It took only a few hours for the death of Ryan Carson, stabbed before dawn in a random assault as he waited for a bus in Brooklyn, to become an indictment of his politics so vitriolic that it threatened to overwhelm the grief. In the view of his online adversaries, Mr. Carson, a 31-year-old progressive activist, died at the hands of his own misbegotten ideology — “brainwashed” into believing he could help the poor and wayward.
The morally vacant critics on what we used to know as Twitter were not alone in attacking him and the girlfriend who witnessed his murder. Writing in The American Conservative and attempting to claim a place on the frontiers of decency, Declan Leary offered that he would not “celebrate” Mr. Carson’s death, as others were doing. Still, he expressed the belief that Mr. Carson carried partial “blame” not just for what happened to him but also for the death of “countless others killed by the chaos he defended.”
If living in a world fractured by rage, reproval and misunderstanding seems dangerous, so does dying in one. Reduced to a leftist caricature (drawn largely from Mr. Carson’s posts on Twitter after the death of George Floyd), the realities of Mr. Carson’s life were obscured. He had not, in fact, devoted himself to antifa or abolition of the police but rather to quiet policy changes around solid waste. Friends and colleagues described him as a practical organizer with small-bore passions and big vision, an avid and fearless door-knocker, someone who could talk to anyone — rich housewives on Long Island, sanitation workers, legislators. He was a born persuader, a guy who would comfortably jump on a table and command a room, his charisma enabled, as one friend put it, by a voice like “a foghorn.”
For more than a decade, Mr. Carson had been working for the New York Public Interest Research Group, a 50-year-old nonpartisan organization committed to issues around environmental and consumer protection, government accountability and others that do not typically ignite extremist outrage. Most recently he had been rallying support in Albany for an expansion of the state’s 1982 bottle law that would allow for wine and liquor bottles to be recycled, while also raising the deposit from five cents to 10 on those already included in the legislation, to better incentivize returns. Blair Horner, NYPIRG’s executive director, told me Mr. Carson’s other great pursuit was “extended producer responsibility,” the unsexy effort to get manufacturers to reduce extraneous packaging.
“The underpinning of his beliefs,” Mr. Horner said, was that “‘small c’ catholic public service is what you’re supposed to do with your life.”
Mr. Carson was well known among young, impassioned people doing advocacy work in New York, many of whom had graduated from college into a recession and found themselves awakened by Occupy Wall Street. It was through that movement and the punk scene in Williamsburg that Mr. Carson, who loved music and played guitar, met Emily Gallagher, now a member of the New York State Assembly representing that part of Brooklyn. The two became good friends and Mr. Carson served as her unofficial guide to Albany when she was elected three years ago.
“Ryan dedicated himself to humble fights. Fighting about garbage is a humble and noble battle,” she told me. “He knew that the important things were going to take a long time. A lot of young activists who learn that a bill might take 10 years or 30 to pass, think: ‘What? Why am I doing this?’”
Outside of his NYPIRG work, Mr. Carson was drawn to the cause of preventing drug fatalities after a close friend died of an overdose. In the summer of 2021, he walked from New York City to Buffalo to raise awareness of the opioid crisis and call for harm reduction through the use of safe, monitored injection sites. Attention to the issue seemed to be fading, but by the end of the year, two sites had opened, one of them in East Harlem and the other in Washington Heights.
Beyond his activism, friends told me that Mr. Carson, an only child, was deeply dedicated to his parents, a mother who was a boat captain and a father who had served in the military and been deployed to Afghanistan when Ryan was 10.
When he left home in East Bridgewater, Mass., it was to go to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he studied writing, graduating with honors in 2014. Toward the end of his time there, he was involved in a group project that sought to figure out why students were not more politically engaged. The conclusion was that they were spread too thin and sleep-deprived, so the group placed blankets out on the campus green as an invitation to talk about well being.
“He came from a place of love and generosity of spirit which is so different from how it is being portrayed,” one of his professors, Caitlin Cahill said. “He had a gentle confidence.”
That manner allowed him to see the world with the complexity that eludes the trolls — people who look at anyone regarding violence as a symptom of broader social maladies and see only dim operatives of liberal fantasy, men and women who deserve what is bound to come to them in a big, lawless city in the middle of the night.
This week hundreds of people gathered to commemorate Mr. Carson’s life in suburban Boston, many of them coming from New York, shaken by the tragedy, the ugly reactions it provoked and the sense that somehow Mr. Carson’s death was ironic. Arriving at the wake, one friend found herself too distraught to go in and just stayed outside.
For the funeral the police stopped traffic. “As the extremely long, maybe 100-car parade drove along to the cemetery, passers-by stopped and did the sign of the cross,” Ms. Gallagher wrote me afterward. “It truly felt like a funeral for a senator. But it was just a young, lively and loving boy that everyone adored.”