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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

We Need Empathy, Not Just Etiquette, On The Subway

Jordan Neely’s murder is a reminder that we need more than just civility toward other people in public. We actually need to give a damn about them.

Like many people, I have been thinking a lot about last week’s murder of Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old Black homeless man and Michael Jackson impersonator who was put in a chokehold by a 24-year-old white ex-Marine named Daniel Penny and died on the New York City subway. Neely had reportedly been asking for food and water and saying he was “ready to die.” Some news stories quoted a freelance journalist who said that Neely had been “acting erratically,” but the same witness also said that Neely “did not attack anyone.” As a medical doctor, I can imagine—without attaching moral judgment to any particular scenario—a few possibilities. Neely could have been dehydrated, chronically undernourished, or under the influence of some substance or medication. He could have had a number of medical or psychiatric issues going on. The bottom line is that it sounds like he needed help.

I can’t bring myself to watch the video of the murder—just as I haven’t watched the murder of George Floyd—but I haven’t been able to avoid the horrific still images of Neely, a certain blankness to his face as he has his life taken from him by a man who reportedly let go of Neely’s body after he went limp and has since said that he “never intended to harm Mr. Neely and could not have foreseen his untimely death.” I wasn’t on that train, and I know that a person in distress can be frightening to lay people, but I do wonder about what witnesses saw or heard, and what they thought. How could a whole train of people have failed to stop a man from being murdered? What does it say about our society that there was apparently not enough of a feeling of social responsibility among subway riders to defend the safety and well-being of Neely, even as he was reportedly making some people uncomfortable? 

I also wonder whether Penny could have followed Neely onto the train or fixated on him with the intent to harm him, or could have egged him on. How do we know that Penny and the others who aided him weren’t all in on it prior to the point at which eyewitnesses noticed the chokehold? Until the evidence has been presented in court, there’s no reason to assume that Penny’s story of responding to aggressive behavior by Neely must be true or must represent the whole truth—and it’s enraging that this narrative has largely been accepted without question. Even if eyewitnesses saw Neely shouting and Penny responding by attacking him, those eyewitnesses don’t know if there were any interactions between Penny and Neely prior, and eyewitness testimony can be incredibly unreliable.

Now, my point here is not to blame all the people who didn’t murder Neely, or to ignore important factors such as anti-Black racism and the problem of white vigilante violence; the dehumanization, stigmatization, and criminalization of those who are unhoused; the experiences of people on the subway that might impact their reactions in such a situation; and so forth. I agree with Elie Mystal, who summed things up in the Nation: “One man killed Jordan Neely—But We All Failed Him” due to our “collective rot.” 

But what were the conditions on that subway that led people not to intervene on behalf of Neely?

In one report by Nick Pinto of Hellgate NY, one witness said he had been “so deep in conversation” with a friend that he didn’t realize anything was happening until he and the friend happened upon the chokehold in progress. The witness said they were told by other bystanders that Neely had been “belligerent” and was “using aggressive panhandling.” “I was intimidated by Daniel Penny,” the friend added, also saying that he is ashamed he didn’t do anything to intervene earlier. 

Another passenger who asked to remain anonymous said that they were deep in texting until they looked up at some point and saw the scene unfolding. They approached and ascertained from those involved that Neely had been “threatening people, and the Marine was restraining him. The Marine didn’t really change his facial expression through all this, he didn’t seem stressed.” The witness assumed the restraint was OK, citing the fact that Penny “seemed like he knew what he was doing” and that the presence of other people at the scene seemed to legitimize Penny’s actions. “Maybe it’s like mob mentality, but the vibe, there was no real disagreement. There was consensus that this was the right thing to do,” he said. Still, the witness said, they “regret not intervening, and I’m not sure why I couldn’t. … Part of it was shock.” They realized something was very wrong when Neely went limp.

Everything that these witnesses say makes sense, and I don’t know that I would have reacted differently (except to say that part of me suspects that my medical training would have led me to feel more empowered to express concern for Neely’s neck being compressed. [Note May 10: “neck” substituted for original “windpipe” since neck is inclusive of windpipe and blood vessels.] Indeed, one bystander, according to the New York Times, advised Penny to use caution because he knew a chokehold was dangerous: “You don’t have to catch a murder charge,” he said. “You got a hell of a chokehold, man.”). It may have been that bystanders were not going to be able to stop a professional killer like Penny (we’ll never know, though). But I still want to ask if we can take the opportunity to rethink our responsibility to the public in general, using mass transit as a starting point.

I went to college in Cambridge, Mass., so most of my public transit experience comes from riding the MBTA subway and buses in the early 2000s, mostly on weekends or evenings. I’ve been the zoned out passenger with headphones on; I’ve been on the empty trains late at night where it’s you and a few other people and a little bit creepy; I’ve been on trains where it’s so packed that you can feel the contours of other people’s bodies up against yours as you struggle to keep yourself upright or keep hold of your belongings. I have definitely ignored people who were being loud or aggressive on the train and have felt uncomfortable at times.1 Having been raised in a car-centric city in Texas, I had taken public transit (the bus) into the inner city as a teenager for summer academic enrichment programs, but at that age I didn’t notice class signifiers (dress, accessories, uniforms, style of speech, and so forth) among passengers as much, or don’t remember there being much variation in class signifiers among passengers. In college, perhaps because I came from a lower-income family than many of my peers, I immediately noticed class signifiers and racial differences. As Mystal writes about the NYC subway—which would seem to apply to public transit in general—it’s “one of the few places in the entire country where people from all different races, creeds, and classes are forced into close contact and required to behave with a modicum of civility and empathy toward their fellow citizens, if only until the next stop.”2

Indeed, this “modicum of civility and empathy” encapsulates quite well the vibe of The Cut’s etiquette guidelines pertaining to the subway, which was just one section in their February 2023 “194 Modern Etiquette Rules for Life After COVID.” Overall, the tips struck me as a bit contradictory and annoying:3 they seemed to be about how to simultaneously package oneself so as to not be a burden to people except under very limited and specific circumstances4 but also how to take up space and own it (‘text people whenever, the burden is on the recipient, not the sender’ struck me as the most narcissistic of the tips). 

The subway/airplane tips are particularly interesting:

  • 107: “Treat subway cars and buses like church pews—sit or stand in as far as possible so no one has to climb over you.”
  • 37: “Don’t feel bad about standing up in the aisle immediately upon the plane landing.”
  • 99: “Ignore your colleagues on the subway” because “the commute, in the right light, is a sacred space not to be infringed upon.”
  • 70: Always be the first one out of a subway, office, or party—be the first one to bounce when things go wrong for any reason. “Feeling menaced? Smell smoke? Time to head out.”

The point about the sacred space (the comparison to church pews) and exiting when things go wrong take on new meaning to me in light of Neely’s murder. I get that commuting is tiring, and work is tiring, and people who commute to and from work often find themselves stressed and tired when on the train—same for those of us who have commuted to and from work on highways in cars. Hence, the need for “sacred space” in which to zone out. (Personally, I wear ear plugs when riding public transit.) But zoning out only reinforces atomization and makes it easier to ignore one’s surroundings and the needs of others around us—it’s hardly behavior worthy of a supposedly “sacred” space.

The part about leaving when things go bad seems reasonably self-protective. But again, it can be seen as a total neglect of the safety and well-being of others around you. Ryu Spaeth elaborates on this point, talking about how a subway car stalled once and people were stuck there for hours: “In such a situation, would I have rather had a companion, someone who could watch my back in case we descended into a Lord of the Flies situation? No. Even when the sacred becomes hell, it’s best to be on your own.” 

Isn’t that a bit, well, dark? One could argue that Spaeth wrote that last part in jest. But it also seems so consistent with our society’s tendency toward atomization and looking out for oneself first and foremost. Doesn’t it seem like there’s an easy path from “exit when shit goes down” to “no one has the right to make me uncomfortable” or even “I guess that guy over there is keeping us safe from that unhinged homeless guy”?

What if we harbored more than just a “modicum of civility and empathy” toward our fellow citizens, whether on the subway or in general? What if we had a culture in which we were raised to care about our fellow citizens similar to the way we care about the safety and well-being of our loved ones, family, and friends? (What if it, instead of, You Do You—as that horrible NYC mask ad proclaimed—We Do What Keeps Everyone Safe?) What if we were educated on ways to identify people in distress—say as part of health education—and to learn how to help them until professionals arrive?

I’m not saying that simply educating people on the signs of medical or psychiatric distress would have saved Jordan Neely (clearly, the “rot” runs much deeper than that). But we can certainly see from his case that public awareness and education around helping people does need to be better. (People need to feel empowered as a collective to say, Stop Choking This Man!, and to try to stop it. I know I would want someone to have intervened had I been Jordan Neely.) I’m also not implying in any way that had Daniel Penny simply been better educated on health issues impacting the homeless, he would not have killed Neely. In fact, I very much doubt that, and his motives to me are highly suspicious. While I have my doubts about Penny, I do believe that most people are not sociopaths. Most people have a conscience, and most people want to do the right thing when it’s required of them. But we as a society are conditioned to dehumanize homeless people and to think of ourselves first and foremost, and this is a terrible combination.

I understand why this all happens: the media hypes up crime, we see some people as “other,” and there’s the sense that homeless people deserve their lot in a (supposed) meritocracy. When I was in medical school, I worked for a few years in a student-run clinic for the homeless in downtown Houston. Part of our duties was simply to converse with unhoused people during mealtime before the clinic opened. In those days, I was more introverted and hesitant to talk to new people. I also worried that unhoused people would want to be left alone given the stress they were facing. But I realize now that this kind of thinking is nothing more than the result of a culture that tells us it’s good to leave people alone and, in turn, for us to be left alone. Presumably this has to do with being free or independent. But we know that this kind of atomization doesn’t make people free, it just makes people isolated and lonely. People do want to be seen and heard, and listening and talking to people, I found in my experience at the clinic, is a really simple way to bridge the divide. Jordan Neely, it can be argued, was just asking to be seen and heard. He was asking for help. 

We live in a society whose leaders make every effort to preserve corporate profits, including profits off of human needs that have been commodified, and to maintain law and order in public spaces and to justify that law and order by keeping people afraid of crime. The results are absurd and dystopian: child labor, utility shut-offs for past-due accounts, crushing medical debt, refusal to permanently fix the homelessness problem, and Jordan Neely’s 42 arrests for, among other things, “transit fraud and criminal trespass[ing].”

What if, instead, we were a society that went to every effort to ensure the well-being and safety of every member of society? What if we made every effort to uplift each life instead of cherishing the right to be left alone and to leave others alone? In such a society, how might we have reacted differently to our fellow subway rider in his moment of greatest need?

  1. Mostly, though, what bothers me about subways is the noise level, which is a major public health issue because noise can reach levels that are damaging to human health. Problematically, the U.S. has no federal non-occupational safety standards around noise. 

  2. Such disdain for class mixing is, incidentally, why Elon Musk hates public transit. “Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people…there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great.” Of course, the subway is hardly the only place where we could be killed, as our epidemic of mass shootings proves. 

  3. Then there are the how not to appear racist as a white person parts, as if racism wasn’t a baked-in feature of society and as if it were just a concern of polite white people who want to make sure they’re seen as sufficiently progressive, particularly in the context of saying the names of rappers or asking tastefully about people’s ethnic backgrounds. 

  4. Don’t be a diva about your food allergies or avoidances, especially at a party. At the same time, do not talk about people’s food because they might have an eating disorder and you might trigger them. It’s fine to ghost people, but you must follow up with someone after a good time was had within a certain number of hours. 

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