If you see something, say something. It’s the mantra we hear through speakers and read on signs whenever we ride the subway. The MTA campaign is part of a post-9/11 anti-terrorism initiative: if you see “suspicious activity,” report it.
The slogan is intended to keep an eye on potential terrorist activity, but it doesn’t apply to other types of suspicious behavior. Most of us have born witness to shady dealings underground. Public masturbation, verbal harassment, and scenes of what looked like abusive parents are a few that I’ve seen in the last couple of years. But when do we say something? At what point do we stop looking the other way and staying out of other people’s business?
The other day a friend told me about a subway ride more harrowing than any other I’ve heard yet. It was mid-morning on a weekday and she was taking the 3 train uptown. Sitting next to her was a young girl who was foreign, appeared to be twelve or thirteen, and looked, as my friend put it, “absolutely terrified.” On the other side of the girl was a middle-aged man who seemed to have a strange and controlling hold over her. “You could tell something was just really off.” A few minutes passed and the girl only kept looking more and more terrified. My friend wrote a note in her book and moved it close enough to the girl so that she could read it without the man realizing. “Are you okay?” The girl shook her head as her eyes grew wide with fear.
Out loud, my friend then asked where she was going. “Fulton Street.” “But that’s in the opposite direction.” Then the older man chimed in, “No. She’s going uptown, to 86th Street.” My friend’s heart was beating at this point. She was panicking. The situation looked like a clear instance of child prostitution, trafficking, or maybe both. How should she stop this, or could she?
My friend got off at the same subway station as initially planned. She went to the first police officer she could find and gave him the train number and subway car (she had written these down in her book). But the man and the girl were long gone and who knows where. She asked the police officer what else she should have done. Try to snap a quick photo on her phone of the suspected perpetrator and the young girl. Other than that, she did all she could.
Officer James Rudolph of NYPD Transit District 2 (which oversees the 1,2,3 trains, among others, in downtown Manhattan) thought otherwise. “The witness should right go to the conductor, ask for police assistance, and make sure the train doesn’t leave,” he told me. But should she have intervened on the train itself? “Every circumstance is different. But you’re not a crime fighter, that’s why you pay the police.”
I do wonder, however, where we cross the line in invading privacy in public spaces. My friend, the witness, saw something and said something, but didn’t say anything to the older man or to the other people on the train about what was happening. I don’t know if she should have or if that would have even helped. “I wanted to tell her she could just come with me and I’d take her to a safe place or something,” she said. “But I didn’t.”