On May 1 in New York City, a twenty-four-year-old white ex-Marine named Daniel Penny choked a thirty-year-old Black man named Jordan Neely to death on the F train as it headed toward the Broadway-Lafayette station. Neely was a street performer known for his skilled Michael Jackson impersonation. He was also mentally ill, homeless, and had been frequently jailed. In the moments before he was killed, he was upset: crying, yelling that he was hungry and sick of living the way he was.
Neely’s behavior on the F train that day made some of his fellow passengers uneasy. According to a witness named Juan Alberto Vasquez, he said that he was so desperate, he didn’t care if he spent his life in prison. I don’t know how Neely expressed these words, but I can imagine, had I been a passenger, feeling alarmed by them; I can see how they might have been construed as a warning that he was willing to do something that would lead to a life behind bars. At one point he removed his jacket and threw it on the floor. “When he raised his jacket, that’s when people panicked a little,” Vasquez later told Curbed, “and those who were around him moved.” Others stayed near, Vasquez said. They kept “standing, watching him.”
None of the careful reporting about what happened on that train car suggests that Neely gestured explicitly toward hurting anyone. He didn’t have a weapon. One might have worried that he could have, but he didn’t. His instability was a precursor to violence—but only violence against him. He yelled about his own misery, and then he was killed.
When Penny tackled Neely to the ground, none of the riders on the car seem to have asked him to let go. “It seemed like the other people who were there, who had already grasped what was going on, were like, ‘This guy is protecting us,’” another witness told Nick Pinto, a reporter for the local news website Hell Gate. “Maybe it’s like mob mentality, but the vibe, there was no real disagreement. There was consensus that this was the right thing to do.” A friend of Penny’s told The New York Times, “Knowing Danny and knowing his intentions, it was to help others around him.” After initial questioning, the NYPD let Penny leave. Ten days later, he still has not been arrested and charged with any offense.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, politicians and media outlets have focused largely on how Neely ended up in dire straits on the F train that day. But Neely’s killing also exposes other crises. We ought to wonder not only what led a person in desperate circumstances toward such a public outburst but also what informed Penny’s impulse to attack him, and how a consensus of inaction seems to have coalesced so quickly among Neely and Penny’s fellow passengers. Why did everyone stand around and let this happen? What was Penny thinking, and why did some riders help hold Neely down? This, to me, is the crisis that results when an atmosphere of fear interacts with the logic of law enforcement, which holds that quick-trigger use of force is always justified by what might have happened, even if it bears little resemblance to what actually did. If something seems like it might be dangerous, the thinking goes, a person is warranted in acting first and sorting out the truth later.
Vasquez, a freelance journalist, filmed a portion of the incident. In the nearly four-minute video, Penny holds Neely on the train floor with the assistance of another male passenger. Neely struggles for a while, and the men fight to hold him more firmly. Neely grimaces. A woman in a leather jacket tentatively tries to step around them but can’t get by; resigned, she moves behind where the men are writhing on the ground and watches from there. Someone yells that the cops should be called. A man in a yellow jacket and a Supreme backpack then enters the frame and points out that Neely has defecated on himself. “You gonna kill him now,” he says. The man assisting the marine assures the man in the yellow jacket that Neely had already defecated before they tackled him. “That’s old, that’s old,” he says calmly. The guy in the yellow jacket echoes doubtfully, “That’s old?”
By two and a half minutes into the video, Neely’s body is lifeless. The man holding Neely’s arm assures the person in the yellow jacket that Penny has stopped squeezing Neely’s neck. A new voice is heard suggesting that they turn Neely over so he doesn’t choke on his own spit. “Once they defecate, you gotta let them go,” the man in the yellow jacket says. Someone else says that Neely will probably be fine. The woman in the leather jacket is still hovering behind the men as they stand up and back away.
Watching this video, I felt that I’d seen one much like it before. Of course, I’ve seen several; by now many of us have seen cell phone footage of people being murdered, often with little provocation, by civilians “standing their ground” or by police. But I wasn’t thinking of those. I was thinking of footage I’d seen of someone almost dying in jail.
I worked for several years as a physician on Rikers Island, where I took care of the oldest and sickest people incarcerated in New York City’s jails and led the system’s compassionate release program. In November 2019 a young man named Nicholas Feliciano hanged himself by tying two sweatshirts together, fastening a noose, and jumping off a partition in his cell. I watched video of this incident shortly after it happened.
In a report about the event, the Board of Correction—the civilian oversight board for the jail system, on which I now sit—wrote that Feliciano remained “hanging for seven minutes and fifty-one seconds in plain view of correction officers, other people in custody, and members of FDNY emergency medical services before [Department of Correction] staff cut him down.” According to the report, he jumped from the partition and kicked around a while, maybe trying to get his feet back on the ledge, before he stopped moving. After Feliciano stopped kicking, people milled about around the cage where he was held, looking in without intervening. One actually opened the cage door, presumably said something to Feliciano’s hanging body, and then closed it. Eventually someone decided it was time to check if he was faking. Officers put handcuffs on his limp arms. Then they lowered him down and initiated CPR.
Miraculously, Feliciano survived and was released from jail a few days later. He has significant brain injury and cannot live independently. Last year, four correction officers were charged for their failure to respond in a timely fashion to his hanging. They aren’t the only four people who witnessed it and chose not to intervene, and the episode isn’t the only recent instance in which jail staff watched a person hurt himself and did nothing. In November 2020 Ryan Wilson hanged himself in a jail cell in the Manhattan Detention Center. In that incident, a jail captain actively prevented her subordinate from helping him, sure that Wilson was pulling a trick and would attack anyone who went in to cut him down. Wilson died. That captain, Rebecca Hillman, has since been convicted of negligent homicide.
Jordan Neely made no move to hurt himself, and he was not in jail when he was killed. He was not in the custody of trained correction officers; he was in the free world, on the subway, among other civilians. But in both videos, a person who has been excluded and traumatized to the point of anguish is treated simultaneously as though they are not equal to the people around them and as though they can’t really die. In both, a quiet, flat atmosphere surrounds terrifying acts of violence. They capture situations in which there is so much suspicion, such a weird mix of passivity and reactivity, that witnesses seem to perceive bids for care and attention as imminent threats, even as they also behave as though lethal acts of violence undertaken in response can’t really be as serious as they self-evidently are. “It’s almost impossible to—I did not assume this guy is going to die,” the witness to Neely’s killing told Nick Pinto. “And now he’s dead.” During her trial, Rebecca Hillman testified that she didn’t believe that Ryan Wilson was actually hanging, and said, according to the Times, that he appeared to be breathing and as though “his feet were flat on the floor.” She called the episode a source of “heartache.”
In jail, the mistrust between officers and people who are incarcerated runs so deep and the presumption of ill-intent is so pervasive that some people seem capable of imagining that a man who is hanging, dead, might actually be playing an elaborate trick to lure a helper into his cell. Officers are trained to believe that their workplace is a war zone; when they arrive to work and leave for the day, they greet and send one another off with “be safe.” Some of their fear reflects real experiences of trauma; jails are places where thousands of people are simultaneously controlled and devalued, places that are fundamentally violent. But some of it is projected, an exaggerated sense of danger that misreads despair as menace. The result is a manufactured culture of repression and neglect that calls itself a system of safety. In such a society, the most important concern for the powerful is to stay vigilant, and for the oppressed it’s to appear to stay in line.
A worldview that emphasizes lurking danger, shows little sympathy for suffering, and favors tactics of control: this is also how some people think and speak about New York City, and about the public sphere in general. Mayor Eric Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul have both staked their identities on supporting police, opposing bail reform, and portraying the city as dangerous. Adams, a native New Yorker who worked as a cop when the city’s murder rate was nearly five times what it’s been since he took office, said last year that he had “never witnessed crime at this level.” In his initial statement about Neely’s killing, Adams said,
Any loss of life is tragic. There’s a lot we don’t know about what happened here, so I’m going to refrain from commenting further. However, we do know that there were serious mental health issues in play here, which is why our administration has made record investments in providing care to those who need it and getting people off the streets and the subways, and out of dangerous situations.
He meant Neely’s mental health issues, of course; that Neely shouldn’t have been on the streets and subways. Days later he clarified that he didn’t mean that people like Neely deserved to die.
Similarly, some observers have emphasized that Neely had been arrested for assaulting people on three occasions, implying that there was good reason to suspect that he was going to do so again. And yet this has no rational bearing on what actually happened; for one, the people on the train could not have known this history. They were responding only to the sight of an agitated, disheveled Black man and a confident white man who seemed to have everything under control. Justifications for Penny’s choices that rest on Neely’s arrest record are premised on heuristics of stigma that amount to racial profiling.
The New York Post initially reported the story with the headline “Shocking Video Shows NYC Subway Passenger Putting Unhinged Man in Deadly Chokehold.” The Daily News went with “NYC Man Threatening Strangers on Manhattan Subway Dies After Marine Corps Vet Puts Him in Chokehold.” In the Times’s first article about Neely’s killing, reporters noted that “the incident on Monday occurs amid increasing ridership on the subway, and state and city officials have expressed optimism about falling crime rates and an apparent rise in confidence among riders in the safety of the city’s trains.” The implication in the article was that future riders might now be dissuaded from taking the subway again—not, however, because of the killing itself, but because of Neely’s behavior and the trouble it provoked.
Some anxiety among riders comes from their awareness of past occasions where people have been senselessly and seriously hurt. Last April, a man named Frank James shot several passengers on the N train (all survived); a month later on a Q train, a man named Andrew Abdullah pulled out a gun and murdered a stranger, Daniel Enriquez, who was on his way to meet friends for brunch. Vasquez, the journalist who filmed Neely’s killing, said he thought “there could be an act of violence here” when Neely threw his jacket, “because those things do happen all the time, because just a year ago, there was a guy who went in and shot a lot of people on the train.”
There could have been an act of violence, but again, Neely did not commit one. The night after Neely was killed, Mayor Adams appeared on CNN, where the host, Abby Phillip, asked if he thought it made sense for Penny to “take matters into [his] own hands.”
“We have so many cases where passengers assist other riders,” Adams replied. “And we don’t know exactly what happened here…so we cannot just blatantly say what a passenger should or should not do in a situation like that, and we should allow the investigation to take its course.”
Ten days after the incident, Adams would not say whether he thought Penny should be charged, but he used Neely’s death as an opportunity to advocate for increased use of court-ordered mental health treatment. Here, again, is the logic of law enforcement: a sliding-doors way of telling a story that treats the scariest thing that might have happened as just as plausible as the damning, messy thing that actually did.
The subway riders on that F train did not have the same obligations to intervene in crisis as correction officers did in the cases of Nicholas Feliciano and Ryan Wilson. But they, too, were hypersensitized to ambient threat and conditioned to experience disorder as a personal violation. In a moment of crisis, it is enormously hard to think independently and not become, in some way, an unwitting, or even an unwilling, participant in a culture of violence, neglect, and discrimination. It is the path of least resistance to stand back, watch mutely as someone suffers, and tell ourselves that what is happening cannot actually be happening.
In a city that operates with the chaotic logic of a jail, in which everyone, whether wearing a badge or handcuffs, feels continuously at risk, people who ought to be presumed innocent—like my patients at Rikers, or like Jordan Neely—are too often punished as though they were guilty. We ought to recognize in this incident not only our failed collective responsibility to care for Jordan Neely but also the danger of its converse: our collective inability to sort threat from sorrow.