An act by a 'Good Samaritan' or a case of 'murder': The rift in how US views subway chokehold death

A former Marine stops a violent homeless man from harassing subway passengers, choking him into submission and drawing accolades for his willingness to step in.

A well-known Black street performer who struggled with mental health and homelessness for years dies at the hands of a white military man in front of horrified onlookers.

Jordan Neely's May 1 death on a New York City subway train highlights the Grand Canyon-size rift between the left and the right in the U.S. in how we see race relations and social justice amid an ongoing national debate about crime and vigilante justice. It's a rift that politicians are eager to exploit as part of the 2024 presidential election, experts say.

Rashad Robinson, the president of the online-focused civil rights group Color Of Change, said many white people see Penny's actions as justified because they see police officers doing the same thing, a situation exacerbated by politicians who refused to condemn Neely's death and oppose vigilante justice.

"It should not be surprising, given both the rhetoric we see from police and lack of accountability in a really broad way, and the fascination and media portrayals of vigilantism and vigilante justice," he said. "The fact is that Black people just don’t have to worry about being strangled by police, but by a regular citizen feeling empowered and supported by elected officials."

What charges does Daniel Penny face in Jordan Neely's death?

Neely, 30, was yelling at people on a subway car when he got into an altercation with Daniel Penny, who grabbed him in a chokehold from behind and took him to the floor until he stopped moving, according to police and witnesses.

Although Penny didn't know it at the time, Neely had a long history of relatively minor criminal charges but had also been jailed for assault. The former street performer also struggled with mental health issues and was unhoused, according to his family.

Prosecutors have charged Penny, 24, with manslaughter in Neely's death, and a fundraiser for his legal bills has raised more than $2.4 million after conservatives called for donations as a show of support. A fundraiser for Neely's funeral arrangements has raised about $140,000.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, shared a link to the Penny fundraiser with his 1.7 million Twitter followers.

"We stand with Good Samaritans like Daniel Penny. Let’s show this Marine... America’s got his back," DeSantis wrote, urging people to "take back the streets for law abiding citizens."

But Democratic New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticized the official response to Neely's death, saying in a tweet that he was "murdered," and blasted police and prosecutors for treating Neely's life as "too low" to care about.

Do all lives still matter?

California-based civil rights attorney Adante Pointer said Neely's death represents a troubling rebound of the "nasty underbelly" of American society that quieted down immediately following George Floyd's May 25, 2020, murder by police in Minneapolis.

Like others, Pointer said Neely's death echoes the divide demonstrated by the case against Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who in 2020 killed two men during Black Lives Matter protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse became popular among right-wing Americans who said he was right to have killed people who threatened him.

Pointer said more recent incidents of white men shooting or killing people for turning into their driveway or ringing their doorbell demonstrate a widespread sentiment: It's OK to kill someone who upsets you. He said it's a reminder of the disingenuous position some conservatives took when they insisted that "all lives matter" during the Black Lives Matter protests following Floyd's murder.

"Mr. Neely is the latest in a string of incidents where people chose violence to address everyday circumstances," he said. "The further we move away from the George Floyd era, the more the pendulum seems to be swinging back toward white nationalism and people seeing violence being a tool that solves the nation's problems."

Donors to Penny's defense fund have lauded him for his actions: "Do the right thing. Dan did. It's not that tough," wrote one anonymous donor who gave $5,000.

Wrote another: "The blame lies with the politicians that have done nothing to address this problem. Citizens have the right to defend themselves. He did the right thing and protected fellow riders."

And Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, a Republican, is now proposing a federal "stand your ground" law that would empower anyone to "return fire" if they felt their life was threatened. The law would also explicitly allow people to use force to defend themselves if they felt someone was about to hurt them. Many states have similar laws on the books.

"No American should ever be under the duty to retreat," Gaetz said on Twitter. "Especially in these days."

What happens next?

Neely's funeral services are expected to take place Friday in New York City.

Penny has not yet entered a plea in the case, and is due back in court July 17, free on a $100,000 bond. He faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

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