle of the morning on the 13th, as they say on the cop shows, the police “caught a break”. At around 10:30, a high school student saw James outside a restaurant in Chinatown, apparently charging his phone at one of the city-provided stations, and tweeted the Crime Stoppers hotline. James saw his photograph being flashed around and called in a tip of his own about being in a McDonald’s on the Lower East Side—most likely to avoid being shot down in a charged moment. The police department dispatched several units to the scene. In the meantime, James had started walking but was noticed by three men working in a nearby hardware store. They tipped off the cops who, after a bit of searching the neighborhood, found him. He surrendered “without incident” and was charged with violating a federal anti-terrorism statute.
Within days, those who had helped the police were celebrated at an official ceremony and with headlines in the local papers. They included a high school student and three immigrants to the US. Days after the celebration, cold reality set in. A woman from Mexico, who had not been at the ceremony, had volunteered her phone to the police to help them identify the shooter. She had an outstanding deportation order. The three men who had been working at the hardware store all had immigration problems of various sorts. It seems as if the actions of all of them might well backfire. In a classic reversal of fortune, those who stepped forward became those who might suffer.
In an early anticipation of what the police would have to say, Commissioner Keechant Sewell tweeted. “Frank Robert James had nowhere else to run or hide—and is now in NYPD custody. The work of our detectives is second to none and the dedication of our patrol officers is never ending.”
This claim came from the head of a police department that only “clears” (meaning that it makes an arrest) for a relatively small number of the crimes that torture the city’s poor and working-class communities on a daily basis. The published report for “Clearances of Uniform Crime Reporting Categories” for the first quarter of 2022 indicated that only 29.7% of cases had been cleared. On the bright side, however, the report also indicated that 110% of the murder cases in Manhattan and 200% of those in Staten Island had been cleared. These statistical impossibilities may well be the product of Mayor Adams’s new math—”The more I huff and puff about how ‘tough’ I am on crime, the more people will think that my ‘toughness’ is working.” Good luck with that, Jack! Even if the police have arrested a lot of murder suspects, given the NYPD’s track record, it’s fair to assume that a significant percentage of those arrests will turn out to be bogus and that individuals convicted of the murders will eventually receive exoneration and compensation years down the road.
At a late afternoon news conference, a parade of representatives from the NYPD, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) and the Joint Terrorism Task Force celebrated their successful manhunt, thanked each other and, of course, thanked the public for its help in solving the case. As is usual during these shows, it was more advertisement than news. Later, the master showman himself, the mayor, broadcast a message from the confines of his COVID quarantine at Gracie Mansion. The news conference and the mayor’s message were all crafted to follow a well-established script. Because the show following the script is so often repeated, it begins to seem like reality. But reality is different.
The apprehension of the suspect was not the result of police investigative work. It was simply the result of the pervasive presence of cameras in the subways and on streets, along with cameras in virtually everyone’s hand. Videos could tell part of the story after the fact but could do little to provide guidance for effective time-sensitive actions to find Mr. James, let alone to prevent the assault in the first place.
Eric Adams’ law and order campaign was based in large part on his appeal to many voters’ understandable preoccupation with the toll of violent crime. His “tough on crime” strategies can be reduced to more aggressive policing, more arrests, more jail time and more prison time, along with some window dressing promises to make schools better, improve mental health, get the homeless into housing and, an old stand-by, give summer jobs to thousands of teenagers. The whole package is based on a profoundly shallow understanding of the complex realities of criminal activity. Not so surprising coming from someone who was a cop for twenty years! His supporters will eventually be terribly disappointed.
There is no real solution to crime or mass violence outside a political transformation of the existing state of affairs. Such a transformation seems to be beyond reasonable belief at the current moment. So, we’ll just have to live with crime and mass violence—until we’re not!
Miserable circumstances, left to fester, tend to lead to responses that do little to alleviate misery and, often enough, make it worse—hard as that is to imagine. It’s also hard to imagine that an individual as battered as Frank James appears to have been might ever recover a different sense of what he might do. Nevertheless, in these pretty dark hours, locally and internationally, it might be worth giving imagination a chance.