By Andrea Pineda-Salgado

During the early days of the pandemic, the subways were almost unrecognizable. Gone were the shoulder-to-shoulder rush hour crowds. The cars instead were barren — and clean. When New Yorkers began to emerge from the lockdown, they were amazed and hopeful the subway would retain a bit of what those who were kept commuting came to appreciate. However, in a few short months, the subway has regressed into a rat-ridden, overcrowded and oft-delayed way of getting around. More troubling than those inconveniences is the rise in violence on the subway and platforms. In a meeting last month, the NYPD Data showed that in 2021, 461 commuters reported assault on the train or subway platform, up 27% from 2020, when only 361 commuters reported assault. Out of the 461 reports of assault last year, 30 of these involved being pushed onto the subway tracks.

Last month, Mayor Eric Adams released his Subway Safety Plan to let New Yorkers know his administration is trying to address the issues. However, while New Yorkers wait to see the results of the plan’s implementation, which includes deploying more homeless outreach teams to high need stations across the city, more training for NYPD to enforce MTA rules of conduct and even requiring — instead of requesting — everyone to leave the train at the end of the line, they continue to stay alert and protect themselves in any way they can. Epicenter’s Andrea Pineda-Salgado spoke with Christian Montes, who is the co-founder and head instructor at Ronin Athletics in New York City where he teaches martial arts and a women’s self-defense class. He says the gym has seen a rise in class attendees because of the recent spike in subway violence.


 
Canal Street Station entry. Photo: Jon Tyson

“We’re seeing a lot more Asian women coming in. We’ve had nurses contact us and groups of friends tell us that they’ve had instances where they were attacked. It’s not just limited to one particular demographic, there is an overall sense that the city, and the subways especially, have become a little bit more dangerous and there’s a little bit more crime becoming prominent,” he says.

So how can people stay safe in the subway? Here are Montes’ tips:

  • Stay alert but don’t overdo it. “We teach a concept in one of our programs and our women-empowered program, called the triangle improvisation, and this helps us put awareness into the right context. What we mean by triangle improvisation is that for there to be an assault or a crime, there needs to be three things in place. There needs to be a perpetrator, a target and an opportunity. If those three things are present, then we can turn on a certain level of awareness,” he says.

“Just having these little pockets of awareness for certain situations is helpful to acknowledge what’s going to happen and when it could potentially happen. But at the same time, it’s not healthy to live in a constant state of hyper-awareness, there must be a balance,” he says.

  • Remember: Whoever manages the distance manages the damage done. “This means if somebody is trying to punch you or strike with a hammer and you stay within an arm’s length of them because maybe you’re frozen or you’re in shock or you don’t know what else to do, then you are in range for them to hurt you,” says Montes. “Whereas if you run then you’re not. If you’re not able to run—which is what most people feel—you have to come forward and you have to engage by smothering in some way, which is what we teach in jiu jitsu. So this way, you’re too close to the attacker for them to do a significant amount of damage.”
  • Don’t risk your life for replaceable items. “If someone is approaching you with a weapon [like a gun] and they want something replaceable or material like your phone or your necklace, if it’s something replaceable, give it to them. There’s a natural indignation that you are suffering an injustice. There may be that feeling that you should use your self-defense training to protect your property but at the end of the day, if someone is desperate enough to attack you with a weapon and you don’t want to risk your life for something replaceable,” he says. “With a knife, even though it can be just as dangerous. There is a chance you can control the weapon. You can create a situation where you’re smothering them even for the moment until you can get to safety. I think that’s probably the best you can do in terms of a general piece of advice when it comes to physical assault.”

Standing back from track. Photo: Tim Hufner
 

  • Make it difficult to be pushed. “We teach a very simple concept, which is where you acquire ‘base’—‘push and pull base.’ When you find yourself in a [scenario where you are being pushed] you must drop your center of gravity and position yourself in such a way that you can render it into the ground,” he says. “It’s a very common thing that we show in our free workshops and seminars. It’s one of the first lessons we teach because it’s a very simple body positioning that you would adopt to make yourself harder to move.”

Montes urges New Yorkers, especially women, to take a self-defense class. There, people will be able to learn everything at their own pace and ask questions.

“We want people who want to learn and help them learn these skills at their own pace. Even with the basics. In class, we had one of the ladies mention the incident of someone being pushed into the subway tracks, and she was [scared because she was a] smaller woman. [Those things] are a part of our curriculum already. So even just basic knowledge, just a few weeks or months of training, goes a long way. Just having the right mindset can prepare you for a situation as we see in the news these days,” he says. 

You can sign up for a self-defense class via the Ronin Athletics website. Visit its site to sign up for other classes such as kickboxing and other martial arts.

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