Jordan Neely, an unhoused Black man celebrated for his subway performances as Michael Jackson, was killed in a chokehold by Daniel Penny, who is now facing second-degree manslaughter charges. (Courtesy photo)
Jordan Neely, an unhoused Black man celebrated for his subway performances as Michael Jackson, was killed in a chokehold by Daniel Penny, who is now facing second-degree manslaughter charges. (Courtesy photo)

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Lately, there has been a lot of talk about how conservatives, Republicans and even some Christians are calling Daniel Penny, the ex-Marine who killed Jordan Neely, a homeless man on a subway train in New York, a hero. As a lawyer, former social worker, Christian, and an independent who voted for Trump, I want to be very clear: There was nothing heroic about the actions of Daniel Penny!

Andrellos Mitchell
Andrellos Mitchell

He killed a frail, hungry, homeless man who probably had mental health issues. I doubt that he would have jumped on a larger Black man, or even a Black man of his equal size. His actions were cowardly and reckless, and he should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law. 

It seems as if white Americans of this generation don’t know what true heroism is. I remember as a teenager in 1982 after a DC 90 plane crashed into the frozen Potomac River in D.C., and how Martin Lenny Shutnik saved the life of Priscilla Tirado following the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 by selflessly jumping into the freezing water and bringing her to the riverbank after she couldn’t take hold of a line dropped from a helicopter. He could have died from the freezing water alone.

Today, we have a different type of hero. White men like Daniel Penny, who think they have the right to kill Black men simply because of their subjective view of what is “threatening behavior.” As seen in video of the incident, while Neely’s behavior could be described as crazy or “acting out,” there was nothing genuinely threatening about it to an ordinary and reasonable person. Threatening behavior typically is intentional and usually involves more than just words. A threat of serious bodily harm or death usually involves an immediate ability to act on the threat, such as a person holding a knife, gun or some other object in a threatening manner.

In places like N.Y. and D.C., if white people were allowed to kill Black people for yelling, screaming and begging, there would be daily killings.

I don’t condone Neely’s behavior. I get sick of having to deal with aggressive and confrontational panhandlers, but choking them to death is not the answer. 

Furthermore, I am unmoved by all of the family members, loved ones, and Black leaders who cared so much about Mr. Neely, yet he was on a train begging for food, and acting out. When I look at Mr. Neely’s circumstances, there is certainly enough blame to go around. In addition to being hungry, Neely was probably like millions of people on the streets. He was probably suffering with some form of mental illness. 

We can blame Mr. Penny for killing Jordan Neely, but the lack of a safety net in NYC to help him falls squarely on the shoulders of his family, friends, non-government organizations (NGO), community leaders, and the city government, which is funded with millions of dollars to help homeless people. Where were the social workers? Where were the psychologists and psychiatrists in this man’s life? What about the homeless shelters or even just soup kitchens? 

From a legal standpoint, while I’m no fan of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and others calling Mr. Penny a murderer, there is certainly an argument that can be made for depraved heart murder (a type of murder where an individual acts with a “depraved indifference” to human life and where such act results in a death, despite that individual not explicitly intending to kill). However, I understand why Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg went with manslaughter. Penny probably didn’t have any intent to kill Neely, and manslaughter will be easier to prove than any form of murder.

What about the people who helped Daniel Penny hold down Mr. Neely? Is anyone going to discuss whether their actions were criminal? Was it aiding and abetting? Is it OK to help hold someone down while someone else chokes that person to death? Penny didn’t act alone, so everyone involved needs to be held accountable.

The people who are giving millions of dollars to Mr. Penny’s legal defense fund are the same people who couldn’t care less when police violate the civil rights of Black people and kill innocent, unarmed Black people. They simply don’t view Black lives as worthy.

Finally, do we really want to live in a world where the lives of Black men can be taken away simply because of the subjective fears of white people? I know I don’t.

Andrellos Mitchell is a D.C. lawyer with a civil and criminal law practice. He is also a former D.C. and Maryland social worker. His social work experience includes mental health, alcohol/drug abuse and family issues.

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