Murder on the F Train: Vigilantism is America’s New Normal

On May 1, 2023, Jordan Neely breathed his last breath on the floor of the F train after another passenger, Daniel Penny, held him in a chokehold for approximately 15 minutes (a few of which were recorded by a freelance journalist named Juan Alberto Vazquez). As is seemingly always the case when a black man dies a violent death in this country, we very quickly learned every possible negative thing there was to learn about Jordan Neely: his mental illness, his dozens of arrests, time spent in prison, previous violent assaults, even a verbal attack on the LGBT community. Even learning Penny’s name took quite a bit longer to learn than the entirety of Neely’s life story, despite his being questioned by police and released without charges.

Despite Neely’s past (none of which Penny could have known before he murdered Neely), the most physically-aggressive action he reportedly engaged in during this encounter was throwing trash at other passengers and throwing his own jacket on the ground. Beyond that, he yelled about being hungry and thirsty and verbally threatened to hurt anyone on the train. And for this–not even a wound to another passenger–Penny attacked Neely from behind and strangled him to death while other passengers watched and two reportedly helped Penny hold Neely down, ultimately leaving him to die on the train floor in his own waste as he’d involuntarily soiled himself as he died.

As I write this on May 8, social media continues to be filled with ex post facto rationalizations of Neely’s murder. The volume and frequency of these pro-vigilante, pro-murder takes was such that it brought to mind a literal, Biblical description of the degree of wickedness that prevailed in the world before the flood:

Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, Listen to my voice, you wives of Lamech, Pay attention to my words, For I have killed a man for wounding me; And a boy for striking me!”

Genesis 4:23, NASB

An uncomfortably close parallel to the words of Lamech in Genesis might be those of Filemon Baltazar, who Neely assaulted in 2019.

Everyone in different situations has reasons for what they do. The Marine shouldn’t be punished. Who knows what that guy might have done to other people,” Balthazar said of Neely, who he insisted “should have been in some rehab center.”

Alec Schemmel, The National Desk, May 5, 2023, CBS 6 Albany News

At least he suggests that Neely should have been in a rehab center. Others lack even that modicum of sympathy.

Here’s Batya Ungar-Sargon, an opinion editor with Newsweek:

Note the complete absence of any connection between what actually happened, and the hypothetical she’s spinning. Note also the shot at men who “just sit there and pretend it’s not happening.” For Ungar-Sargon, what happened to Neely doesn’t happen enough.

This execrable New York Post opinion piece leads off by saying Neely’s murder followed “a struggle with other passengers” and uses his death to advocate for involuntary commitment, despite the decades-ago push for deinstitutionalization of the mentally-ill led by Ronald Reagan as governor of California, and again by Reagan as president at the federal level. Reagan signed a bill repealing the vast majority of The Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, signed into law by Jimmy Carter. This legislation would be the only attempt at the federal level to improve mental healthcare in this country for the next 30 years.

Beyond the usual bots and low follower count trolls on Twitter amplifying longstanding political, racial, and other divides the country has, two commentators stand head-and-shoulders among the chattering class in their response to this murder: Thomas Chatterton Williams and Conor Friedersdorf. Both have displayed over the course of days levels of ignorance, cynicism, and moral bankruptcy I still find shocking despite their previous displays of most of these same qualities in different circumstances.

LARPing is “live-action roleplaying”–Williams is accusing people protesting Neely’s murder of pretending to be concerned. He goes on to blame “the state” for Neely’s death (instead of Penny, who actually murdered him). Friedersdorf goes on to display an ignorance of the impacts of the Montgomery Bus Boycott so profound, so fundamental, that I actually felt despair that someone so illiterate in this country’s history continues to have the platform he does to shape the viewpoints of people who actually hold power in this country.

Conor Friedersdorf being clueless about the impacts of the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Today, Williams exceeded his previous heights in advocacy for vigilantism with this gem:

When I read this, I was reminded of Tucker Carlson’s defense of Kyle Rittenhouse’s vigilantism in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Like Ungar-Sargon, he refers to Neely’s past actions–which no one on the train could have known about beforehand. Williams projects these past actions forward as a justification for Neely’s murder. Instead of seeing Minority Report as a cautionary tale, he sees it as an affirmative path to take only worse–because civilians should feel justified in using deadly force against someone who *might* do something.

Thankfully, Janelle Bouie pointed to Williams’ admitted violent past to highlight the manifold flaws in his hypothetical.

William’s response is not merely inadequate, it fails to even acknowledge the numerous examples of youth not being a defense when you are black and male. Trayvon Martin was just 2 years older than Williams (and hadn’t assaulted a girl in front of multiple witnesses) when George Zimmerman decided to follow him (and ultimately kill him). Ahmaud Arbery was just 25 years old when he was lynched by 3 men attempting to “detain” him for a crime they believed he’d committed.

In my view, Neely’s murder, the recent wave of shootings of people who accidentally went to the wrong house (or car, or driveway), or were playing hide-and-seek too close to the wrong home, and a recent attempted vehicular homicide against homeless people are all connected. So is the militia movement that has taken it upon itself to “police” the southern border, and those who volunteer to “protect businesses from rioters”. More and more often, these vigilantes are aided and abetted by officials elected to maintain law-and-order and/or paid and trained to do so (such as the police). NYPD tacitly endorsed Daniel Penny’s vigilantism by not taking him into custody. Governor Hochul’s comments effectively blamed Neely for his own death. Hochul does not share a political party with Greg Abbott, but her comments about Neely are no less dehumanizing than his regarding the victims of a recent mass shooting. He called them “illegal immigrants”, completely ignoring the fact that they were victims of murder in the state he is governor of. The proliferation of so-called “stand your ground” laws not only remove any requirement for those who own guns to demonstrate competence in their use, they eliminate prosecution and penalties for incompetent use–even if it results in the death of innocents. Despite the strong correlation between weaker gun laws and higher rates of gun violence and gun death, states controlled by the GOP continue to weaken the laws further.

Despite the high-minded talk of those who claim to value life, all the available evidence points to life being even cheaper than ever. The backlash against the “racial reckoning” that some thought would happen in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police has proven so strong that we’ve retreated to the point where a black man like Thomas Chatterton Williams is loudly advocating in favor of a vigilantism that has often claimed black men as victims not just in this country’s long-ago history but in its recent past and present.