Mean Streets

Mean Streets

Kelly Hurley was fatally injured at 7:20 a.m. on April 5, in broad daylight, at the intersection of 9th Street and First Avenue in the East Village. When police from the 9th Precinct arrived, the man who killed her was waiting for them with the tool he used to kill her. The man didn’t dispute that he’d killed her, and the laws he broke to do it are clear and unambiguous. But police didn’t arrest Hurley’s killer that day, and as of the time of this story’s publication, he remains a free man.

How To Kill Someone In NYC And Get Away With It, The Village Voice

Most of my writing here so far has been about policy and ideas. My thoughts on a lot of these issues have grown out of my personal interactions with folks in the city, with books and articles and Twitter folks who are thinking them through. That’s how I want my blog to be, generally – a place to think through, from a somewhat objective perspective, how urban and social policy impacts people choosing to live in cities. But how Kelly Hurley’s death has been dealt with and talked about over the past few weeks has been sitting heavily on me, and so I wanted to spend a few minutes today writing about that. Stories like Kelly’s are, in large part, why I care so much about all these transportation and policy issues. This, then, is a messy and unfocused and  angry lament on the death of a 31 year old woman caused by an indifference to safety on our streets.

It’s maybe a little unfair that this story has been weighing on me so much. In this city and in places around the world, acts of injustice far greater than this are committed every day. But we can’t dictate what brings out an emotional response, and this story has done so for me. Maybe it’s the fact that she died a block from my church, on a stretch of pavement I often bike. Maybe it’s because of how vulnerable I often feel on the road. Even with our robust network of bike lanes, even when Kelly was riding with a green light and a helmet and doing nothing wrong, this needless death happened just as they happen all the time in New York. I didn’t know Kelly – but I do know that I could have been hit just as easily. In less than a year biking I’ve been hit twice (they were both minor, mom, don’t worry). I also narrowly avoided crashing when a driver threw a full water bottle out their window at me for taking the full lane to get around a string of double-parked cars. I’ve learned that what seems trivial from a driver’s seat can seem like anything but to a cyclist.

As the Village Voice piece points out, Transportation Alternatives identified 38 cyclist and pedestrian fatalities last year in NYC in which the victim was explicitly not breaking any laws such as jay-walking or running reds. Of these 38 deaths in which the driver was entirely at fault, at least 13 drivers have gone uncharged. We hear excuses such as “she was so short I didn’t see her“, or “the sun was in my eyes“. I’m sure that these drivers feel awful about what they’ve done. But the fact of the matter is, their illegal actions resulted in death. Many police officers spend more time in cars than they do on bikes or on foot. They no doubt sympathize with drivers, knowing how easily one can be distracted behind the wheel. But when they give drivers a pass, the result is a legal system predicated on intentionality, not on outcomes. When drivers accidentally kill members of their community and are not charged with any crimes, we’re told that we will not be held responsible for our carelessness.

In a place like New York, where driving is such a stratified activity, the effects of this policy are especially pernicious. Roughly two thirds of city residents live in households without a car. The median income of car-owning households is double that of non-car-owning households. An already privileged set of citizens is given further privilege when they are not held accountable for their actions, accidental though they may be.

Of course, this isn’t anything new to many members of our society. Poor communities and communities of color routinely live under a system that is structured to their disadvantage. I’m a white, straight, cis, Christian male. Suffice it to say that I don’t often find myself operating under the assumption that any systems are set against me. A few weeks ago, the AP ran a story about a UCC minister in Boston who says that biking is, for her, a spiritual activity because of her radical vulnerability in traffic. She also says that, as a white woman, it allows her to participate in a system in which she is the direct recipient of injustice.

I understand where she’s coming from. For the first few days after the crash, the NYPD insisted that she fell off her bike, contradicting eye witnesses who explained that she intentionally dismounted in an attempt to avoid the truck that would kill her (the NYPD later walked back their false narrative). The day after Kelly was killed because of the driver’s illegal turn, police stood on the same corner and wrote tickets for bicycles for offenses such as not having a bell. I’m not the recipient of much injustice, but I’m sickened that the police actively promoted a narrative that her death was her fault – even though she was doing everything right. She played by the rules, forfeited her life, and is so far being denied justice.

I’m hesitant to take the analogy too far – I can, of course, stop biking any time I like. The fact that I live close enough to my office to bike is itself a manifestation of privilege. And, to be clear, there are transportation policies that have much more detrimental impacts on marginalized communities, such as the siting of freeways through poor neighborhoods. However, by choosing to participate in a community in which law enforcement actively assumes that any injury I sustain is my fault does give me some small peek into the experience of folks more marginalized than myself, and helps me to sympathize in a small way.

The streets are mean, and are unfairly distributed. Walk through any neighborhood in New York and marvel at the amount of public space given to the richest one-third of our residents. Take time to ponder why the NYPD ceaselessly gloats over confiscating the e-bikes of deliverymen and women (who are overwhelmingly low income and immigrants) in the name of safety, yet signals to drivers that breaking laws and killing people will result in no punishment. And maybe, you know, pull to the curb if you’re driving and the sun is in your eyes?

What do you think?

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