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A City of Two One-Track Minds

Brandon del Pozo

May 17, 2023

In the wake of Daniel Penny’s killing of Jordan Neely, New York must reckon with two simplistic zeitgeists about public safety and mental health

In the wake of Daniel Penny’s killing of Jordan Neely, New York must reckon with two simplistic zeitgeists about public safety and mental health

When Daniel Penny choked Jordan Neely to death on the F train two weeks ago, two powerful but simplistic stories that New Yorkers tell themselves about their city collided. Each exists as a description of the city’s character — a perennial trope of how we live, or don’t live, together. Each is one of the city’s zeitgeists, defining the mood and spirit of the city’s civic life for the people who accept them. If we are lucky, neither will survive this collision.

The first zeitgeist is the story told, most often, by conservative elected officials around the country and commentators who claim to understand the experiences of the “everyday” New Yorker: New York City is adrift, unmoored and headed toward moral collapse. The subways of New York City are a hellscape on the perpetual brink of chaos. The forces of order have surrendered to vagrants and criminals. If we don’t act now by bringing an army of police to the subways, the heartbeat of the city will weaken or even flatline. In this world, Neely walked the city zombie-like, leaving a wake of fear and disorder. Penny had no choice but to take matters into his own hands because the government was derelict in its duty to bring the subways under control. 

It was this story that more than any defined New York in the 1970s and 80s, immortalized in the “Fear City” campaign and the disturbingly cathartic “Death Wish” movies, an atmosphere that suffused the streets in the wake of Bernie Goetz, and that haunts us still in the wake of 10 subway murders last year.

The power of the trope comes from a truth that all New Yorkers understand: If the balance lands on the side of permitting a person to act out from illness, instead of the right of a person to travel safely and in peace, the subway rider is frequently on the losing side. That helps explain how a retired police captain was elected mayor and Lee Zeldin came closer to the governor’s mansion than anyone thought possible.

The second zeitgeist, most often embraced by the city’s progressives and activists goes like this: New York City is an incompetent, uncaring metropolis that chronically crushes its vulnerable. The problems of homelessness, untreated mental illness and open-air drug use on the streets and in the subways are reflections of the failure of the city to care adequately for people and address systemic stigma and racism. In this telling, all pipelines lead to Rikers Island, and then state prison, when instead the problems could be addressed by eliminating the root causes of these maladies. Our concerns about crime and disorder on the subway come from cruel selfishness. Getting upset about disorder on the subway is a form of bourgeois privilege. Penny killing Neely under the guise of restraining him was the system working exactly as designed, emboldening white people to treat people of color as an annoyance to be addressed.

Here, memories of unjustified violence against vulnerable people — Deborah Danner, Kawaski Trawick and others — resonate.

The two stories we tell ourselves are starkly one-dimensional.

The two stories we tell ourselves are starkly one-dimensional. In both, Neely and Penny aren’t actual people, but avatars. There was just enough missing from the initial accounts of Neely’s death to make him an empty vessel for people’s frustrations and fears, and, until Penny was identified, he was either an everyman hero or a callous murderer. Neely was held down by one man helped by others, strangers brought together on the subway, in one telling, by protecting each other, and, in another, by acting in concert to kill an innocent man. It matters a lot that one of the men who jumped into the fray was Black: It reassured people that the trials of riding the subway weren’t felt by just one kind of New Yorker, or that the forces aligned against the vulnerable transcended race. As expressions of ideology and pent-up anger at the perceived status quo, the reactions to the video of Penny choking Neely were years in the making.

In the distorted light of these two stories, the public responses have been predictable. Conservatives call Penny a hero, laud his courage, and never forget to underscore that he was a United States Marine. Calls to contribute to his defense fund have raised over $2 million. Progressive politicians say the city failed Neely and, in effect, lynched him. Activists, ironically often those who have previously been the loudest voices for abolishing or defunding the police, demanded an iron-clad case for murder and simultaneously faulted the New York City Police Department for running a thorough investigation that took too long. Descending into the subway, the protestors jumped onto the train tracks and flirted with the third rail as beleaguered commuters waited, trapped on trains in the tunnels.

Reality is defined not by one zeitgeist or another, but by a complex web of troubling truths. 

The first is that if the city failed Neely, it may have done so not because it showed insufficient care, but because it may not have been treating him with a firm enough hand. When he punched a 67-year-old woman in the face in 2021, breaking her nose and causing serious injuries — one of four assaults he had been arrested for — it would be hard to accuse the system of abandoning him to the carceral state. True, he spent 15 months in Rikers as his case wound through the system. But instead of convicting him of a felony and sentencing him to prison, the District Attorney consented to 15 months at a voluntary treatment facility in the Bronx, one that would supply him with shelter, medication and wraparound services. 

“This is a wonderful opportunity to turn things around, and we’re glad to give it to you,” a prosecutor told him.

When Mayor Adams broached the idea of a return to involuntary treatment for some acute cases, he had people like Neely in mind.

Neely absconded from the facility 13 days later and returned to the streets. But even then, with an arrest warrant hanging over him, his most frequent contacts were with unarmed social workers who repeatedly connected him with services, the kind reformers call for. When the outreach workers summoned a police officer after Neely urinated in front of them in the subway, the officer didn’t check him for warrants but allowed him to walk away. Notably, that failure seems to have sprung from incompetence, not leniency.

While Neely’s life may have been a blank canvas that permitted some to justify or laud Penny’s chokehold, the emerging facts about his death have become inconvenient.

By many measures, New York City and State spend a great deal on mental health services. The prior mayor dedicated a billion dollars to developing a system for mental health crisis response not centered on policing. Diversion to mental health treatment for a violent crime that includes housing and services, followed by noncoercive contact with social workers offering help, is precisely what reformers say they want for people suffering from acute mental illness. But it had its limits for Neely. By the time he was killed, he was on the city’s watchlist of the 50 most at-risk and unstable people frequenting the subways. When Mayor Adams broached the idea of a return to involuntary treatment for some acute cases, he had people like Neely in mind.

And while Neely’s life may have been a blank canvas that permitted some to justify or laud Penny’s chokehold, the emerging facts about his death have become inconvenient. Neely wasn’t armed, and by all accounts, he wasn’t an imminent threat. He seems to have acted in a way that leads everyday riders to lose faith in the subway system even if they aren’t physically hurt.

But Neely’s behavior was never a reason to restrain him until he died. It is one thing to pile on a person until they panic and can’t breathe or punch them so they fall and hit their head. Physical struggles are always risky. It is another thing entirely to choke a man for two minutes straight until he stops struggling and dies. The carotid arteries are a few inches from the windpipe. Compressing one of them quickly causes unconsciousness, the other quickly leads to death. How that plays out during a chokehold is a gamble, and both men lost. 

To what end? A jury needs to hear the facts and decide. Penny was arrested on manslaughter charges on Friday. The trial will dwell on testimony about Neely’s danger and Penny’s intent. It may bring closure for people who think justice requires a certain verdict, but in other critical ways, it will be unsatisfying. The legal process will adjudicate this one incident, at one moment in time; it won’t expose the complicated truths about fear and disorder in the subway, or the challenges posed by people whose mental illness makes them especially hard to reach. A particular physical struggle wasn’t what motivated the fury and imagination of the city, it was what the struggle revealed about its specters.

The life of one person ended on the floor of that F train. Another will never be the same. As for the city, the verdict is out.