Jordan Neely and Daniel Penny

We want to say a few true things about the event and its immediate aftermath because Neely’s death posed vicious, revealing questions about what’s happening in New York, now. A homeless Black man cries out in anguish, then for fifteen minutes has the life squeezed out of him in public—and the response from the mayor, from the governor, and from a significant slice of the mainstream media is instant (if regretful) justification for the killing.

Five Points on the May Day Murder

A photo of a building viewed from an elevated subway train; a still from D. A. Pennebaker's short film Daybreak Express
Still from Daybreak Express (1953)

This is the first pamphlet by the Bad Side, a group in New York City. It was first published at thebadside.net.

We are bracing ourselves.

Next Monday is Daniel Penny’s second day in court, two and a half months after he killed Jordan Neely on the floor of a northbound F train. The charges unsealed at the arraignment: second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.

Whatever happens now—whether Penny is convicted or acquitted, whether the sentencing lets him off easy or locks him up for a full fifteen years—the event streaked across the public sphere, a massive, spectacular controversy that for weeks enthralled both the media and political strata in the city and across the country. Why?

It wasn’t just the gruesomeness of the killing: a stone-faced Penny, arm locked under Neely’s chin. Nor the (chilling, perplexing) silence of the other passengers in the viral video. Nor was this a mere chance for op-ed philosophizing or a spat in the so-called culture war.

It was a scene from the class war. We want to say a few true things about the event and its immediate aftermath because Neely’s death posed vicious, revealing questions about what’s happening in New York, now. A homeless Black man cries out in anguish, then for fifteen minutes has the life squeezed out of him in public—and the response from the mayor, from the governor, and from a significant slice of the mainstream media is instant (if regretful) justification for the killing.

We have no illusions about these people. But the open cruelty was striking. Just as striking as the NYPD’s decision to let Penny walk free. The following week of vigils and street action—featuring, along with the usual handcuffs and bloodied demonstrators, the obstruction of the subway tracks—triggered Penny’s arrest. A bone thrown to the liberal conscience, and a bid to stop the marches: at least one part of city government remembers May and June of 2020.

So do we. The candles and bunches of flowers at the Broadway-Lafayette station entrance didn’t just conjure the SoHo of three summers ago, dotted with smashed-up luxury storefronts, but reminded us that the meaning of the George Floyd Rebellion is still being decided in every segment of the population and at every level of the state. Depending on the evidence, arguments, and outcome, the Penny trial may unleash another round of outrage or wipe the episode from public discourse. Either way, we are bracing ourselves.

For now, we’ll make five points.

1. The voices of “law and order” rushed to excuse a violent crime

“There’s consequences for behavior,” Governor Kathy Hochul said three days after Neely’s death. She meant the victim’s, not the killer’s: “People who are homeless in our subways, many of them in the throes of mental health episodes, and that’s what I believe were some of the factors involved here. There’s consequences for behavior.”

Mayor Eric Adams had made a similar point on CNN the day before. Asked about the stance of members of his party (Comptroller Brad Lander used the term “vigilante” and AOC tweeted the word “murdered”) Adams bristled, saying, “I don’t think that’s very responsible, at the time where we are still investigating the situation.” Asserting repeatedly that “each situation is different,” he invoked his time in the NYPD: “I was a former transit police officer and I responded to many jobs where you had a passenger assisting someone.”

Slaughtering an unarmed man with your bare hands can be a way of assisting someone. After years of media outrage about the supposed chaos of New York City, after a mayoral campaign based on the return of calm and reason, and after the repeated, boastful promises to vanquish the city’s progressives for the sake of public safety—Adams seemed soft on crime.

Why didn’t our “law and order” mayor care more that Penny may have committed a felony? We’re being coy; the answer’s obvious. Adams can’t turn his back on the cops. He had to insist on the possibility that they acted correctly—that Penny did nothing wrong. But more crucial is that, to the police, the Mayor, and the interests for which he’s the mouthpiece, the 24-year-old ex-Marine who offed someone on the F train is not a threat to “public safety”; people like Jordan Neely are. Making his life seem worthless became a political priority. Among the reasons why Neely’s death at Penny’s hands was technically nobody’s fault were the former’s “erratic behavior” and forty-two arrests.

Leaving aside that thirty-eight of these were for nonviolent and petty offenses like hopping a turnstile, and leaving aside that Neely’s prior assaults simply cannot be relevant in a case in which the only physical contact occurred when Neely himself was tackled to the ground, we feel the need to restate the obvious: there is no way that Penny could have known a single thing about Neely’s record. So why was it invoked by pundits as implicit justification for Penny’s act?

Perhaps they think there’s some quality, some mystical thing, that allows you to glance at a total stranger and know—before he lays a finger on anyone—that he’s dangerous, lethal, in violation of the law, and can be obliterated at your discretion and for the greater good.

There’s a word for this thing: race. The cops let Penny go based on the color of the corpse.

2. Under these conditions, even the most reactionary arguments will be sung to the tune of “class”

“You know why NY’s ‘recovery’ isn’t happening?” tweeted former Police Commissioner Bill Bratton in 2021, above a picture of unhoused people resting in a subway car. “This photo today on the E Train at 6:45am at 42nd & 8th says it all. Why should working people and tourists be subjected to this?” As for why Covid shutdowns forced so many New Yorkers to seek shelter on public transit—who cares. They’re not “working people.”

Yes, class is back in US politics. And not just for the left. One fixture of both liberal and right-wing responses to Neely’s death was the notion that the real, invisible, everyday victims of the city’s explosion in homelessness are commuters on the subway: every last one of them a member of the working class.

Fury at the conditions that leave so many barely able to survive, or explicit outrage at Penny, was suddenly proof of privileged callousness. To express sympathy for Neely howling for food and drink was elitist, because working-class people (the columnists were certain) hate and fear the homeless. The least we can do is honor that by blasting the latter from public space.

In the Times, John McWhorter alluded to “legions of subway-riding New Yorkers . . . low-income commuters,” made to “endure . . . not plangent but furious” unhoused men. “Contra the chorus of scolding liberals online,” wrote journalist Inez Stepman, “many of whom turn out to be living in wealthy enclaves anyway, ordinary people are not content to be screamed at, threatened, spat on, and generally alarmed.” Batya Ungar-Sargon, deputy opinion editor at Newsweek, was perhaps the most vivid: “Have a little humility before you tell a working class person that it is the human right of a mentally ill drug addicted person wearing no pants to scream in their face and wildly gesticulate at them every other day while they try to get to work so they can feed their kids.”

Alright, then: let’s talk about class.

Fully half of New York City households cannot afford to live here. The unemployment rate remains fixed above the national average. And most relevant to this debate: homelessness has risen 51 percent under Adams’s tenure. This is a brutal, long-term effect of the Covid shutdowns, which expelled people from their homes, a phenomenon exacerbated by the rapid rise in both rent and inflation, making basic subsistence an impossibility for vast numbers in this city. With the end of both a moratorium on evictions and emergency rental assistance, New York City rang in 2023 with 260,000 cases filed to expel tenants from their homes; 15 percent of all tenants were targeted for eviction. We have a question for these strident class warriors about the nearly seventy thousand unsheltered people who make up the highest level of homelessness in New York City since the Great Depression: what class do you think they came from?

Heroize low-income workers as they struggle fiercely to get by—and spit on them when they fail. On the right, this tactic has a long history. That the homeless are unemployed, indebted, evicted workers matters less than the supposed threat they pose to the social order in which the docility of “good” workers keeps the city’s economy humming. Which is, of course, the real purpose of the subway—as made evident not only in the rhetoric of the McWhorters and Ungar-Sargons, but in the actions of our Mayor.

Three years after the first lockdown, subway ridership is at just 65 percent of its pre-pandemic peaks, a decline the MTA’s own data has attributed to higher-income households adapting permanently to remote work. The agency’s finances, always in trouble, have plunged further into crisis.

But the move to at-home work has also spelled disaster for commercial real estate interests. Maximizing landlord revenue is an emergency for a mayor desperate for their support, which explains his notorious insistence on in-person work. “We must have everyone participate in our financial ecosystem,” he said, “you can’t stay at home in your pajamas all day.” Last June, after speaking to the civic and real estate group Association for a Better New York: “I’m trying to fill up office buildings. And I’m telling JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, I’m telling all of them, ‘listen, I need your people back in the office so we can build the ecosystem.’”

Get the employees (low-income and professional) back to work in person, which means back into the subway. Meanwhile, the “ecosystem” of extracting rent flings huge numbers out of their homes. What solution remains for a state and ruling class tasked with driving the workforce into a transit system now filled with thousands of Jordan Neelys?

Get rid of them.

3. Per city policy, mental health care is best delivered at gunpoint

Elimination has many faces; it’s not always a blonde Marine. Months before Neely died, a political battle was waged in New York over the conditions under which homeless people can be saved, not from unlivable sociopolitical conditions, but from themselves.

In late November, Mayor Adams issued a press release announcing the expansion of the Mental Hygiene Law, which allows police to take individuals into custody against their will. This was a “moral obligation,” he said: “it is not acceptable for us to see someone who clearly needs help and walk past them.” Freed from the restrictive legal standard that only permitted “involuntary assistance” in the event of violent acts, expanded police powers would allow the cops to arrest anyone who looked crazy and displayed “an inability to meet basic living needs.”

The move followed months of Adams ruthlessly performing his priority to remove the homeless from public view. Between March and November 2022, more than twenty-three hundred homeless people were subject to “cleanups” in which their shelter and possessions were demolished; only three secured permanent housing. Public view includes the subway: the former transit cop has deployed increasing numbers of officers to stalk the tracks. Underground summonses surged last year: seventeen thousand for fare evasion and six hundred for obstructing seats.

The week before Adams’s announcement broadening involuntary commitment, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams released a report on the city’s mental health infrastructure, noting the failures of the City to address the crisis—and particularly an overreliance on the NYPD. While progressive politicians and NGOs slammed the directive, Adams justified the Mental Hygiene Law with an appeal to “leading with compassion and care”—the very rhetoric used by people like Williams. For self-professed moderate commentators on the outside, the Mayor’s campaign to save the public from mentally ill people appeared as the actionable response to a crisis long-fumbled by the progressives and their endlessly proliferating slogans and pilot programs. “Peers not police”? A firmer hand was needed.

The conflict over involuntary commitment was a pre-staging of the obscene “debate” over Neely’s death. On one side, the politicization of the surge in homelessness and the call for less austerity and more social services; on the other, an answer that could speak to both the fear-mongering right-wing press and the sensible center-left commentariat. As Times columnist David French would write, Neely “should have still been in the treatment facility or in jail.” Involuntary commitment offered a synthesis: why not both?

It’s no wonder that opposition to the new Mental Hygiene Law returned as a cudgel against progressives. Substack journalist Lee Fang: “The loudest voices politicizing this tragedy are those who attempted to derail vital public services for the severely mentally ill.”

Vital public services, delivered with handcuffs. The involuntary commitment episode demonstrates the capacities of the city to respond to a crisis of homelessness: with labyrinthine and starved administrative agencies, and the always-growing force of the police—the only sturdy public institution in New York City’s long post-industrial moment.

4. The politics of law and order feeds on the crisis it claims to solve

The killing on the F train became a flashpoint, then, because it exposed that the wrangling in Albany or City Hall over this or that policy is not a simple disagreement about how to meet people’s needs, but a fight over who rules the city, and how. That’s why Adams responded to Neely’s death with a full-throated defense of the rise in subway cops. It’s also why Hochul insisted on bringing up the necessity for stringent parole in New York (though that had nothing to do with Neely). These statements were an odd mix of smugness and screaming alarm: since the 1960s, a hallmark of “law and order.”

Vital to law and order ideology (but impossible for its adherents to express out loud) is a belief that urban problems can’t be fixed, only managed. As rent increases and evictions continue to strip people of shelter, can draconian parole rules, mental health holds, and a police blitz of the subway really reverse the effects of the urban crisis, scraping undesirables from every inch of public space?

Of course not. Both Adams and Hochul know this. But every crime, every loss, every manifestation of crisis is an opportunity—to remind citizens that there is no alternative to the ratcheting up of incarceration and police. Any improvement in daily life can be attributed to these methods. And when they fail, the disaster is proof of just how much we need them. The task is to pass this rabid logic off as simple common sense.

Gone are the days of the (fragile) post-war liberal consensus, whose central tenet was that expert administration and economic growth could effectively solve all problems. (Gone, too, is the growth itself; or at least anything resembling an equitable distribution of it.) Law and order steps in when the root causes of poverty can’t be touched, or even talked about. In a post-industrial city held captive by finance and real estate, redistribution and strong social programs aren’t just untenable, they’re taboo.

Look at the numbers. Citing the burden of asylum seekers and new labor contracts, including retroactive raises for police, Adams demanded belt-tightening across the city in this year’s budget negotiations, including its social services, education, reentry services, library systems, and, before protests, the Department of Homeless Services. His restrictions have already imposed staff shortages on agencies tasked with administering programs for New York City’s poorest, leaving those eligible for food stamps and rental assistance waiting for months, or without aid at all.

One line item was spared: the NYPD, the nation’s largest police force, which claims $11 billion each year—almost $29 million a day—would have its “cuts” effectively undone by massive overtime loopholes.

Adams kneels before Manhattan’s downtown and midtown financial interests. But his political fate relies on the support of the outer boroughs. Law and order is a discourse that speaks to both groups, but rewards one. In conditions of insecurity and naked antagonism, at a time when people faced with uncontrollable, unlivable lives experience genuine feelings of fear, crime panic can build coalitions: law and order is a political project that rests—and feasts—on fear.

“We have decreased crimes in certain areas, but if New Yorkers don’t feel safe, we are failing,” Adams said in a press announcement last October, “That’s why the omnipresence of police officers and the removal of those who are dealing with mental health issues is crucial.” Omnipresence is now a pivotal, explicit part of municipal strategy. In his speech, Adams used the term four times, and Janno Lieber, chair and CEO of the MTA, expressed his approval of flooding the trains with officers—“to maximize the presence, the omnipresence, what a great word, omnipresence.”

It’s obvious why law and order, time and again, is a boon to the right. The Republican celebration of Penny as a kind of Kyle Rittenhouse of the Big Apple made that clear. (Florida governor Ron DeSantis: “We must defeat the Soros-Funded DAs, stop the Left’s pro-criminal agenda, and take back the streets for law abiding citizens. We stand with Good Samaritans like Daniel Penny. Let’s show this Marine . . . America’s got his back.”) Supposed liberals like our mayor and governor, however, have the bizarre task of giving rapacious policy a human face—and in the case of Adams, a Black face. “One of our own is dead,” he intoned gravely, after the indictment had come in. And later, more mystifyingly, “My son’s name is Jordan.”

5. The scale of struggle is the city

Actions on May 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8, which filled subway platforms, blocked street traffic in Manhattan and Brooklyn, invaded the Manhattan Bridge, and in one transfixing instance culminated with the obstruction of the Q tracks and felony charges for some participants—we hadn’t seen street mobilization so robust and aggressive since the summer of 2020. And amid the slogans and placards passed down from prior waves of rage, a new chant: Fuck Eric Adams.

In the aftermath of a spontaneous national uprising and a vigorous national backlash, the scale of struggle is the city. Conflicts at the level of city governance, city infrastructure, the city’s rental market, fiscal policy, natural features, and public spaces not only comprise the most visible contact between politics and daily life, but open out onto the function, political power, and yes, funding of the cops. Any struggle that poses a serious threat to the balance of forces—notwithstanding the role of state and federal funding at the municipal level—will find itself, eventually or immediately, face to face with the city’s police.

Every city is different. The fights in each will be shaped by the particularities of the terrain. Penny’s arraignment took place in the middle of the most recent Week of Action in Atlanta, where demonstrators and tree-sitters have been acting and organizing since 2021 to defend the Weelaunee Forest from being razed for the Atlanta Police Foundation’s training facility, or “Cop City.” Many forest defenders are facing domestic terrorism charges. One of them, Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, was killed by Georgia State Patrol. In Chicago, Brandon Johnson’s campaign promise to install a more “holistic” approach to criminal justice—not, we must add, a call to abolish or even defund the cops—was enough to prompt the president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police to prophesy mass resignations and “blood in the streets.”

Johnson’s election as mayor of Chicago was based, in large part, on the power of the Chicago Teachers Union, where he was an organizer, and its domination by a reform caucus that in 2012 led the union into a strike to “Take Back Chicago” from Rahm Emanuel’s ruthless austerity. This was not just a contract fight, but a political project that culminated in an electoral victory—after Lori Lightfoot’s brutality during the uprising, and CTU efforts over eleven years.

In Atlanta, the movement is made up of a legal wing, neighborhood groups, and an anti-state contingent undertaking direct action; the latest victory, in the midst of a struggle involving both face-to-face organizing and rounds and rounds of torched property, was the approval of the petition that may at last submit the Cop City building project to a referendum.

Chicago’s schools, Atlanta’s forest. Perhaps the New York City subway—its desperate condition, vital function, and crucial place at the nexus of the crises of housing, public services, work, and the police—will be the site of a new left formation, which will build power with its own militants, composition, and tactics.

We can’t stop thinking about the people who jumped onto the Q tracks. They weren’t just arresting train traffic or calling for punishment of Penny, but saying something with their sudden leap. They were asserting—in the face of the elite reflex to make excuses for Neely’s death—that they share a world with this killing, and that they have a world to win.

The time has come to plan and do new things; that much is clear. This clarity sometimes comes when a new name is being screamed in the street.

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