TOM LEONARD: Why experts fear a vile TikTok challenge is behind young women being targeted in a spate of random sucker punch attacks on New York’s streets

It was only Gizem Sirmali’s third day in New York City, ‘living the dream’, as she told herself, on a two-month scholarship programme with a top marketing company.

But as the 27-year-old content creator from Munich was walking around the trendy SoHo neighbourhood of Manhattan near her office and taking photos for a project, the dream ended abruptly.

Instead, she became a statistic in a deeply disturbing criminal trend in the Big Apple.

Out of the blue, a complete stranger walked up to her and hit her in the face as he passed. The blow, which she describes as a ‘very hard slap’ near her eye, that she believes would have broken her nose had she not been wearing sunglasses, made her freeze in shock and terror. 

Gizem told the Mail she had been so focused on looking at her mobile phone that she never saw her attacker’s face and, scared that she might be hit again, she didn’t turn around to look at him but just kept walking.

On her third day in New York, a complete stranger walked up to Gizem Sirmali and hit her in the face as he passed

Hollywood actor Steve Buscemi, 66, was left bruised and bloodied after he was punched in the face in one of the latest random attacks on a Kips Bay street in New York

Hollywood actor Steve Buscemi, 66, was left bruised and bloodied after he was punched in the face in one of the latest random attacks on a Kips Bay street in New York

Turkish-born Gizem said she knew of the stories about New York’s notorious subway — for instance, that you didn’t stand too close to the tracks in case someone pushed you from behind — but she had no idea she wouldn’t be safe on a busy street just after lunch on a weekday February afternoon.

‘I got so scared. I just kept walking really fast to my office like nothing had happened,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know whether this person wanted to come and hit me again, or take my phone or whatever . . . I was just in shock.’

It was only after she’d got back to the safety of her office and horrified colleagues were applying ice to her battered face that the full impact of what had just happened finally sank in and she burst into tears.

Gizem — whose face was bruised for days afterwards — didn’t report the assault to police but, considering it would be ‘more effective’, recorded a video describing her ordeal on the social media site TikTok and asked: ‘Is this part of NYC life?’.

To which, some said, yes, it was. She was astonished to discover she was far from alone in being assaulted in this way.

A string of other women chimed in to say they had also been attacked by men completely at random and punched or slapped in the face on a supposedly safe Manhattan street.

Although young women appear to have been the main victims of this baffling trend, celebrities are also apparently being targeted.

Acclaimed actor Steve Buscemi was left with a bruised and bleeding eye after being attacked while out walking in Midtown Manhattan earlier this month.

The Brooklyn-born Golden Globe and Emmy-winning star was ‘sucker-punched’ and knocked to the ground by a single blow from a bearded man, who was captured on security cameras pacing around and talking to himself before the attack.

Buscemi’s publicist confirmed the former New York fireman, whose films include Fargo, Reservoir Dogs and the TV drama series Boardwalk Empire was ‘another victim of a random act of violence in the city’. Astonishingly, he wasn’t even the first Boardwalk Empire actor to be attacked. A month earlier, actor Michael Stuhlbarg was hit in the back of the neck with a rock by a homeless man near Central Park.

His assailant Xavier Israel had been convicted in 2022 for beating up and stealing the wallet of a Good Samaritan, a man who had actually given him his coat as he sat on the street begging.

The steady stream of random attacks, without warning let alone provocation, but often caught on CCTV cameras, has set the city on edge.

One feature of the attacks is that theft does not seem to be a motive — mobile phones, wallets, handbags and other valuable items are seldom stolen. And many are baffled by this unsettling wave of arbitrary violence.

Some experts blame inadequate health services in the city, for many of the assailants are mentally disturbed. Even if held after such an incident and taken to hospital, attackers are often back on the streets in days or even hours after being given inadequate medical treatment.

Critics complain, meanwhile, that New York’s ‘broken’ justice system is failing to bring suspects to book. Former NYPD chief Kenneth Corey, now a crime expert at the University of Chicago, told the Mail that due to a shortage of staff in prosecutors’ offices and recent legal reforms designed to reduce America’s vast prison population, 82 per cent of misdemeanour offences in New York state are ‘dismissed outright’.

Suspects are also mostly freed immediately without bail — a controversial reform introduced by Manhattan’s Left-wing District Attorney Alvin Bragg in order that the poor and disadvantaged are not penalised.

‘So for these people running around punching women there’s no consequences,’ said Mr Corey. ‘Even if they’re caught, all they suffer is a couple of hours spent in a police station, then they’re released and they never have to account for it.’

Halley McGookin was sending an email on her phone while in Manhattan when a man with a dog walked up to her and punched her in the face

Halley McGookin was sending an email on her phone while in Manhattan when a man with a dog walked up to her and punched her in the face

Mr Corey said some of the attacks — particularly those on women — could be a form of TikTok challenge. Others believe they could be linked to a so-called ‘knockout game’, where people are encouraged to punch strangers, ideally knocking them unconscious with a single blow, so the footage can be shared on social media. But evidence of such a game has yet to emerge.

Whatever the case, a disproportionate number of those targeted have been young, attractive women, walking in affluent New York areas in Downtown and Midtown Manhattan.

Halley McGookin, a 23-year-old social media influencer, with more than a million followers, was sending an email on her phone while in Manhattan when a man with a dog walked up to her and punched her in the face, knocking her to the ground. He then screamed at her.

A tearful video in which McGookin pulled back her hair to show the welt on her forehead, has been watched more than 40 million times on TikTok. ‘Oh my God, it hurts so bad, I can’t even talk,’ she says just minutes after being struck.

Other women have also shared similar ordeals on the social media platform. Mikayla Toninato, a 27-year-old fashion student, was out near New York’s busy Union Square on a Monday afternoon —and likewise preoccupied with her phone — when a man punched her so hard she suffered concussion, a black eye and a chipped tooth.

‘I didn’t see him coming at all,’ she said. ‘He knocked my head back so hard I just kind of like gasped and screamed . . . I turned around and the man was staring back at me while walking away,’ she said.

Karina Dunford, a 24-year-old model, was in Chelsea when a man approached her from behind and hit her in the back of the head with a closed fist. When she turned around, he was staring at her, holding his arm out, seemingly ready to attack again.

She screamed, and bystanders physically separated him from her, before he wandered off.

Olivia Brand, 25, who was hit while she was out walking her dog, said her assailant actually said ‘sorry’ before punching her in the head. ‘What the hell is happening?’ she asked on her TikTok post. Even a reality TV star — Bethenny Frankel of The Real Housewives Of New York City — hasn’t been spared. ‘This is insane because this happened to me a few months ago but I was embarrassed to say,’ she said.

Frankel — who was hit in her face while using her phone to photograph a bakery in the Upper West Side — posted online after seeing the stream of similar online accounts. She had been out looking for an apartment in the city, but said she immediately texted her estate agent to say she didn’t want to see any more in New York following the assault.

Some of the attackers reportedly chased the women after hitting them, while others simply walked off as if nothing had happened. Many didn’t utter a word to their victims, while some screamed and even spat at them.

A common factor in these attacks was that the women were distracted at the time by their mobile phones.

Police said last month there have been 95 unprovoked assaults of this nature in Manhattan so far this year, with 50 of them involving victims who are women.

However, the true figure could be much higher as it’s clear that many people aren’t reporting these incidents.

Not even children have been spared from such attacks: a month ago, a nine-year-old girl, who was with her mother in the food hall at Grand Central railway station in Manhattan, was slapped in the face by a man without warning.

The homeless man had randomly punched a 54-year-old woman, breaking her nose, in the same location only nine days earlier.

New York Mayor Eric Adams has admitted that the city is ‘troubled by random acts of violence’, but says that social media is making the crimes appear more common than is actually the case.

That’s little consolation to the victims or, indeed, any New Yorker who worries that keeping one’s head down and avoiding confrontation is no longer enough in order to avoid trouble.

And while politicians claim that crime is falling in New York — recent statistics show murders, shootings and burglaries in the city are down by between 12 and 17 per cent compared with last year — assaults are rising.

And that’s particularly true of the supposedly less serious offences — categorised as misdemeanour assaults — that don’t usually involve a weapon. They have gone up 10 per cent in a year, and nearly 16 per cent in two years.

That is not to say that serious crimes aren’t being committed by some of the assailants involved.

A 62-year-old homeless man, a repeat offender with a history of mental illness, for instance, has been charged with stabbing a female tourist in the chest near Times Square this month, after she simply walked towards where he was sitting.

Days earlier, a man in the Bronx lassoed a woman around the neck from behind with his belt before dragging her between two cars and raping her.

Two weeks ago in Harlem, an 11-year-old girl was randomly slashed in the head by an apparently homeless maniac as she walked down the street holding her mother’s hand.

Only moments earlier, the same man had sucker-punched a similarly unsuspecting 43-year-old woman in the street.

A mob of outraged locals cornered the suspect, who has been arrested more than 20 times for assault and criminal mischief, forcing police officers to physically stand in their way to protect him from them.

Police are reportedly investigating at least some of the attacks as possible ‘hate’ crimes.

The victims have mostly been white women, while their assailants have generally been black, prompting provocative claims on social media that this is a case of reverse racism.

Mikayla Toninato, a 27-year-old fashion student, was out near New York¿s busy Union Square on a Monday afternoon when a man pushed her so hard she suffered concussion

Mikayla Toninato, a 27-year-old fashion student, was out near New York’s busy Union Square on a Monday afternoon when a man pushed her so hard she suffered concussion

Others believe it’s about gender rather than ethnicity, and at least one of the men who has been charged with punching women has reportedly indicated that he was driven by brutal misogyny.

Prosecutors say that Daquan Armstead, 31, who is accused of assaulting at least eight women in random New York attacks, told police: ‘It’s different with men, they don’t challenge you like women do.’

His repulsive sentiment chimes somewhat with the Munich content creator Gizem Sirmali’s recollection that she was looking particularly smart — seemingly ‘expensively dressed’ in a fake fur coat — on the day she was hit by a complete stranger.

She has speculated that ‘envy’ may have played a part in why she was targeted by someone who could well have been homeless.

Skiboky Stora, 40, who has been charged with hitting Halley McGookin, has a social media history littered with videos of him harassing women in the street or on the subway.

Stora claims to be the grandson of the black nationalist and Pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey, and unsuccessfully ran last year for New York’s city council.

Mallik Miah, 30, who has been charged with punching Mikayla Toninato, also has a history of randomly hitting women — and then being let straight back out on the streets. He’d previously been arrested for assaulting a 53-year-old woman in Brooklyn, only to be released.

A judge allowed Miah out again after the vicious attack on Ms Toninato — this time on supervised release.

As Ms Sirmali says, in Munich, just one woman being punched by a stranger on the street would be a ‘big scandal’.

In New York, it becomes more routine by the day.