Subway fight in viral video earns cheers for New York cop

Armed with only a baton, Syed Ali rescued a woman from five homeless men

By Michael Gold and Nicholas Kulish Michael Gold and Nicholas Kulish/NYTNS in New York
  • Published 27.12.18, 1:58 PM
  • Updated 27.12.18, 1:58 PM
  • 3 mins read
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Internet sensation Syed Ali, who does not use social media, did not know he had even been filmed. The New York Times

On late Sunday night, a scuffle broke out between a New York police officer and five homeless men at a subway station in Manhattan. The officer single-handedly fended off all five with just his feet and his baton.

The scene was captured on video by a bystander and shared on social media, where it was viewed hundreds of thousands of times. But the officer, Syed Ali, had no idea the video had gone viral.

Then, at 5 am on Monday, a fellow officer called Ali and asked him if he had seen himself online.

Ali, who does not use social media, did not know he had even been filmed.

“Holy cow, what the hell is this?” he said he thought to himself after watching the video.

Many in New York and elsewhere had similar reactions.

“What extraordinary professionalism and bravery by NYPD Officer Syed Ali,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Twitter on Tuesday. Bill Bratton, de Blasio’s former police commissioner, agreed. And Councilman Chaim M. Deutsch, D-Brooklyn, presented Ali with a certificate and thanked him for showing “restraint and discipline in how he de-escalated the situation.”

Ali said he remembered certain things about the encounter: the trickle of sweat that ran down his neck, and the tension he felt during it.

But Ali said he was glad it was filmed because it allowed him to reconstruct the episode.

“The tension and the adrenaline was at full throttle, where I couldn’t even tell you the details the video is showing,” he said. “It may have saved me. Officers get crucified for garbage sometimes.”

The episode began when a woman at the East Broadway subway station on the Lower East Side told Ali she was scared because a group of people were bothering her. He said he told the men to leave the station.

“That’s when I saw they started becoming a little aggressive, more combative,” he said. “The video kind of shows what happened after that.”

As the men approached him, Ali repeatedly told them to stay back. Ali kicked one man to the ground who had gotten too close. That man got back up and started throwing punches. Ali responded with his baton. Then the other men began to approach him.

A bystander helped separate Ali from his assailants. But then another man broke through the informal barricade and lunged at Ali. The man tripped over his own leg, stumbled and fell onto the tracks.

Ali remembered calling to have the power shut off to the third rail after the man fell onto the tracks. (Even as the men were attacking him, Ali said, he was worried about their safety.)

But many other details caught on the video were lost to him in the fog of adrenaline.

“Looking at the video now from the outside, I’m like, ‘Whoa, that was a pretty ugly situation,’” he said.

The video was not the first time Ali had gotten noticed online. He had achieved a small measure of attention after Customs and Border Protection detained him at Kennedy Airport in the early months of the Trump administration, even though he was a citizen, a New York police officer and a combat veteran who had spent two years in Kuwait.

Ali credited that military training with helping him maintain his cool when the group of men were coming at him. He said he never even considered drawing his gun, because he didn’t think the situation called for it.

“We’ve been taught to properly use a piece of equipment based on the situation,” he said.

Two of the men, Eliseo Alvarez, 36, and Juan Nunez, 27, were arrested on Wednesday night and charged with riot and obstructing governmental administration, the New York Police Department said. Alvarez was also charged with attempted assault, attempted criminal possession of a weapon and menacing.

A third man involved in the episode will also be charged, the New York Police Department said in a statement on Wednesday.

After the attack on Sunday night, the men, who were highly intoxicated, were taken to a hospital, treated and released, the department said. They were not initially charged in connection with the attack but were arrested the next day when officers observed them sleeping in the subway station.

At the time of the arrests, the district attorney’s office was not aware they were also connected to the attack in the video, the police department said.

c.2018 New York Times News Service