Notes on the Jordan Neely Subway Tragedy

Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

A 30-year-old man behaves erratically on an afternoon New York City subway train. In an aggressive tone, in the midst of an apparent mental-health crisis, he declares, “I don’t have food; I don’t have a drink; I’m fed up. I don’t mind going to jail and getting life in prison. I’m ready to die.” A fellow passenger––a 24-year-old former marine––grabs him and uses a chokehold to restrain him, with assistance from others. Soon after, the 30-year-old, Jordan Neely, dies. The medical examiner ruled the cause of death homicide by compression of the neck. Some witnesses to the incident have spoken to the press, whereas others have yet to do so.

Where do you land on any of the ongoing debates about Jordan Neely, the man who was killed; Daniel Penny, the man who killed him; subsequent protests in New York City; or associated issues such as homelessness, the mental-health system, whether the race of Neely (Black) and Penny (white) are relevant or not, whether Neely’s history of perpetrating violence bears on the altercation, and when it is legitimate, if ever, for bystanders to intervene to preempt a perceived threat?

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Conversations of Note

National Review editorialized that “Jordan Neely did not deserve to die after a former Marine restrained him by the neck on the F train in Manhattan,” then blamed New York City for his death:

Constrained by outdated law and updated progressive shibboleths, the city’s amply funded institutions had effectively abandoned Neely to his psychosis and his addictions, leaving him on the street to be a danger to himself and others. Neely had been arrested 40 times in recent years, many for minor infractions like turnstile jumping, but more recently for assault. In 2021, he punched a 67-year-old woman in the street, breaking her nose and causing severe facial injuries. He repeatedly bounced in and out of the hands of well-funded institutions in New York: hospitals, mental-health facilities, and shelters. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Neely was on what outreach workers refer to as the ‘Top 50’ list—a roster maintained by the city of the homeless people living on the street whom officials consider most urgently in need of assistance and treatment. He was taken to hospitals numerous times, both voluntarily and involuntarily.”

When he was facing charges for his assault, the city’s judicial authorities bent over backward to induce him to take up a 15-month drug-rehab program, even promising to reduce his felony charges. Neely abandoned the facility after 13 days. A warrant was out for his arrest.

We would not be hearing sermonettes about anti-blackness and white supremacy if Jordan Neely had died of an overdose in a shelter or on the street. Or if he had been killed, as dozens of other young homeless people have been killed on the subway in recent years, by a perpetrator of his same skin color. Ocasio Cortez and Bishop Swan would have had nothing to say, because Jordan Neely only became interesting to them when his death could be used to indict whites collectively. It is an attempt to scapegoat the reactionary other for the utter failure of progressive blue-state institutions. It is a disgrace.

The writer John Ganz wants charges filed in the case so a jury can determine guilt or innocence. He writes:

Neely’s life did not matter because he was pleasing to others or a perfect victim. It mattered, full stop. That is why his death must be properly investigated. There can be no one so low as to be beneath the protection of the law. That is an absolute and unquestionable principle of justice. And it’s a trap to try to saint him in death. It basically accepts the premise of those celebrating his killing: that these are the type of facts that could justify and excuse it. One frightening story from Neely’s past will make the whole thing crumble. Neely may have been a kind man, he may have been cruel man, Neely may have been mentally ill, Neely may have been a dangerous criminal, he may have been “socially useful” or “useless”, he may have been all these things at different times in his life: none of that matters. He was a man, not a rabid animal.

I think the public response to Jordan Neely’s killing demonstrates a deep moral rot in our city and country. It shows that sentiments that were once made shameful are now being openly expressed in public. I generally try to stay optimistic and believe people are more good than bad, or at least more docile than ferocious, but if this is where people are at, to the point where even public officials will not speak up properly, then I genuinely fear what comes next.

My colleague Elizabeth Bruenig argues that fear was inextricably linked to the tragic outcome on the subway that day:

Many people feel uncomfortable when confronted with someone in an acute crisis. But certain factors can turn an uncomfortable situation into an intolerable one, such as living in a society where anybody could have a gun, where any agitation can boil over into mass murder. An irate neighbor slaying five people with an AR-15-style rifle after a noise complaint in Texas; an unstable Coast Guard veteran killing one and injuring four while attending an appointment with his mother in an Atlanta hospital. The stakes in any given episode of public agitation or distress or even psychosis aren’t typically all that high; the majority of people having crises at any time represent no risk to anyone (save, perhaps, themselves), but the incessant rat-a-tat of bloody headlines makes people feel—viscerally—that the risks they do encounter are unbearably dangerous.

In common places, we meet one another with a particular disposition: We try to avoid friction, signal politeness, and keep the flow of society moving. This works well, so long as everyone participates. But we must also be disposed toward people in the world who cannot just get along—because of mental illness, acute emotional distress, or other reasons beyond or within their control—and how ought we meet them? With compassion, perhaps, or with concern, even worry, but tempered with fellow feeling. Fear, however, chases out these finer emotions, and fear is the disposition we’ve grown accustomed to. Presumably it’s the legitimacy of this fear that persuaded law enforcement to release the 24-year-old killer with no charges so far.

This process, through which mundane uncomfortable situations are transformed into terrifying ordeals by all the incidents of random gun violence that came before, is one means by which a healthy community becomes a violent society.

In his New York Times newsletter, John McWhorter explains the reasons for his own fearfulness on the New York City subway:

The fact that Penny, as of this writing, has not been arrested pending more information seems unconscionable regardless of legal niceties. Based on what is known, it seems obvious that cutting off someone’s oxygen supply for so long would risk killing him—especially following the notorious choking deaths of Eric Garner and, more recently, George Floyd. At the same time, the conversation among political leaders in the news and on social media has largely ignored the experience of legions of subway-riding New Yorkers …

… We must be able to keep in our minds two things. One is that Neely was unjustifiably killed. The other is that the episode, in all of its horror, highlights what New York City subway riders are being asked to endure daily—and that this, too, is not just … About once every week one can expect to be in a car with a person, almost always male, who is actively menacing other passengers. I know these men can’t help it. Many are without homes and not in full control of their faculties. I suspect that they are often lonely and part of what they are doing is seeking some kind of human connection—to be mentally ill can be to find even negative attention a kind of solace compared to no attention at all …

They walk up and down the subway car yelling into individual faces. They stomp. They ball their fists. They curse. These are not just troubled supplicants who occasionally get a little pushy. They are men who make you genuinely afraid that you are about to be assaulted. And in my experience these men are most likely to be directly confrontational with women … Men in a state of potentially violent agitation are now so common on the subway that I am wary of having my daughters, ages 8 and 11, ride with me, especially after an incident when one such man singled us out and I had to quietly instruct my girls to keep their eyes down and not move.

Donald Trump’s ‘Unfortunate’ Behavior

In The Atlantic, David Graham details why jurors may have had an easy time concluding that former President Donald Trump sexually abused and defamed the writer E. Jean Carroll:

On one side was Carroll, whose account of the incident was clear, consistent, and nauseating in its specificity. Carroll sued Trump for defamation after he brushed off the allegation by saying, “She’s not my type.” On the other side was Trump. The former president faced a challenge in defending himself in the case. Much of Carroll’s account matched a modus operandi that at least 26 women who accused Trump of sexual assault have described. Carroll interviewed five of them for a series in The Atlantic in 2020. (Trump denies the allegations.) Trump himself described his approach in the infamous leaked recording from Access Hollywood in which he boasted about sexually assaulting women. “You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” he said. “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

Trump also didn’t bother to show up for the trial, claiming that he wanted to spare New Yorkers the traffic jams his presence would cause … by failing to show up, he sent a message to the jury that he wasn’t invested in defending himself. Carroll’s lawyers made Trump a presence in the courtroom anyway, playing excerpts from a deposition for the case to devastating effect. In one instance, going straight at Trump’s “not my type” defense, Carroll’s lawyer showed him a photograph of Carroll. Asked to identify her, he mistook Carroll for his ex-wife Marla Maples, whom Trump had to admit was his type.

More appalling was his discussion of the Access Hollywood tape. Trump, both in the past and in the deposition, wrote that off as “locker room” talk. But he couldn’t bring himself to repudiate or even distance himself from the comments, even now, nearly two decades later. “Well, historically, that’s true with stars,” he said. “True with stars that they can grab women by the pussy?” Carroll’s attorney Roberta Kaplan asked. “Well, that’s what—if you look over the last million years, I guess that’s been largely true,” Trump said. “Not always, but largely true. Unfortunately or fortunately.”

In the Washington Examiner, Tim Carney writes:

Today’s sexual abuse and defamation verdicts in Trump’s civil trial might be the first time he’s paid any serious price for living his life with total disregard for morality or for other people.

A reader’s coda

Edith felt something was missing from recent roundups of reader emails on trans issues:

There’s a perspective missing from this “debate:” the one that unequivocally sees transness as joy and goodness. Being trans is a wonderful thing. Gender nonconformity makes us into magical creatures that can navigate on both sides and even the edge of the gender coin. It is miraculous and wonderful and needs to be celebrated.

The capacity of trans folks for wonder is immeasurable.

Provocation of the Week

In Persuasion, the writer William Deresiewicz argues that although AI might put some artists out of business, “it will not—cannot—make good art, great art: true art. Which is to say, original art.”

As he sees it:

AI operates by making high-probability choices: the most likely next word, in the case of written texts. Artists—painters and sculptors, novelists and poets, filmmakers, composers, choreographers—do the opposite. They make low-probability choices. They make choices that are unexpected, strange, that look like mistakes. Sometimes they are mistakes, recognized, in retrospect, as happy accidents. That is what originality is, by definition: a low-probability choice, a choice that has never been made.

The African masks in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, to take one of a million examples, were a low-probability choice. So were the footnotes in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. So was the 40-second chord at the end of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” So is every new metaphor. Elizabeth Hardwick, who wrote criticism at the pitch of art, was famous for her adjectives: “the clamorous serenity of [Frost’s] old age,” Plath’s “ambitious rage,” the “aggressive simplicity“ of the old New York aristocracy. None of these were probable. There are words, in art, for that which is: derivative, stale, clichéd. Boring.

Low-probability choices are leaps: lateral and unpredictable, associative and idiosyncratic. Where do they come from? Inspiration, we say, a word that explains by not explaining. Inspiration is mysterious (not the same as mystical, though some would say it’s that, as well).

Its nature is obscure. It is neither conscious nor unconscious but instead involves a delicate and frequently elusive interplay between the two. It is serendipitous—like standing in a thunderstorm, said Randall Jarrell, and hoping to be struck by lightning. That is why successful works cannot be replicated even by the artists who create them. Every new one is a voyage of discovery, its destination unforeseeable—the very opposite of creating, as the AIs do, to a set of specifications. “The main thing in beginning a novel,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “is to feel, not that you can write it, but that it exists on the far side of a gulf, which words can’t cross: that it’s to be pulled through only in a breathless anguish.” Quality in art is an emergent property: it arises in the doing, in a dialogic dance between the artist and the work. As the work takes shape, it shows the artist what it wants to be.

That’s all for this week––see you next time.

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