Hello from paternity “leave.” I hadn’t been planning on writing here again so soon. But I read something I felt compelled to comment on and thought I’d dash something off before Ganz or someone else does the same.
The thing I read was the first interview with Daniel Penny, the subway rider caught on video choking Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old homeless man, to death earlier this month. Penny and Neely have been talked about endlessly since, both easily slotted into the dialogue that almost automatically follows videos of this type. (And yes, cell phone footage of a white man and/or authority figure killing a Black person has not only sadly become a “type,” we may look back on it as the defining U.S. film genre of the past ten years.)
The Racket is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Acting on instinct, the American right immediately canonized Penny as a hero, trading on his status as a Marine, and by explicit analogy with Kyle Rittenhouse and perhaps implicitly George Zimmerman.In a now internet-famous tweet combining antisemitic conspiracism with white Christian nationalist vigilantism, Florida governor and (maybe vice?) presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis called Penny a “Good Samaritan” who represented the hope of “tak[ing] back the streets for law abiding citizens” from the “Soros-Funded DAs.” The former Guantánamo Bay inquisitor made sure to highlight Penny’s military status (“Let’s show this Marine... America’s got his back”) as he spearheaded a fundraising campaign that has brought in $2.7 million for his legal defense.
On the more “intellectual” side, we had William Voegeli, editor of the hard-right Claremont Institute book review and self-described opponent of compassion, weighing in with an argument that Penny’s actions were the inevitable result of a government that refuses to “keep you out of situations involving homeless people.” He wrote, “Until that entity is established and proves capable of meeting New York’s crisis…you’ll have to figure out for yourself which situations do and do not pose a genuine threat.” In other words, until the homeless are physically segregated away from the rest of the population, subway riders will occasionally have to murder them. Nowhere, it should be noted, does Voegeli argue that Neely did anything more than “screaming in an aggressive manner.”
If this all sounds a bit fashy to you, well, I’m right there with you. (Matt Gaetz, who absolutely can’t help himself, called Penny a “Subway Superman,” which I have to note would translate cleanly and alliteratively to another city’s public transportation system as U-Bahn Übermensch.) Penny, Rittenhouse, Zimmerman, Perry (see the footnote below)—what all these right-wing heroes have in common is that they perceived a threat in the form of a Black body or progressive social protest and reacted with deadly violence, only to face a legal consequence. That there was no actual threat seems only to make the desire to defend these vigilantes stronger. As Voegeli says, “These situations will sometimes feel dangerous and occasionally be dangerous.” To a certain kind of thinking, the perception of a threat and the actuality of a threat are one and the same.
But, right, the interview. Over the weekend, Penny granted an interview to the New York Post. The Post set its interview story in what you might call stock anti-woke aesthetics, from the headline (“Daniel Penny, charged in Jordan Neely death, breaks silence: ‘I am not a white supremacist’”) with its forceful rejection of both “cancel culture” and accusations of racism, to the interview’s setting: a gazebo in a park in Babylon, N.Y., “not far from the Long Island beaches where he grew up surfing.” In repackaging the story, other outlets picked up the anti-anti-racist framing (“Mr. Penny insisted in the interview that his encounter with Mr. Neely ‘had nothing to do with race,’” the Times wrote). But they missed the racial subtext of the setting, with its implicit contrast of the multiethnic urban F train with an 88% non-Hispanic white suburb—in a literal gazebo for crying out loud—that I don’t think would have been missed by the Post’s readership, especially in the red suburbs of Long Island.
Penny, too, at least in the way the interview was edited, seems particularly fixated on the perception of him as a racist: “I judge a person based on their character.” “Everybody who’s ever met me can tell you, I love all people, I love all cultures.” He says, with no apparent hint of irony, that he “was actually planning a road trip through Africa before this happened.” (Because, of course, no one with a hint of personal racial bias has ever gone on a safari.) Perhaps most notably of all, the article says: “He is not a vigilante, Penny said. ‘I’m a normal guy.’” I read in that the stock white American understanding of what racism is: a thing possessed by freaks in Klan hoods or swastika tattoos, not a set of biases and perceptions that “normal” people might have or act on, and that might be contingent not only on skin color but perceptions of class, dress, gender, size, and so on.
With that out of the way, and his guard down a bit, Penny gives some deeper insight into his background and thinking than we have seen so far. He talks about his years as a Marine—that he was inspired by “growing up in the wake of 9/11 and the terrorist attacks in a community full of firemen, first responders, police officers, it was like, I needed to serve my community in some way.” He recounts his deployments with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, to Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, Greece, and Spain, as well as to the Marine base on Okinawa. “We stayed off the coast of Iran for a bit,” he says. “It was during that whole drone thing when they were shooting stuff down and stuff.”
After leaving the Corps, and, as he says, missing the “adventure,” he and a friend drove from the states to Nicaragua. Along the way he got caught in “a bad hurricane in an enchanted forest in Oaxaca,” necessitating his rescue by people living nearby. “They were so friendly and kind. They really treated me like family.”
This is all meant to be humanizing detail—proof against the imagined charge that Penny hates all nonwhite people. (Though a defense that ironically requires lumping Oaxacan villagers with a Black man from Bayonne, N.J.) But it’s revealing in a different way: that Penny, caught up in the lingering nationalist fervor of an attack that happened when he was two years old, saw himself as a defender of his (extremely white, non-immigrant, suburban) community and got himself deployed to the imperial periphery. This is a very old story: the returning soldier, the taste for adventure still in his mouth, seeks out new monsters to destroy at home. And in America, those targets were social outcasts and the racial underclass. Kathleen Belew writes about it at length in Bring the War Home:
Vigilantism should be understood as violence that served to constitute, shore up, and enforce systemic power, that is to say, not only overt power wielded by the state, but also the many informal structures that upheld law and order. Because white supremacy undergirded state power throughout U.S. history, vigilantes most often served the white power structure. Vigilante violence such as lynching served to bind settlers into a unified white polity in the colonial period, and to target racial others and strengthen the state’s development in early America. It often stood in for a weak state during the westward expansion of the nation’s frontier. During World War I it worked to shore up nationalist fervor and generate the second-era, popular and mainstream Ku Klux Klan. Spectacle lynchings in the South between 1890 and 1930, and in Texas around 1915, propped up Jim Crow segregation laws and helped to ensure the docile labor pools necessary for the nation’s entry into corporate-commodity capitalism. Vigilante violence demarcated whites as separate from and more powerful than not only blacks but also Mexicans and Mexican Americans. To be sure, it also targeted white victims, particularly social outcasts, religious others, and unruly women, but for the most part—and often even when its victims were white—vigilantism simultaneously served white supremacy and the state.
We see in there all the foretokens of Voegeli’s description of Neely’s fatal ride on the F train: given a “weak” state—a state that fails to shield “normal guys” from encounters with undocile homeless people—it is up to individuals like Penny to determine whether a situation does or does not pose a “genuine threat.” And his argument the gravest sin a society can commit is judging an individual vigilante’s actions—like those of the police or a Marine actively engaged in the War on Terror—after the fact.
The most telling part of the piece was when the Post’s interviewer, Dana Kennedy, asks Penny “if he would take action again if he were in a similar situation.” As Jordan Neely’s uncle immediately noted, in effect she was asking if the killer would kill again. But the specific wording here—action—is key.
As were the words Penny chose in response:
“You know, I live an authentic and genuine life,” Penny said. “And I would — if there was a threat and danger in the present …”
Does he feel he did anything to be ashamed of?
“I don’t, I mean, I always do what I think is right.”
Action. Authentic. Genuine. Now, wrestling an unarmed, hungry, exhausted man to the ground in a crowded public place and choking the life out of him is genuinely a kind of “action,” I’ll grant that. And it is, as Penny intuits, a moral one—which is not to say morally good, but done according to a certain moral framework. From Penny and his defenders’ perspective, it was an act of protection—of care, not for Neely of course but for the other “normal” people. (Hence DeSantis’ perverse description of him as a “Good Samaritan.”) And whether Penny initially intended to kill Neely—and the fact that he kept choking the life out of him even after another passenger noted that Neely had defecated may make that legally moot in terms of the manslaughter charge—it was thus indisputably an act of dominance, of reasserting a social hierarchy. That, and only that, is why this incident on a local Queens-bound F has become national and possibly international news.
There have been, historically, various sets of morals that assert that members of one class have the unfettered right to do anything to anyone they perceive as a threat from a lesser class, up to and including murder. But the worship of “action” for its own sake, the centering of the killer’s supposed warrior status, and the demonization (and antisemitic conspiracization) of anyone who would try to hold him accountable in any way—to even so much as put him on trial in front of a jury of his peers—puts this squarely in the fascist camp. As Robert Paxton wrote of a cadre of journalists and essayists who made up the French fascist New Right of the late 1930s, “a drive toward unity, totality, authenticity, and vigor in culture served as a model for a kindred politics, and helps explain how political fascism could seem attractive to writers despite (even because of) its brutality.”
How else to characterize Voegeli’s post—whose action-fetishizing headline, I have neglected to note, was “And What Would You Have Done?” The you in there is doing most of the work. It cannot be addressing anyone who identifies with Jordan Neely—anyone who knows that by dint of their appearance, station, or affect might be identified by the Danny Pennys, Kyle Rittenhouses, and George Zimmermans of the world as a threat. No, it is obviously a call to action for anyone who already identifies themselves as the norm, and who imagines they will also be a subway—or supermarket, stadium, or perhaps state—superman when confronted with anyone they perceive as a social threat.
P.S. This piece convinced me to subscribe. Thank you.
Brilliant piece. You summed it up perfectly. Daniel Penny murdered Jordan Neely in cold blood. The length of the chokehold and standing over his dead prey when he was done while pushing would-be helpers away is all the evidence they need. This was NOT manslaughter and yet that’s the charge. Such an insult to the Neely family, including Jordan’s mother Christine who was also murdered (by her boyfriend) in a cruel and ironic twist when he was just a teenager which I’m sure contributed to his downfall. Pathetic on so many levels.