Groups of teen-age girls have jabbed dozens of Upper West Side women with sharp pointed objects in recent days, laying bare the racial tension that is never far from the surface here and setting off a panic that the gang may be spreading the AIDS virus.
The wounds, such as they are, have been minor. But the impression is spreading, with no apparent grounds, that the instruments being used in the attacks are AIDS-infected hypodermic needles.
As of Friday, 39 women, ranging in age from 14 to 50, had reported being jabbed since Oct. 24. All the incidents occurred on Broadway, between 95th and 110th streets.
Police have stepped up patrols of the area, and late Friday they arrested several teen-age girls in connection with the attacks.
Sgt. Ed Burns, a police spokesman, said that the suspects were all under 16 years old and their identities would not be announced because of their ages. He would not say how many were in custody.
Neighborhood youths have alleged that the girls involved in the attacks are members of a gang called the Deceptinets.
The girls are reported to be black, and all but one of their victims have been white. As a result, police say they believe racial motivation may lie behind the incidents, and they have assigned the case to the Police Department's bias unit.
One of the earliest victims, who asked not to be identified, said the incident occurred early one evening as she was walking past "a group of teen-agers, all impeccably dressed. Before I knew it, one of the girls was coming at me with what I thought was her fist." She felt a "stinging, burning sensation" and ran away screaming, as the girl continued to swing at her face.
The neighborhood is racially and economically diverse, but some residents said they had not thought it to be particularly tense before the incidents began.
Police Officer Joseph Gallagher said the jabbings have happened quickly, with the attackers disappearing almost instantly. In some cases, he said, the victims have not even noticed the wounds until later.
He also downplayed the widely circulated speculation that the "unknown sharp instrument" being used as a weapon is a needle infected with the AIDS virus.
"No one in the Police Department has said anything that would further that theory," Gallagher commented. "Your fellow journalists have drawn that conclusion."
"I wasn't freaking out at all, but the whole media hype made it into a monster that has its own life," agreed the victim, who said she has been assured by her doctor that her chances of having contracted AIDS are virtually nil.
Nightly news shows have featured interviews with victims who have expressed concern that they might have contracted AIDS--a possibility that health professionals say is very remote, even if the weapon had been dipped in the virus, because the virus cannot live long outside the body.
Women who live in the neighborhood say they are terrified. "It is no coincidence that I've worn my leather jacket every day this week," said one, who added that she is taking taxis even for the shortest outings.
The incidents have occurred toward the end of a year when New York has been wrenched by sensational crimes that have had racial overtones, including the brutal attack on a white female jogger in Central Park by a group of black youths and the murder of a young black man by whites in the Bensonhurst area of Brooklyn.
Many believe the panic is more reflective of the city's mood than of the actual seriousness of the incidents.
"The puncture attacks have churned up all the barely suppressed hysteria of New York in the late '80s, from racial tension to AIDS paranoia," wrote Gail Collins, a columnist for the New York Daily News.