SAY WHAT? - Jordan Neely was a (black) "normal nerdy kid" who loved street performing as Michael Jackson; after he "lost it" from seeing his mother murdered, he became an unhoused, under-served, mentally ill man whose distress one day was so discomfiting that (big, white) Daniel Penny - who "love(s) all people" - saw fit to choke him to death on the floor of a subway car. In a stand-your-ground country of fear and rage and self-appointed judge, jury and executioner, thus do we become "a people without empathy."
Former Marine Daniel Penny, 24, encountered Neely, 30, on May 1 on a Manhattan uptown F train. Penny, a blond, buff, six-foot-one surfer, was headed to his gym. In the same car Neely, reportedly distraught, threw his jacket to the floor and began "screaming for help," yelling to the car's passengers that he was thirsty, hungry, fed up, ready to die. Perturbed that a homeless, hapless black man was experiencing a mental health crisis near him, Penny came up from behind and put Neely in what the military calls a "rear-naked blood choke," which cuts oxygen-enriched blood by squeezing the carotid arteries in the neck. The attack was filmed by independent journalist Juan Alberto Vazquez, also on the train; his video, which quickly went viral, only lasts a few minutes. But various witnesses said Penny, helped by two men holding Neely down, kept choking him for between 7 and 15 minutes as his arms and legs desperately flailed and his body slowly went limp. A Marine training manual states an "aggressor" in a blood choke will lose consciousness in 8 to 13 seconds, so tell us what part of "excessive use of force" you don't understand. After Neely's death, police questioned Penny and released him; on May 12, once the medical examiner ruled Neely's death a homicide caused by "compression of neck," they charged Penny with second-degree manslaughter. He is free on $100,000 bail.
The killing sparked raucous protests and debate about racism, homelessness and vigilantism in a city where last year over 815 homeless people died - at least 15 killed in random violence - and rates of homelessness and untreated mental illness continue to soar. There was fury Penny, a white man, wasn't initially charged, when we all know "Barack freaking Obama would not be allowed to walk away after choking a homeless white man to death on the subway." Neely's family denounced the lesser charge of manslaughter vs. murder - isn't that "homicide," or only for white victims? - and the failure to charge complicit bystanders who watched in silence. Most disturbingly, the ensuing "right-wing embrace of bloodlust" suggests we've become what Roxane Gay calls "a people without empathy," a land of fear and paranoia where "making people uncomfortable can now get you killed." Along with our daily gun carnage, widespread 'other'-ing, police brutality and random acts of brutality - often linked to our festering failures to deal with poverty, homelessness, lack of physical or mental health care and other calamities born of egregious inequity - the "list of things that can get you killed in public is expanding every single day. "It only takes running into one scared man to have the worst and likely last day of your life," she writes. "People who deem themselves judge, jury and executioner walk among us, and we have no real way of knowing when they will turn on us."
Today, residents and subway riders of a city with the nation's second biggest homeless population after LA have grown used to regular encounters with what health workers deem "individuals in public spaces who are in evident psychiatric distress." The numbers in New York dishearten: Estimates for those experiencing homelessness range from about 62,000 to nearly 103,000; most sleep in shelters, two-thirds have "mental health needs” and perhaps 17% suffer from "severe mental illness." Meanwhile, mental health resources, especially inpatient, have shrunk over the last ten years - but yes, of course our defense spending, by far the world's highest, has stayed steady at or risen from almost $800 billion, why do you ask? - pushing public unease in response to fellow persons to an all-time high. We are Vigilantes 'R Us: From Bernie Goetz to Death Wish movies to George Zimmerman and Kyle Rittenhouse, the notion of vengeful patriots taking the law into their own hands has become "part of the texture of American culture.” Given the systemic racism at that culture's core, says one legal expert, little wonder "you're carrying around a whole bunch of messages (that) Black and Brown people are scarier than white ones," divergent reality notwithstanding. "They have stereotyped our grandfathers, fathers, husbands, sons, and nephews as monsters," writes activist Renée Ater, "subject to violence and death."
Jordan Neely had experienced mental health issues since he was 14, when his mother was murdered by an abusive boyfriend; her body was eventually discovered in a suitcase thrown into a river. Four years later, Neely testified at her killer's murder trial, telling the court he realized something was wrong when his mother didn't wake him as usual for school and her boyfriend blocked him from going into their bedroom. Neely had shared “an unbreakable bond” with his mother, said his father Andre Zachery: "He loved her so much...After we buried her, he just wasn’t the same." For years, he was known to many New Yorkers as a passionate moon-walking Michael Jackson who performed on the subway and street even as his mental health and housing struggles deepened. Larry Malcolm Smith got to know Neely a decade ago when they were both in foster care: While recent news accounts have focused on Neely's arrests for erratic or aggressive behavior, Smith recounts a kid who shared the money he made dancing with other hardscrabble kids: "This was a good guy." Neely reportedly kept trying to find housing; he'd been on a wait list for homeless people with acute needs, and outreach workers often spoke with him in shelters or at encampments. But Smith said the systems meant to protect him ultimately failed him: "Jordan could have been housed, but nobody cares."
Predictably, that unkindness has persisted in the wake of his death, with harsh, he-was-no-angel media coverage and right-wing hate-mongering. News stories described an "aggressive" homeless man, an "erratic" subway passenger, a New York man "threatening" strangers, a ragged, malevolent street presence who ultimately, deservedly "died" - not "was murdered" - at the clean and noble hands of a "Subway Samaritan.” That twisted, racist, popular Good Samaritan shtick swiftly stuck on Penny, and enraged many. At Neely's funeral Friday in Harlem, Rev. Al Sharpton decried how “people keep criminalizing people that need help” and noted, “A good Samaritan helps those in trouble - they don’t choke him out.” MSNBC's Mehdi Hassan chose to be baffled. "I'm a Muslim, but I’ve read my Bible," he said. "I’ve read the Gospel of Luke, the parable of the good Samaritan who helps the injured traveler after the priest and another man failed to do so. But I don’t remember the good Samaritan choking the traveler to death...John 13:35 says, 'By this all men will know you’re my disciples, by the love you show one another.'" Others suggested MAGA-ites were confusing the Good Samaritan with the Marvel Comics' Punisher, a thug like those who take AR-15s to Starbucks and claim it's their God-given right to blow away anyone, especially if marginalized, who makes them feel "uncomfortable."
Joining the preposterous Samaritan bandwagon was Ron 'Benito' DeSantis, who took time out from transforming his state into a fascist laboratory and trying to kill as many people as possible to urge fellow white supremacists to contribute to Penny's legal defense fund. “We must defeat the Soros-Funded DAs, stop the Left’s pro-criminal agenda, and take back the streets for law-abiding citizens," he intoned, ignoring the small detail that manslaughter is not "law-abiding" and being black, ill and unhoused is not (yet) a crime. "We stand with Good Samaritans like Daniel Penny. Let’s show this Marine…America’s got his back." And damn if it doesn't. The fund, set up on "#1 Free Christian Fundraising Site” GiveSendGo - "living out the heartbeat of God" - has now raised almost $2.8 million from thousands of the devout also offering prayers and well wishes: "Nobody else I'd rather be on the subway with," "Thank you sir. May God be with you and your family during your time of need." "Mr. Penny is a hero," added Trump bestie Kid Rock to his $5,000. "Alvin Bragg is a POS." This, remember, from an allegedly law-and-order party now rallying behind vigilante violence deemed acceptable because it's upholding white supremacy, immunity and order while keeping Black people in their place. "White people, and whiteness, are the law," writes Aaron Rupar. "Black people are always on the wrong side of it."
In his first interview last weekend, with the right-wing New York Post , the "soft-spoken and stoic" Penny revealed he's a perfect exemplar of this perversely blind world-view. In a stunning mix of vapid, witless arrogance, he insisted he feels noshame about choking a sick, helpless black man to death 'cause a (white) guy's gotta do what he's gotta do. "You know, I live an authentic and genuine life," he said. "I mean, I always do what I think is right." Still, "It's tragic what happened to him" - "You. You happened to him" - and "the system has failed us." US? His family is "hanging in there. My mom is OK. My sisters understand. They all support me.” He relished being a Marine and the travel it afforded him: "We went to Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Jordan...We stayed off the coast of Iran for a bit (during) that whole drone thing when they were shooting stuff down and stuff." Travel "really changed my perspective of the world...Just the friendliness and welcoming of everyone...You learn to have compassion and humility. I love helping people." The story includes photos of him smiling with brown people who'd helped him on a road trip in Mexico as proof he's "not a white supremacist." "I mean, it's a little bit comical. Everyone who's ever met me can tell you I love all people," he said. "I was actually planning a road trip through Africa (a continent of 54 countries) before this (strangling a helpless black man) happened."
Somehow, Jordan Neely's grieving family remain unappeased. "We never called him a white supremacist - we called him a killer," retorted their attorneys. They added, "We don’t care how many vacations he’s been on. We want to know why he didn’t let go of that chokehold until Jordan was dead...Next time ask him why he didn’t let go when the passengers he was supposedly protecting were screaming, 'Let him go, you’re going to kill him.'" Proclaiming "Jordan Neely We Love You!", his aunt Carolyn Neely set up a GoFundMe "for love and justice" that has raised just over $150,000, or far less than a 10th of what his killer has raised. Still, "the incessant rat-a-tat-tat of bloody headlines" - the unreasoning fear of a demonized 'other', the stochastic terrorism it often unleashes, and the inevitable, unconscionable valorization of the racist goons and bullies who commit it - goes on. In the New York Times, pundit David French summons - scary music here - Neely's "deeply disturbing (and) menacing" behavior to ask, "What if Penny had done nothing? Would everyone, including Neely, have emerged from that subway car unscathed?" Umm: Probably. Thus does he sanction the preemptive murder of an un-person in distress who committed no crime except existing because it might get violent. French: "Jordan Neely should not have been in that subway car," (and he should have been where?) DA Alvin Bragg: "Jordan Neely should still be alive today."
So should many others. Just before Neely's killing, a Walgreen guard in San Francisco shot and killed young, unhoused, black trans man Banko Brown for shoplifting...snacks. After outrage the guard wasn't charged and given the city's failures to provide housing and other services for Black trans youth, the DA is reconsidering the case. But despite Black Lives Matter et al, a Brown friend said, the hard reality endures: "We don't all matter...It hurts me another trans person of color is gone without being seen. My people are not free." Amidst our guns, rage, media-stoked paranoia that "we are under constant assault from people known and unknown" - gangs, migrants, deep state, woke teenagers - "we see all around us the devaluing of human life," laments The Rude Pundit. "If you see hurting people (and) you don't want to do anything to stop the hurting..if you think everyday things like a person ringing a doorbell are threats that need deadly force, then they aren't the ones who have lost their humanity. You are." "People have been living together with the potential for someone to commit a violent act since the beginning of time," notes Elizabeth Bruenig of a hostile, now-AR-15-infested world where "there is no certainty," and never has been. Penny's murder of Neely is "one means by which a healthy community becomes a violent society. It represents the loss of a peaceful commons, the absence of compassion, and the overwhelming fear we have come to accept in our culture of violence. This is the country we have become."
Stop, hey, what's that sound?
Everybody look what's going down.
Paranoia strikes deep,
Into your life it will creep.
(Abby Zimet has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, hauling water and writing before moving to Portland. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues. Email: [email protected])