What happened is to be determined
New Yorkers are divided on what happened on that F train when a former Marine, who was white, choked to death an unruly homeless man, who was Black. The comments sections of the New York papers reveal little division among the readers. Facts are still coming in, but based on what we know, most believe the passengers were within their rights to subdue him.
But the papers have columnists who specialize in portraying every deadly conflict between a white and Black as evidence of racism — if the person who dies is Black. Sometimes they are right, sometimes wrong. But phoniness takes over when the argument steamrolls the sticky details into a neat story.
The New York Times oddly employed Roxane Gay to declare that Jordan Neely was killed on the train because he made people “uncomfortable.” A native of Omaha who teaches creative writing in Indiana, she’s hardly an expert on subway sociology. That she is a woman of color who is bisexual and a prominent supporter of transgender rights may have been her qualification … in the minds of the Times editors.
Over at the New York Daily News, Leonard Greene, a Black columnist, opined that the 24-year-old Marine veteran, Daniel J. Penny, thought he had a right to kill Neely because he was being “obnoxious.” Readers who often face unsettling situations on their way home to Brooklyn or The Bronx must be rolling their eyes.
As a frequent rider of the New York City subways, I’ve been in cars where a disheveled passenger, huddled in a corner, muttered crazy things. One could find the spectacle both distasteful and evidence that this person should be treated for mental illness.
But the question here wasn’t whether Neely made people “uncomfortable” but whether passengers felt endangered enough to restrain him with force. The good reporting noted that Neely yelled, “I don’t mind if I go to jail and (get) life in prison. … I’m ready to die” — and was pacing back and forth. Five passengers called 911.
Neely had been previously arrested about 40 times, four on charges of punching people. One punch broke the nose of a 67-year-old woman. Another time, he had banged on a subway booth agent’s door and threatened to kill her. He was on the city outreach workers’ “Top 50” list of homeless people in urgent need of assistance.
The other passengers didn’t know any of that, but wouldn’t his history make plausible the possibility that he scared passengers into thinking that their lives were in danger? That in better days Neely had been a talented Michael Jackson impersonator was not known but also not relevant to the moment.
Neither pundit quoted Penny’s lawyer saying that the Marine, in New York looking for a bartender job, had not intended to kill Neely. And they ignored reporting that another man on that subway car urged Penny to put Neely on his side so as not to choke him on his own spit and that Penny did that.
“The story” had to be that a white man killed a Black man for being a mere nuisance. Copy-and-paste commentary saves writers time, but in addition to being lazy, it is amazingly dishonest.
The story’s end has not been reached. Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain who is Black, clearly understood the complications. “Any loss of life is tragic,” he said, but also, “There’s a lot we don’t know about what happened here.” The city medical examiner deemed the death a homicide, and Penny has now been charged.
This is how it should be done.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.