On Dec. 27, six teenagers from Coney Island traveled to Bensonhurst to have dinner at Burger King, using a gift card two of them had been awarded for their volunteer work. The free food capped off a fun day of basketball and tag.
But once the they entered the Bay Parkway subway station to head home, their day soured.
Immediately upon setting foot into the stop on 86th Street, the station attendant announced over the loud speaker that he needed police backup, according to 15-year-old Sincere Quinones.
“Us being worried and nervous about what could possibly happen, we asked him, ‘What happened, sir?’ And he said, ‘The cops are coming for you guys,’” Quinones said at a Jan. 11 press conference outside the station. “We said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because you guys were going’ — key word, ‘were going,’ — ‘to jump the turnstile.’”
The boys — who are between the ages of 12 and 17 and either Black or Latino — began arguing with the middle-aged attendant and insisted that they had money to pay for their fares, Quinones said. In a video recorded by one of the boys, the teenagers can be heard saying, “We got money, we have money.” Though the MTA worker can’t be heard, one boy shouts at him, “How did we assault you?” and the attendant mouths, “With your phone.”
The attendant then reportedly said, “All you guys can go, except for chino over there,” referring to 17-year-old Miguel Navarro, said Quinones.
All the boys were eventually allowed through, but they returned to Bay Parkway after realizing their train wasn’t running to Coney Island. While they were boarding a Coney Island-bound bus near the station, the cops who had reported to the scene stopped them and questioned them, Quinones said. The officers let the teens off the hook, but told them to “stay out of trouble.”
“They told us to say out of trouble like we basically did something,” said Quinones, who spoke while surrounded by the five other witnesses. “I don’t even know why they would say that.”
The incident comes as racial profiling has taken center stage in the national conversation about race and white entitlement. A white lawyer, Amy Cooper, made headlines in June for calling the cops on a Black bird watcher in Central Park after he asked her to put her dog on a leash. More recently, 22-year-old Miya Ponsetto attacked a 14-year-old Black boy who she wrongfully assumed had stolen her phone.
The incidents have spurred the New York State Assembly to revisit a 2018 bill introduced by former Sunset Park Assemblyman Félix Ortiz that would make falsely calling the police a potential hate crime. The bill, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo voiced support for, has not yet come for a vote.
At Monday’s presser, Coney Island Assemblywoman Mathylde Frontus tied the viral videos of racial profiling to the Bay Parkway incident, which she said had the potential for violence.
“Every time you make an assumption and you profile someone, you are one step closer to harming that person because it never ends well,” she said. “Because if I look at you and I assume that you’re a criminal, I become afraid and I end up acting out of fear.”
Frontus explained she had given the Burger King gift cards to two of the boys at a dinner event in December, where five of the six boys had been in attendance. The dinner honored the teens for helping their neighbor, Luz Lozada, deliver food to the homeless every Christmas.
Lozada, who was also at the press conference, said that she’s known the six boys since they were children. The kids grew up with her two sons in Coney Island Houses, a public housing complex on Coney Island’s west end, and offer to help her with her charity work every year.
“I don’t have to ask them to come around,” she told Brooklyn Paper. “These kids are sweet, loving, respectful children.”
Quinones’ father said his son was distraught when he got home after the encounter.
“My son came home shaking, screaming, and he just let me know nothing could be done about this,” said Victor Quinones. “All he wanted to do was go home. That’s all them boys wanted to do.”
Behind the speakers stood the boys — Quinones, Navarro, 16-year-old twins Justin and Jaleel Ubiles, 16-year-old Kawan Serrano, and 12-year-old Joaquine Knight.
Navarro — the only teenager to speak apart from Quinones — gave brief remarks about the incident.
“That was my first time experiencing that, and I feel like people that are young like us should not experience that,” he said.
Frontus, who alerted the MTA to the issue after Victor Quinones relayed the story to her, said that the boys will fill out MTA complaints and each plan to file a Title XI complaint alleging discrimination.
According to the MTA, the station attendant had been working with the transportation authority for about a year and a half and has no prior disciplinary history. The agency is investigating the incident and is developing a training course for employees about bias, a spokesman said.
“We are investigating this incident fully, and have been doing so since it was brought to our attention,” said Aaron Donovan. “Even prior to concluding our investigation, we have decided to use this situation as a teaching moment for all of our customer-facing personnel, by developing both refresher and new training content around bias. We are grateful to Assemblymember Frontus for her leadership on this issue.”
The employee will not be subject to discipline until the investigation is complete, the MTA said.