Last week, Manhattan prosecutors announced manslaughter charges against Daniel Penny, the 24-year-old Long Island man who strangled Jordan Neely to death on a New York subway train last month. The trial is sure to be a seismic event that encapsulates the struggles of the unequal, unstable, post-pandemic city.
The obvious comparison is to Bernie Goetz, the so-called “subway vigilante” who shot four Black teenagers on a train in 1984, paralyzing one of them, after, he said, they tried to rob him. Goetz was charged with attempted murder but convicted only of illegally carrying a gun. In surveys, more than half of New Yorkers expressed support for Goetz, fed up with a city they perceived as out of control. (That case will be the subject of former Slow Burn host Leon Neyfakh’s Fiasco podcast this summer.)
It’s too soon to say how many New Yorkers feel similarly charitable toward Penny, but they may share that generation’s view of the subway as a zone of mayhem. Indeed, that has been the incessant refrain of Mayor Eric Adams, who regularly decries the city’s crime problem, particularly in the subway.
But the differences between Goetz’s case and Penny’s might be more important than their similarities. The archetypal subway fear is no longer the thief whose predatory self-interest shreds the social contract. Instead, as demonstrated by a series of high-profile subway crimes in recent years, today’s subway boogeyman is characterized by opaque motivations and unpredictable actions. Jordan Neely, a talented Michael Jackson impersonator whose mental health struggles had made him familiar to city social services workers, was in the latter category: “I’m ready to die,” he reportedly told passengers before Penny subdued him. Witnesses say he was hostile and erratic but had not explicitly threatened anyone.
This shifting avatar of subway danger, from opportunistic criminal to mentally ill homeless man, is important to understanding both the shortsighted policies of Adams—who has bolstered the police force at the expense of other city services—and the unsympathetic case of Penny, whose prolonged use of force turned what might have been perceived as a helpful intervention into a tragedy for which he’ll stand trial. It’s hard to view the video of the final minutes of Penny’s chokehold, as another passenger encourages him to loosen up, as anything short of vicious.
The blame falls more widely than that, of course: on the bystanders who did not intervene, on the city that failed to get Neely the help he needed, on an American system that has abandoned so many of our neighbors to the streets, where they are at increased risk of addiction, illness, crime, and death.
Yet in other ways the Neely case confounds many priors about the challenges of mentally ill homeless people who take shelter in the subway. For one thing, Neely was not a man forgotten by his city: He was well-known to both law enforcement and homeless services teams, who considered him among the city’s residents most in need of help and most reluctant to accept it. A judge had even placed him in a residential drug treatment program, following an assault charge for punching a 67-year-old woman in the face, but he walked out after two weeks.
The fact that all those interactions never added up to a substantive change in Neely’s trajectory may be typical of a city health system for the mentally ill that the New Yorker recently called a “revolving door.” It will also reignite the debate about conservatorship, the controversial procedure by which people can be held and medicated against their will. That, says Adams, is what should have happened to Neely. Civil liberties groups say the process is cruel and unconstitutional.
But the progressive policies to address the distress of the mentally ill homeless—robust homeless services, plentiful supportive housing, a mental health and drug treatment infrastructure that catches people before they fall—are not just dependent on political priorities. They’ll take time. Jay Caspian Kang describes the contrast between this rehabilitative vision and the visceral distress of many homeless individuals as a “mismatch of timelines,” one that has found resolution in knee-jerk pro-police policies. Many big-city Democrats, in particular Hispanic and Asian American progressives, are drifting rightward. They may share a prior generation’s complaint about Democrats, perceived to have “rewarded the articulation of moral purpose more than the achievement of practical good,” in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s words.
On the other hand, Neely’s death has once again demonstrated the bankrupt moral character of many conservatives, whose 50-year project to whittle down public services from education to drug treatment to housing aid has created the conditions for today’s crisis (even in big, blue New York—consider, for example, the federal government’s abandonment of the NYCHA projects, a rundown but vital social institution). More damning still is the right-wing worship of vigilante killers, in whose defense they have co-opted the term “good Samaritan.” As Jamelle Bouie writes, the term comes from the Gospel of Luke, and denotes one who shows mercy. Most of the Fox News–favored vigilante set—Daniel Perry in Austin, Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha—behaved in ways much less comprehensible than Daniel Penny. Certainly they did not show mercy. Penny has raised millions for his defense; Ron DeSantis shared a link to the fundraiser.
If New York politicians prevaricated over whether to condemn Penny’s actions, it’s surely in part because they see themselves as more likely to be a Penny—a strong person who deserves the benefit of the doubt—than a Neely, a man starving, thirsty, with no place to sleep and no one to rely on, whose behavior falls well outside the bounds of polite society.
Perhaps it is also because they believe in the idea that New Yorkers are good, and if a dozen people watched a man’s life expire in a chokehold, then there must have been a reason they let that happen. This idea, that social norms—and, everyone agrees, it was little more than norms that Neely was breaking that day on the F train, regardless of his past arrests—can be enforced by the watchful eyes of a crowd is not just a right-wing idea.
It’s a version of what Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street”—the idea that regular people, not police, create safety and sometimes even enforce the rules. But the story Jacobs tells to explain the theory is a weird one: A man downstairs from her apartment is in a “suppressed struggle” to get a young girl to walk with him, but she won’t move. Neighbors start to watch. “The man did not know it, but he was surrounded,” Jacobs writes. “Nobody was going to allow a little girl to be dragged off, even if nobody knew who she was.”
I’ve found myself thinking of this story from time to time, because what comes next, in Jacobs’ telling, is legitimately shocking. “I am sorry—purely sorry for dramatic purposes—to have to report that the little girl turned out to be the man’s daughter.” Suddenly, the story changes: This is a story of nosy neighbors gone wrong. It’s a dark story, one that should make us question—not reinforce—our desire to take the law into our own hands.
I thought again of Jacobs’ example after Neely’s death, and of the hopeful idea that there might be recourse to citizens’ own instincts in our moment of great distrust of the police. It’s not so. Not only are bystanders ill-equipped to interject with people in the throes of our threefold epidemics of mental illness, drug addiction, and gun violence. Not only is the entire concept tainted by racism and prejudice, which determine who counts as a threat and who as an eccentric. But also, now that everything’s on camera, we have to ask how many stories that we told ourselves about a well-meaning intervention weren’t such good stories after all. Without a video of the final moments of their struggle, I’m sure, subway riders would have remembered the interaction between Penny and Neely differently. We’re not good Samaritans now, and maybe we never were.