A rush to judgment in subway choking
Daniel Penny, a 24-year-old former Marine, is expected to be arrested on manslaughter charges Friday in the death of Jordan Neely on a New York City subway train.
Neely’s death was unquestionably tragic; whether Penny committed a crime will be determined by the criminal justice system. But there is much more about this sad incident that should be examined.
Neely, a 30-year-old homeless man struggling with mental illness, died May 1 after being put in a chokehold by Penny, who said he saw Neely as a threat to other passengers. While charges against Penny were being considered, numerous activists, journalists and politicians, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, rushed to declare Neely’s death a murder — or even a lynching, because Neely was Black and Penny is white.
Initial accounts portrayed Neely, a Michael Jackson impersonator, as a troubled but harmless man who was killed, in the words of one writer, for “making people uncomfortable” by shouting about his desperation. But soon, other reports revealed disturbing aspects of Neely’s history: a string of violent assaults, often on the subway.
Read Newsday's editorial on the subway chokehold death.
In 2021, Neely was arrested for punching a 67-year-old woman in the face, breaking her nose and shattering her orbital bone. After 15 months in detention, he pleaded guilty and was placed on probation with a requirement to live in a treatment facility. But he left after two weeks. At the time of his death, there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest. Shortly before the fatal encounter on the subway, an outreach worker warned that Neely could be “a harm to himself or others.”
Some argue that this background is irrelevant to what happened on the train, since Penny did not know Neely’s history. But it’s clear that other passengers felt Neely could be dangerous. A video shot by freelance journalist Juan Alberto Vasquez shows one other man, possibly two, helping the ex-Marine restrain Neely. Vasquez said he saw Neely’s actions as implying possible violence; while he felt the ex-Marine “went too far,” he also faulted the delayed police response.
Yet, ironically, the protesters who have disrupted subway service to express outrage at Neely’s death also object to increased police presence on the subways.
Many progressives, in social media discussions and elsewhere, seem to take the view that aggressive, threatening, even violent behavior by mentally ill people is something subway passengers should accept as a fact of life. Such attitudes only feed right-wing denunciations of arrogant “liberal elites.”
It’s entirely possible that, while restraining Neely was justified, Penny’s use of force was reckless and excessive. But we should wait for a jury to decide — and wait for the facts. Too many reports have engaged in reckless speculation and focused on race while omitting relevant details. The other passenger holding Neely down was also Black — which is unrelated to the question of excessive force, but relevant to claims of a racial motive for restraining Neely.
The real tragedy, as Mayor Eric Adams has said, is that the current system makes it extremely difficult to hold severely mentally ill people in safe facilities when they cannot make decisions for themselves. This reality is obscured by rhetoric that portrays people like Neely as solely victims of capitalism and racism. Ultimately, that rhetoric victimizes both people with mental illness and mainly working-class subway riders who have a right to expect safety.
Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a culture studies fellow at the Cato Institute, are her own.