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Protesters gather at the Broadway-Lafayette subway station to demonstrate against the killing of Jordan Neely, who was choked to death on May 1 by another passenger, in New York, on May 6.HILARY SWIFT/The New York Times News Service

Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.

On May 1, Daniel Penny placed Jordan Neely, a man who had reportedly been screaming on a Lower Manhattan subway, in a chokehold. Mr. Neely did not survive.

A predictable culture-wars split has ensued. Some have praised Mr. Penny – who is a white Marine veteran – for his courage, while acknowledging the tragic outcome. Others point out that Mr. Neely – who was Black, homeless, and had a difficult childhood – was killed on the subway and is now, you know, dead.

Then there’s the question of the bystanders. Was their failure to intervene on Mr. Neely’s behalf – and in some cases, their choice to assist Mr. Penny in restraining Mr. Neely – evidence of human callousness? Or does it suggest that a group of diverse, subway-riding New Yorkers deemed Mr. Neely dangerous, and were if anything relieved that someone else had taken on this scary situation?

The whole story hinges on whether Mr. Neely posed a threat to the physical safety of Mr. Penny or others in that subway car, something that even video of the proceedings has failed to establish. According to Juan Alberto Vazquez, who reported firsthand on what took place in the subway car, Mr. Neely’s utterances included, “‘I don’t care if I go to jail, and if they give me life in prison ... I am ready to die.’”

That does not not sound like what a person might say before opening fire in a subway car. (Remember that in the United States, threats not infrequently precede mass shootings.) But it also sounds like the sort of remark that could be part of a more commonplace subway rant that one might tune out.

Mr. Neely had a long history of violent behaviour, including pleading guilty to endangering a child. Maybe this is immaterial. Certainly, as coverage in The New York Times correctly points out, “Mr. Penny and the other riders on the train would not have known about Mr. Neely’s history of arrests.”

It’s not far-fetched, however, that some riders might have encountered Mr. Neely before. For at least a decade, he had been known for menacing people on the subway; the Times reported that 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.” This, in a city of more than 8 million.

New York protesters demand criminal charges in chokehold killing on subway

I wasn’t on that subway car. I have, however, commuted plenty by subway, particularly in New York City and Toronto, and have witnessed aggressive behaviour in both places. New York subways are grimier but livelier than their Toronto equivalents, and boisterous arguments are much more commonplace in the former – but there as here, riders generally make it out unscathed.

If you don’t ride public transit regularly, this may be hard to picture. Maybe you imagine – incorrectly – that subways are a violent hellscape. Conversely, you might hear “Michael Jackson impersonator” and “mentally ill” and think, here was a quirky eccentric, killed for being himself.

The reality is that big-city North American subways are usually fine, but when they’re not – and lately, these exceptions are becoming less exceptional – you’re trapped underground with someone terrifying. But was the “someone terrifying” in this story Mr. Neely, or Mr. Penny? Or both?

To armchair-adjudicate the specifics is understandable, but it also misses the point. The point is that a man was killed on the subway, which should be a prompt to think about how to avoid this ever happening again.

Perhaps Mr. Penny acted in self-defence. But the idea that the appropriate response when someone seems threatening on the subway is to physically subdue them sets a terrifying precedent. It will lead to avoidable escalations of minor disputes. In societies with widespread gun ownership, it’s likely to go especially awry.

In an ideal world, someone like Mr. Neely would have gotten the help he needed. In the actual world, there are ethical questions surrounding forcing people to get help they don’t want. Some people will always be unpredictable. Official responses do not have to be.

To pre-empt vigilantism, there needs to be someone – a transit worker, a social worker, or even, say, a cop – who is visible and making the rounds on transit. This someone would have proper training about what requires intervention and what does not, and would do something if necessary, where “do something” falls well short of killing, unless lives are truly at stake. The subway should not be a place for grand gestures. It should be a place for getting around.

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