As George Floyd is my witness, well before a Manhattan grand jury ruled on June 14 that Daniel Penny should be indicted on manslaughter charges, and also before he twice “broke his silence” — claiming, in one interview, that he “does not watch the news,” he had never heard of Al Sharpton, he had been “planning a road trip through Africa,” and he definitely was “not a white supremacist” on that May Day afternoon when he fatally strangled a homeless, panhandling Jordan Neely — I started sketching out a non-hate-motivated racial profile of the accused subway killer. Taken strictly from the perspective of Black Lives Matter ideology (if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it is a duck), I extrapolated on Penny working the specious alibi of being a color-blind and clueless protagonist in the wake of the slaying.
This rendering of the tragedy — anticipating that the dog-whistling around it would take on an extremist conservative slant — intended to argue that what the 24-year-old gung-ho ex-marine was, or wasn’t, thinking, during those critical minutes he and Neely struggled on the floor of an F train, has a lot to do with race, which would explain how and why Neely ended up needlessly dying. Whether this fact is believed or not, I didn’t target Penny solely because of his race: It was because he had inducted himself into a shameful “pattern or practice” of violence by white men who brazenly commit this type of racist crime against Black males. And to be clear, at the time of writing this, I still don’t know whether the indictment, scheduled to be unsealed at Penny’s arraignment, on June 28, hints at anything along the lines of my speculation. (It would if the manslaughter were concurrently ruled a hate crime.)
Lo and behold, it wasn’t far-fetched speculative profiling on my part, as it turns out.
In a fawning face-to-face with Dana Kennedy in the New York Post, 20 days after his deadly conduct was captured on video by a freelance journalist, Penny said, “I judge a person based on their character.” But he stopped short of saying that his characterization of the 30-year-old down-on-his-luck former subway performer, who eked out a hustle by impersonating Michael Jackson, might have depended on a racist stereotype of who Neely was in order to pass judgment on him. Penny said he had acted out of self-defense, and to protect fellow straphangers from a menacingly homicidal Neely, who, some witnesses said, was experiencing some sort of mental breakdown and was only hungry for food (not bloodthirsty). And that (before he made a complete mess of altruistic crime fighting in the New York City subway system) he had gone totally off the grid on recent matters of race and social justice. I had followed my gut feeling that he might mount such a defense, regardless of how incredible it would sound. I just couldn’t help but wonder: How could Penny (who said he was “living in the East Village,” in the heart of social-justice-conscious New York City) be such a proud agnostic about declining discrimination against mostly Black and homeless persons like Neely?
After this thinly veiled public relations stunt to whitewash his image (as being “very, very stoic,” like his dad and grandad, who didn’t emote well), I didn’t feel bad about whether I knew enough about Penny, even as the story was still breaking, to saddle him with what homeless-rights advocates had begun to deem a racist vigilante persona (which, once again, is based on the reasonable suspicion that Penny’s conduct falls into a general pattern of racist recklessness).
Daniel Penny, for all I assumed, might be a narcissistic flying monkey in the MAGA circus. Right-wingers, also without knowing all of the facts, had lauded Penny with white Christian nationalist prayers. Some, such as Florida governor Ron DeSantis, called Penny a “Good Samaritan,” seemingly assuring him that “America’s got his back,” while others pleaded for the pre-indictment second-degree manslaughter charges against him to be dropped. “Good Samaritans stop and help people on the road,” Reverend Al Sharpton countered. “They don’t choke them out.” Will Weissert, an Associated Press writer, pointed out before anyone else that the “rush to back Penny recalls how then-President Donald Trump and other top Republicans fiercely supported Kyle Rittenhouse during the 2020 presidential election. Rittenhouse, a white teenager who killed two men and wounded a third during a tumultuous night of protests in Wisconsin over a Black man’s death, was acquitted.” Weissert openly opined, “the GOP defense of white people after Black people are killed is often very different from incidents in which white people are killed. A key example is Ashli Babbitt, the white former Air Force veteran who was shot to death by a Black police officer while trying to climb through a broken window at the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. Trump called Babbitt an ‘innocent, wonderful, incredible woman’ and labeled the Black officer who shot her a ‘thug.’” Penny hasn’t denounced such bigoted support.
It defies reason to think that during the time Daniel Penny had the upper hand on Jordan Neely, he did not once even consider the racist implication of a white man (such as himself) putting a Black man in a headlock and choking the life out of him. “I didn’t see a Black man threatening passengers,” he said, in a videotaped statement his lawyers first provided to reporter Stephanie Ramos, which was broadcast on ABC World News Tonight on June 12. “I saw a man threatening passengers, a lot of whom were people of color.” But had Penny truly given only a split-second thought to the ramifications of what he is accused of doing (cowardly jumping Neely, or, as Sharpton put it, “come up behind a man that was unarmed, not assaulting anyone, and kill [him]”), Neely might not be dead today, and Penny would not be labeled a racist vigilante.
As snippets of the investigation began to leak out, via cops, who did not arrest Penny on the spot for killing Neely, I wrote in my notes (the very same day they let him go for lack of evidence) that in order to de-racialize his alleged crime, Penny must come across as a genuinely sorrowful ignoramus who was woefully out of touch with the history that has happened around Black males and police-involved fatal chokeholds. For good measure, Penny must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he had been living under a rock (if not in a Trumpian dystopia) over the past decade or more, when civil rights leaders like Sharpton were most active and shouting from the rooftops “No justice! No peace!” after the police strangulation murders of Eric Garner, in 2014, and George Floyd, in 2020. And, in one final act of contrition, Penny would have to declare unconditionally that after being informed about those unjust acts he now feels guilt or regret about missing out on the social and racial justice revolution that has been seared into America’s consciousness. (For his part, Penny told the Post, he grew up on Long Island “in the wake of 9/11 and the terrorist attacks in a community full of firemen, first responders, police officers,” attended college there, and “gave up social media years ago.”)
Consider for a moment, however, the alternate reality of Penny being aware that he was caught up in the excitement of vigilante justice, but then he quickly pulls himself together. Somehow, he thinks, he has seen this horror movie not once but twice before: “This is Eric Garner! This is George Floyd! Its déjà vu all over again!” In the heat of the moment (that split-second thinking I mentioned earlier), he remembers, if not what happened to Garner, whose life was snuffed out by Daniel Pantaleo, a white police officer, using a chokehold banned by the NYPD, at least the depravity of Derek Chauvin, the white Minneapolis cop captured in that viral video kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nearly 10 minutes. Perhaps if he’d felt Neely tapping time out or heard him say, “I can’t breathe!” — those haunting words both Floyd and Garner had mustered with their last breaths before their bodies went limp — maybe Penny might have been jolted back to the physical reality of what he was actually doing.
But that’s not the reality I and most New Yorkers eventually woke up to. From the look of it (courtesy of that nauseating video of the incident gone viral), Penny, who said he shuns the limelight, acted more like an MMA-brawling choke artist competing in a death-cage match.
Was that some schadenfreude he felt — the way he freakishly swirled his tongue and licked his lips as he tightened his stranglehold on Neely, who thrashed around like a fish out of water? Perhaps in Penny’s own mind, he’d already envisioned himself on the front page of the Post, being heralded as Gotham’s newest crime-fighting hero, not salaciously for killing Neely but for executing the perfect takedown of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” come to real life.
By his own admission, Penny loves the subway. So then he must have known that crime in our transit system has become the third rail of New York City’s mayoral politics. For New Yorkers fed up with such violence, some might argue, we all had a hand in Neely’s death. To begin with, Mayor Eric Adams might be largely responsible for creating the climate around a “fear of crime,” Democratic political consultant Joseph Morgan tells me. It was this political campaign strategy, Morgan surmises, that Adams had exploited to become a consensus candidate and only the second Black mayor in New York City history. But did Adams’s alleged obsession with subway crime activate the racist instincts of many of his white voters? Daniel Penny, Morgan argues, presumably responded to this atmosphere of fear with an extreme reaction (showing loathing and apathy rather than empathy), which resulted in the death of a Black man suffering a mental crisis. “What credible ‘presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm’ did Penny have?” he asks.
And what about the freelance journalist who, in hindsight, should have stopped filming and commenced a volley of swift kicks to appeal to Penny’s better angels about dislodging his grip on Neely’s neck? It’s what I would have done. (In 1991, after riots erupted between Blacks and Jews in Crown Heights, I tossed my notebook aside and defied a mob of angry West Indian youths who were biblically stoning a man and his young son because they were Orthodox Jews. They might have been severely injured or killed had I not intervened.) The journalist would not have faced the ridiculous charge of obstructing murder. That intervention would have been the only real attempt to save the life of a fellow passenger, not the seemingly bogus claim that somehow Neely’s behavior was tantamount to the threat of someone brandishing an AR-15 in a crowded subway car but luckily he was stopped by a good guy with a racist strong-arm tactic.
On the whole, Daniel Penny took advantage of Black grief, harping on about himself as a victim of the same system that failed Neely while trying to deflect ultimate blame for Neely’s death. (“Hopefully, we can change the system that’s so desperately failed us.”) The man who claimed “I love all people, I love all cultures” instead has become a polarizing figure in the culture war over social justice.
Now that a grand jury has indicted him, supporters say he could possibly invoke a temporary insanity defense. Penny, a platoon leader who was deployed twice on dangerous missions overseas, would argue that he was overcome by emotion, mainly rage, and lost it altogether. Then the question becomes, how much mental effort was required for Penny to snap out of this fit of madness while Neely’s life (certifiably traumatized by PTSD, related to his mother’s grisly murder when he was 13) literally hung in his hands?
As Eric Garner is my witness, it fills me with relief that although I’d racially profiled Neely’s accused killer, the anti-crime offensive whites often use to unfairly target Black people (which I reverse-engineered to make a particular point) didn’t end as badly for him. But as Daniel Penny will most surely take his place among a rogue’s gallery of subway vigilantes, Jordan Neely will be the albatross that hangs around his neck.
How ironic is that? ❖
Peter Noel writes mainly about social, racial, and criminal justice, focusing on police violence, culture, poverty, and politics. He is the author of Why Blacks Fear ‘America’s Mayor’: Reporting Race, Crime and Black Activist Politics Under Rudy Giuliani.