Blame the system itself
Self-defence is no offence, insists Daniel Lazare. The death of Jordan Neely was an avoidable tragedy
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls herself a socialist, but her reaction to the death of a violent, homeless man, after an ex-marine placed him in a chokehold on a crowded subway last week, was the opposite of everything socialism stands for.
Two days after the May 1 death, the Democratic congresswoman from the Bronx tweeted that “Jordan Neely was murdered.” A few minutes after that, she upped the ante by calling his death “a public murder ... that reinforces existing power structures”. On May 4, she tweeted again: “Killing is wrong. Killing the poor is wrong. Killing the mentally ill is wrong. Why is that so hard to say?”
As protestors blocked subway lines, baited the police and fought with bystanders, AOC added on May 6:
Despite what Fox News wants you to believe, being afraid of an unarmed person is not a reason to kill them. We should never accept a society where such rationale becomes normal. Especially when powerful incentives exist in politics and media to keep people afraid of each other.1
Considering that a poor black man had just been killed, why were such statements anti-socialist? Let us count the ways.
First was the rush to judgment. ‘Murder’ is not a term to be used lightly. If the 24-year-old Daniel Penny intended to kill Neely, it would be appropriate. But, if he placed Neely in a chokehold merely to restrain him, it would not. Yet here was Ocasio-Cortez, the darling of the Democratic Socialists of America, tossing the word about before the facts were in. Due process and the presumption of innocence are all-important for socialists - but not for a politician on the make, like AOC.
Second was the pseudo-left reference to “existing power structures”. After four years in the House of Representatives, Ocasio-Cortez is an A-list member, if ever there was one. Politico recently praised her for transforming herself from “the ultimate Democratic disruptor” to an “insider” and “team player”, who has gotten key committee assignments in return for playing along with the Dem leadership.2 She has voted to impose an unfair contract on rail workers, to fund Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ missile defence system and to send military aid to the pro-Nazi government in Ukraine. She has also praised Joe Biden for exceeding progressive “expectations”, whatever that means.
Penny, on the other hand, is anything but an A-lister. After working in a surf shop in North Carolina, he was unemployed and in New York looking for a job as a bartender. Had the US entered directly into the Ukraine conflict while he was still in the military, he is just the sort of young person who would have wound up in harm’s way as a result of AOC’s pro-war policies.
Third, there is the phony moralism. Of course, killing is bad. But the Pentagon represents a form of ‘Murder Inc’ on a scale that an Al Capone or Pablo Escobar could scarcely have imagined. So why does AOC condemn murder, while supporting a capitalist war machine capable of vaporising millions of people in a flash?
Fourth is the cavalier dismissal of subway riders’ very real fears. According to The New York Times, city subways saw 10 murders last year - five times pre-pandemic levels.3 On January 20, a 34-year-old man died after being pushed onto the tracks. On April 6, an 18-year-old was stabbed to death in a train in Brooklyn. Four days later, a 17-year-old was shot and killed in the Bronx, while another teenager was wounded. “Subway violence is a one-in-a-million event,” Tiffany Cabán - an attorney who won a seat on the New York City council with backing from the DSA - tweeted last September. “... let’s not let fear-mongering politicians and corporate media outlets scare us into thinking we have a dangerous, scary public transit system.”4
However, just days later, police said a vagrant who had done time for killing his own grandmother chased a woman through a subway station in the New York City borough of Queens, throwing her to the floor and pummelling her repeatedly.5 Noted The New York Times:
Every New Yorker has a story of witnessing an outburst or a violent episode on the subway and struggling over how to respond: to confront or flee; to intervene when two riders are at odds; to call for a police officer; or to look away.
“If I see something happen, I get up and go to the next car,” a 45-year-old building superintendent told the paper. “You don’t get involved - you could end up hurt, you could end up killed.”6
The fifth reason that AOC’s response is rightwing and anti-socialist, finally, is that it ignores the crucial issue of self-defence. While all the facts are not in, what we know so far is that Neely was a genuinely scary character and that passengers had cause to be afraid when he stepped onto the train. Police say his behaviour was “hostile and erratic”, while a freelance journalist named Juan Alberto Vasquez said he was taken aback when Neely started yelling about being hungry and thirsty. “I don’t mind going to jail and getting life in prison,” Vasquez recalled him saying. “I’m ready to die.”7
“And then I heard him take off his jacket,” Vasquez went on. “He bundled it up and just threw it on the floor, very violently. You could hear the sound of the zipper hitting the floor. At that moment, when he threw the jacket, the people who were sitting around him stood up and moved away. He kept standing there and he kept yelling.”8
If Penny had reason to believe that someone was about to get hurt, then he was within his legal rights in stepping in. But self-defence is not just something that bourgeois criminal law permits, but something that socialists recognise and defend. Lenin wrote about the “absolute order and devotedly observed comradely discipline” that a workers’ militia would impose, adding in State and revolution: “We are not utopians, and do not in the least deny the possibility and inevitability of excesses on the part of individual persons, or the need to stop such excesses.” But “this will be done by the armed people themselves, as simply and as readily as any crowd of civilised people, even in modern society, interferes to put a stop to a scuffle or to prevent a woman from being assaulted.”9
If a crowd can interfere to put a stop to a scuffle, then an individual worker can interfere to put a stop to what looks like an impending assault. The notion that bystanders should keep their head down when others are at risk induces passivity and reinforces the role of the bourgeois state - which is quite rich coming from people who just a couple of years ago were calling for the defunding of the police.
It will be up to a jury to determine if Penny went too far. But so far the evidence is on his side. Videos show two other men helping to restrain Neely as he thrashed about, an indication that Penny was not the only one who saw him as a threat. They show him laying Neely on his side, as bystanders offer compliments and advice. “Don’t leave him on his back, man, he might choke on his own spit,” says one man. “He ain’t gonna die,” adds another - evidence that the crowd was with Penny and that restraint was the goal.10
“It just seemed as if he was restraining him physically as much as he could,” another rider recounted. “...[T]he other people who were there, who had already grasped what was going on, were like, ‘This guy is protecting us’ ... there was consensus that this was the right thing to do.”11
Minor details like these did not stop the usual crowd of self-serving politicians, TV talking heads and racial demagogues from turning the incident into a classic media circus. The Marcyites - a group that has headed off in an increasingly Stalinist direction ever since splitting off from the US Socialist Workers Party in 1956 - were out in force, calling the death “a public lynching, reminiscent of the police killing of George Floyd”.12 Black Lives Matter - mired in scandal ever since founder Patrissse Cullors admitted hosting parties at a $6 million Los Angeles mansion that the group purchased in 2020 - put out a statement that what Neely needed was “care, not vigilantes, needlessly taking matters into their own hands”.13 The National Alliance to End Homelessness called for Penny’s immediate arrest, while another group calling itself the National Homelessness Law Center put out a statement condemning “the [New York Police Department], mayor Eric Adams and governor Kathy Hochul for their failure to hold Jordan’s vigilante killer responsible, and for their subsequent efforts to shield his murderer and smear a murder victim”.14
The National Alliance’s board of directors is stuffed with investment bankers and CEOs like Robert Broeksmit of the Mortgage Bankers Association and Gary Parsons, chairman of XM Satellite Radio, while the law centre’s board is filled with representatives of elite law firms (Baker Donelson, Simpson Thatcher, etc), as well as corporations like Bank of America and the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. These are people who have benefited from the flood of liquidity that the Federal Reserve and other central bankers unleashed in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown - money that has served to pump up financial assets and real estate to astronomical levels, thereby throwing millions of people into the streets because they can no longer afford to keep a roof over their head. Yet now the same Wall Streeters claim to be helping the homeless by assailing working people for trying to cope with a problem that they created.
It brings to mind Marx’s astute observation in his Economic manuscripts of 1861-63:
A philosopher produces ideas, a poet poems, a clergyman sermons, a professor compendia and so on. A criminal produces ... not only crimes, but also criminal law, and with this also the professor who gives lectures on criminal law and in addition to this the inevitable compendium in which this same professor throws his lectures onto the general market ... The criminal moreover produces the whole of the police and of criminal justice, constables, judges, hangmen, juries, etc.15
By the same token, homelessness produces social-justice warriors, political hustlers, elite lawyers seeking to burnish their credentials with a bit of charity work on the side, plus pseudo-socialists like AOC who ignore the real problems of working people, while supporting the imperial war drive. It also produces journalists like Katharine Viner, who earns £509,850 a year as editor of The Guardian and who was quick to charge that “the lack of an arrest ... reinforce[s] longstanding racial disparities over who gets charged for crimes in the city and nationally”.16
Yes, such disparities are a scandal. But there is no evidence - zero, zilch, nada - that they are a factor in this case or that Penny’s actions were racially motivated. If Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg has not filed charges, it is because he knows it is unlikely that a jury composed of working class subway riders will vote to convict.
Make no mistake about it - Neely was both desperate and dangerous. Scrounging for spare change as a sidewalk Michael Jackson impersonator, he suffered from schizophrenia according to family members and had pitched downhill to the point of becoming part of what city outreach workers call the ‘Top 50’ - a roster of homeless people most in need of assistance and treatment. He racked up more than three dozen arrests, mostly for turnstile-jumping and trespassing, but at least four for punching people, two of them in the subway system. In 2019, he banged on a subway booth agent’s door, threatening to kill her. In November 2021, he punched a 67-year-old woman as she was exiting a subway station on the Lower East Side, breaking her nose and orbital bone. After he threatened an outreach worker in early April, another noted that he was aggressive and incoherent: “He could be a harm to others or himself if left untreated,” the worker wrote.17
Yet each time he was allowed to slip through the cracks. It is a crime that the system did nothing to help Neely or prevent him from harming others. But it is not the fault of the working class.