Any day that I spend as a sub in a British secondary school classroom, I have reason to bring up where I’m from, New York City. The students of course want to know all about it, and conversation on that level tends to flow easily. One thing I don’t hear from the kids is myths and sensationalism, references to nothing but rampant crime and so forth. Sure, one boy asked me just this week if I was a Blood or a Crip, but generally the comments are sincere and inquisitive. NYC doesn’t prompt knee-jerk negativity, but rather excitement, and that’s nice, and it’s the way it should be.
I haven’t had the opportunity to talk with students about the killing of Jordan Neely, but it’s been percolating. I rode the subway regularly with my grandmother in the mid to late ’70s while she was living on West 34th Street, I think near 10th Avenue. I was 7 or 8 when I started coming in from nearby New Rochelle and sleeping over. She took me to playgrounds, museums, parks, lots of places. The subway tokens had those Y cutouts. The trains were fully graffiti-bombed. I remember a fair amount from these years, but I do not recall a single troubling or scary subway incident, which I think is mainly a testament to my grandmother’s confidence, awareness and judgment.
Without hesitancy or fear — again thanks to grandma on some subconscious level at least — I moved into the city in 1987, at the age of 19. I remained for 30 years, leaving in 2017. One of the first things that seized my attention was the city’s indifference to the crisis of homelessness. It was in fact the issue that sparked my adult commitment to progressive politics in general. I remember writing a letter to the editor in response to a horrible op-ed with “Craziness, Dope and Danger” in the headline — a screed that perfectly captured the prevailing view of homelessness as a crime, and anyone in that terrible, desperate situation as a criminal, deserving of revulsion and contempt at best, harsh punishment at worst. Perhaps a deadly chokehold of the kind that a trained Marine sergeant could pull off in a heartbeat.
Of course I can’t count the number of times I encountered deeply troubled people on the subway, most of whom walked through the car quickly and showed no enmity or physical aggression toward anyone. Although sometimes, sure — people could seem unhinged or unpredictable, and there were times I was uncomfortable. Unsafe is a stretch. Mainly, I didn’t love the fact that the longer I lived in NYC, the more desensitised I became. I didn’t like blowing past people asking for change in view of my daughters, who would sometimes ask why I didn’t help. In the aftermath of Jordan Neely’s death, the words “why didn’t I help” take on another, more urgent meaning.
The other day a hack pundit said that people who don’t live in New York should “take a seat,” that if you condemn Daniel Penny for that chokehold but don’t know what it’s like to be in a subway car with a mentally ill homeless person, your view has no merit. Well, I have been in that subway car, a million times, and how dare this pundit (whose initials are Batya Ungar-Sargon) speak for this New Yorker and all others.
Penny will get his day in court, and I’m not here to parse the legal categories of murder and manslaughter. No, I wasn’t in that particular subway car, but neither were Penny’s apologists, and I’m dismayed they’re so ready to cast Neely’s humanity aside at an instant.
You would absolutely expect this from Ron DeSantis, who has hailed Penny as a Good Samaritan and urged the public to support his legal defence. Racist Twitter creeps are loudly claiming Penny as a fighter for freedom. The far right has created another Kyle Rittenhouse, another Mark and Patricia McCloskey. They claim to hold the line against violence, yet they celebrate the violence they approve of, at every opportunity.