May 23, 2023
I’ve been thinking a lot about the murder of Jordan Neely by Daniel Perry on a New York City subway car. Neely’s death ended an encounter that seemed to be not so unusual. Yet it ended so brutally.
Here’s how, according to Noah Lanard writing for Mother Jones, the situation unfolded on that that New York subway car. “…a thirty-year-old unhoused man in the midst of a mental health crisis, made some of his fellow passengers feel uncomfortable and potentially unsafe. A 24-year-old former Marine (Penny) came from behind and put him in a fatal chokehold for about 15 minutes, even though a bystander said 98 out of 100 people would have waited to see ‘one more sign that indicates aggression.’” From other reports, Mr. Penny was aided by other passengers who held Neely down and no one spoke up to try to end this assault.
Photo by Juan Vazquez
.Just a few days ago my wife and I boarded a Chicago El train on our way to an art fair. Nothing dramatic or special about that. The train, for a Saturday afternoon when the Chicago Cubs were out of town, seemed surprisingly crowded. And then we found ourselves in a moment that seemed to parallel what had happened just days earlier in New York.
Sitting just a few seats away from us was a passenger who was actively hallucinating. She sat quietly until some other passengers who were sitting near her decided to move away. This movement provoked this distressed, black woman to erupt in a stream of loud, verbal anger. She was talking to no one in particular but she was clearly angry. Sitting in that space was certainly not comfortable. The thought that she could become violent crossed my mind. But no one attacked this troubled woman.
As the Neely killing continued to make headlines and become a matter of political debate, I remained troubled by what made Penny act as he did.
In an interview just days ago, Mr. Penny talked about his motivation to the New York Post. “This had nothing to do with race. “I judge a person based on their character. I’m not a white supremacist. I mean, it’s, it’s a little bit comical. Everybody who’s ever met me can tell you, I love all people, I love all cultures. You can tell from my past and all my travels and adventures around the world. I was actually planning a road trip through Africa before this happened. I’m a normal guy.”
And that may be what is so troubling about this incident. Here is a young man who sees it as normal to react to a distressed person with violence rather than understanding and perhaps an outstretched hand.
And, disturbingly, he is not alone as people rise to see him as a heroic figure. “Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) called him a ‘subway Superman.’ A New York Post editor wrote that the ‘only difference between Daniel Penny and the heroic passengers aboard United 93 is he’s been charged with manslaughter by a usually soft-on-crime Manhattan DA.’ On Twitter, Gavin Wax, the head of the New York Young Republican Club captioned a tweet of Penny in handcuffs: ‘This man is a hero.’ Wax then shared a reply from an anonymous user that claimed Penny ‘is no different than the frontiersmen that settled America – brave and fearless against foes.’”
This seems to me to be the inevitable outcome of three trends in our nation.
The first is the tragic underinvestment in our social safety net. Mr. Neely was a victim of a society that will not pay for the mental health services that many cannot afford on their own. He was the victim of a society that will not create enough affordable, supportive housing. And so, he was left to struggle on, fighting his illness on his own until he was in that subway car with a man like Mr. Penny who saw him as a threat that needed to be physically attacked.
Secondly, Mr. Neely becomes one more victim of nation’s unwillingness to confront racism and bias. I do not know Mr. Penny. I hear his words about his motivations. But we are seeing too many victims of violence who represent groups that have been historically marginalized to not see this as one more symptom of bias, even when the perpetrator says it is not so.
And thirdly, this seems to be one more tragic outcome of our acceptance of vigilantism as the proper response to fear. It is the outcome of the advocacy of NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre who counseled in the wake of the 2012 Newtown school massacre that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” This shoot first mentality is played out with tragic regularity. Consider this from the LA Times, “In the space of a single week, four young, unarmed Americans were shot after simple, everyday mistakes. One died. In a country home to the most armed populace on Earth, where fear of violent crime often reflects spin rather than statistics, and where “stand your ground” laws proliferate, a simple mistake can turn deadly.”
For me, the impulse was to not to attack, it was to give the woman some space and watch what would happen next. And when we left the train at the next stop, our action was to alert a transit worker that there was a person in distress, a person in need of help, on that that train.
We are not heroes. We just saw a human in pain speak louder than our own fear.
I do not know exactly what went on when Mr. Penny and his fellow riders met Mr. Neely. But I do know that this is not a new or unique situation. In this moment what do you do? That’s the question Mr. Penny and those riding with him faced; that’s the question that I faced. See the person as an imminent, physical threat or as a person in distress?
How we react individually matters if we desire a humane, caring world to live in. And beyond our personal actions, how we speak out on the bigger questions of social policy also matters.
Do we support building a strong, caring social safety net that can embrace Mr. Neely? Do we support taking on the ills of racism and bias?
Our answers in the immediacy of a ride on the subway are important. And our answers on the larger, longer term solutions to difficult problems matter as well.