Rachel Strauss’ daily commute to work runs through the T station in Harvard Square — the last place where the hospital research assistant expected to come face to face with two swastikas. She recently found the images scrawled in black ink on a bench where she usually plops her backpack and sips her coffee while awaiting the train.
There, next to the swastikas, the name of a neo-Nazi website appeared. “It was really quite shocking,” she said.
Hateful messages have become common companions for Massachusetts commuters, showing up on benches, scrawled across the back of bus seats, scribbled over subway signs. The amount of offensive graffiti reported to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is up sharply this year, with 24 cases recorded through the end of April, compared with 35 in all of 2016.
Offensive messages include racial, sexual, or hostile words or caricatures, or derogatory remarks against any person or group, according to the transit authority.
Public transportation provides fertile territory for such messages and those inclined to spew them, according to Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “It’s regularly densely packed at routine intervals, provides great exposure [for the message], and the ability to be relatively anonymous and escape,” he said.
The surge of hate aboard public transit is hardly unique to Massachusetts. More than 100 reports, including assaults, threats, and graffiti, have been recorded since last year’s presidential election from Seattle to New York by Documenting Hate, a consortium of news organizations tracking bias incidents and hate crimes.
A nationwide portrait of hate on the rails and the roads is difficult to compile because neither the American Public Transportation Association, a leading trade organization, nor the Federal Transit Administration track such episodes.
In Massachusetts, most of the hateful graffiti is scrawled by anonymous authors. When it is discovered, officials immediately notify Transit Police, according to T spokesman Joe Pesaturo. They isolate the car or bus, and remove it from service at the end of the line. It is kept in the yard until Transit Police respond and take pictures. The graffiti is removed once the Transit Police give the go-ahead.
Separately, the T also has recorded more aggressive acts, including assaults, with five such cases last year. So far in 2017, they’ve counted two.
The day before the presidential election, three 15-year-old girls allegedly harassed a woman on the Red Line, mocking her accent and telling her to “go back to [her] own country,” according to prosecutors.
When the woman attempted to leave her seat, the teens allegedly blocked her. One of them repeatedly punched and struck the commuter in the face with a cellphone, prosecutors said.
The woman’s face was swollen and bruised from the beating, prosecutors said. The three teens, charged with hate crimes, are due back in court next week, when a trial date will be set.
Other less violent acts often remain under the radar. But Transit Police Superintendent Richard Sullivan said the department makes it a priority to investigate every reported bias incident. Still, he acknowledged the reported numbers may not represent everything happening on trains.
“Is it possible that more incidents are happening and they’re not calling us?” Sullivan said. “Yes. I wish they would call us.”
Several T riders who have discovered hateful graffiti or witnessed aggressive bigots shared their experiences with Documenting Hate.
One of those commuters, a 26-year-old graduate student named Teri, said she did not call the T after she saw a man pull a pocket knife on a packed Red Line train and tell two Latino men to “speak English.” The knife-wielding man then turned toward a young Southeast Asian woman and yelled, “You are all leaving. This is my country, and you took my job,” Teri said in an interview, after she entered her account of the episode in the database.
Other riders mobilized, yelled at the man, and forced him off the train at Central Square, Teri said. She hasn’t witnessed anything similar since that November incident, but worries such behavior is now regarded as acceptable.
“It shocked me into thinking that this would be the way we interact now, and it was painful and disheartening,” she said. But Teri, who now regrets not contacting T officials, chose not to report the incident because no one was physically harmed
For Sarah Spofford, another regular Red Line rider, hate muscled its way into her evening commute via black ink scribbled across a subway map on a train car. “The real racists are the minorities!!! President Trump rules!!” the message read.
Spofford, an attorney, was upset to see that the message hadn’t been removed the next day, so she took pictures and filed a report online with the T in March.
“People have always been prejudiced; that’s never disappeared,” Spofford said. “The fact that it has sort of become acceptable in public spaces is troubling.”
Spofford said she never heard from the T, but several weeks later she saw the same graffiti again. Only this time, someone had used red ink to scratch out the offending message, and write below it, “Love Trumps Hate.”
Commuters who ride the bus have also been blasted by offensive messages, including bright-red graffiti tattooing the back of two seats on a bus headed from Cambridge to Watertown in January.
Someone had written a racial epithet, followed by two swastikas and the word “die.”
“I was going through my exhausted, normal, end-of-day routine, and this really slapped me in the face,” said Jam Murphy, a 39-year-old research administrator.
Instead of reporting the graffiti to the T through its customer service phone number or website, Murphy tweeted to the transit authority a picture of the slur.
The T tweeted back almost immediately, saying it would investigate and remove the graffiti.
Murphy said he was encouraged by the T’s quick response, but was unsettled by how big and bold the graffiti was.
“Everyone has to be ready to call this type of thing out,” Murphy said, “because if you are quiet, if you don’t speak out, you are allowing that violence to happen.”
Kay Lazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.