Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
I travel around Toronto by public transit not because I’m an eco-friendly saint, but because it’s what I can comfortably afford and what I know. I grew up in Manhattan, without a car, and only got a licence at 29. But I also see statistics about car accidents and believe it’s safer to avoid those. I regularly bring my one- and four-year-olds on transit-requiring outings around the city. We’re fortunate in all the things this allows us to do: the Art Gallery of Ontario, Riverdale Farm, not to mention the inherently more exciting playgrounds in other neighbourhoods.
This means I’m quickly becoming an expert in discreetly dodging dangerous-seeming situations with kids in tow, but as the tragic killing of 16-year-old Gabriel Magalhaes at Keele Station reminds, that’s not always enough.
Something struck me when I was reading the coverage of the incident. One outlet described the accused as “a 22-year-old man experiencing homelessness.” I thought about the level of (surface) sensitivity our current moment has to certain forms of difficulty, paired with its callous indifference to others.
What we’re looking at is not a city that is too gentle towards the most destitute. Hardly. Rather, we’re witnessing the messy class politics of transit ridership in Toronto. There are a few moving parts here, all of which are necessary to keep in one’s mind at the same time if one is to make sense of this mess.
If you’re relatively well-off, in Toronto, you drive. The city is laid out in a way that makes driving more appealing than riding transit, or at least seems as if it would, if you don’t factor in traffic and parking challenges. That, and there’s an entrenched sense – at least compared to New York, I’ve found – that only shabby people ride the bus. If you’re on the TTC, by and large, it’s for lack of other options.
What this means is that there is a big swath of Toronto for whom the goings-on on subway platforms or in packed buses are, at most, an abstract concern, or at least not a regular occurrence. The well-meaning people putting up anti-policing yard signs are, often but not always, the ones hopping into a car. Their commitment to the eco lifestyle extends to patronizing farmer’s markets, not to slumming it on the streetcar.
Amongst the city’s influential or potentially influential haves, homelessness is a cause. As well it should be. But what seems to have happened is, the people riding public transit because it’s the only way they can afford to get to their low-paid jobs are quite simply not tragic enough to count. Everything gets funneled through an Oppression Olympics framework, wherein the biggest victim is the only one whose troubles get taken seriously. And next to someone with untreated mental illness, the one who’s merely on the subway for hours, travelling between an extortionate rental apartment and a janitor job, is practically a prince.
That, or a privilege hierarchy, serves a convenient pretext for doing what powers-that-be are inclined to do regardless: not much. A brief experiment with increased funding for police on transit does not appear to have made a tremendous difference. Whether that’s because what we really need is a world without policing, or because the effort was never ambitious enough, is unclear. A society whose most troubled people had access to the help they needed would doubtless be a better one, but the in-the-moment answer is probably going to involve calling a cop and not a social worker.
In the last couple of years, there have been numerous murders and assaults on the TTC. Horror stories involving syringes, stabbings, and people being pushed in front of trains. That’s not even including the more mundane occurrences like needing to step around crack vials, and their owner, to change subway platforms. I’m someone who commuted to high school by subway. I have not historically found public transit terrifying, but now I literally scan each subway platform I’m on, to see if anyone looks like they’re in search of someone to shove.
I was recently on an Ossington bus when a man, who did not seem all there, tried to board with his anatomy exposed. The driver told him no, and kept saying that the cops had been called. The man boarded regardless, unnerving the passengers. Eventually, before cops showed up (assuming this was ever in the cards), the man, for whatever reason, changed his mind and exited. While there were complaints amongst my fellow riders that day, I will say that over-policing was not among them.