April 13, 2012

“[Expletive] the white man! [Expletive] the white man!”

The man’s yells reverberated through the Metrorail car, breaking the quiet typical of an early-morning ride. I turned down the music on my iPhone. What was that? “[Expletive] the white man!” he screamed again. My fellow Blue Line riders and I looked around uneasily. I couldn’t see the man, but I did note that I seemed to be one of very few white men in the car. Still, I brushed it off. It’s not unusual to encounter crazy behavior while riding Metro. Rarely do things turn serious. As the train arrived at L’Enfant Plaza, I briefly considered switching cars. I didn’t.

I should have.

What happened next is a blur. I remember hearing “Look me in the eyes!” Now the voice was close — too close. I turned. The man had squared up directly in front of me, his face level with mine. I met his rage-filled eyes the moment before he head-butted me. Then his right fist came around in a hook, connecting just above my cheek.

“What are you doing?” was all I could yell, rather lamely, as I shoved him away. He turned his punches toward another victim as other passengers came to our aid. One of them pulled the man’s jacket over his head in a hockey-like maneuver. A woman was pushing the emergency call button. Feeling stunned, I remember wondering: Why isn’t the conductor responding?

So began a series of critical failures by Metro to protect its passengers.

We arrived at the Smithsonian station. The doors opened, and I ran to the conductor. Did he know what was going on? I didn’t get an answer — or any acknowledgment at all, in fact — but he appeared to be talking to someone on his radio. I ran to the escalator to get the station manager, knowing I’d have to pass the car where the assailant had been. Was he still there? What if he had a gun? As I headed up, the train began pulling away as if nothing had happened. How could the conductor possibly know whether the offender had gotten off the train? The answer: He couldn’t.

Luckily, the man wasn’t still on board. As I reached the manager’s kiosk, the assailant jumped the exit gates. Other passengers and I pointed him out and yelled. Was the station manager calling the police? Was he doing anything? It was impossible to tell. So I ran to the outside escalator to get cellphone reception to call 911 myself. The dispatcher said I had to be transferred to Metro Transit Police. Seriously? Fine, I thought, as long as it means a cop will show up.

Fortunately, one did show up. Unfortunately, it was a full 15 minutes later.

In the meantime, my frustration with the Metro dispatcher grew as two other riders and I followed the assailant for blocks. In one minute, I had given her an exact location, the offender’s description and a full account of what had happened. But then five minutes passed. Then 10. Where are they? “Please be patient,” the dispatcher told me over and over. Meanwhile, the assailant was content to just sit and stare at us. He seemed likely to stay put, but again I wondered what would happen if he had a gun. Admittedly, we put ourselves in danger by following him, but who knew we’d be without backup for so long. We were playing babysitter for Metro.

Why couldn’t Metro coordinate with another agency that could respond more quickly? Later, after the man was finally arrested, I learned that the responding officer had to travel from Alexandria to our location near the Smithsonian stop; apparently no Metro police were in the area that Saturday morning. Presumably the dispatcher was aware of this. How could she not seek an alternative to a full 15-minute wait, especially after I pleaded with her to do so? It made me feel as if my emergency was laughably minor.

Metro gets a lot of flak — for long wait times, endless weekend track maintenance, surly employees. But these are insignificant compared to problems with safety and security. And I no longer feel safe on Metro. This is not because I believe Metro should have prevented an incident that was clearly beyond its control. Rather, it’s because Metro either didn’t have an effective response plan in place for my emergency or didn’t have employees competent enough to carry it out.

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