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America’s Enduring Hate Crime

America’s Enduring Hate Crime


“When used in a hate crime law, the word ‘hate’ does not mean rage, anger, or general dislike. In this context ‘hate’ means bias against people or groups with specific characteristics that are defined by the law.” – from the Department of Justice website.

It is well known that race can be a factor in charging a hate crime.  Less known is that hate crimes also include those committed because of bias toward those with a disability, including mental illness.  The DOJ gives an example of an arsonist burning down a group home to get rid of the “crazies” ruining the neighborhood.

The United States should be charged with a hate crime in the death of Jordan Neely, a Black man choked to death in a NYC subway car.

Neely, an unhoused, mentally ill, Michael Jackson impersonator was killed by ex-Marine Daniel Penny, who has been – better late than never – charged with manslaughter.  Penny, too, is arguably guilty of a hate crime, although that is not among the charges.

The tragic incident has been the topic of a raging debate; on the majority side, rousing support (mostly from conservatives) for Penny as a heroic citizen, stepping in where too many fear to tread; in the minority view, an over-zealous vigilante who subdued a man who posed no immediate threat and executed him with a tactic he knew, or should have known, was lethal.  Penny choked Neely for about 15 minutes, continuing to apply pressure long after Neely appeared to go limp.

Members of the “majority” argue that “it’s about time” someone stepped up to address the dismal state of the NYC subway system.  Constant news reports and individual comments mention Neely’s undeniable history of legal problems, including an incident when he punched a 67 year-old woman in the face.  He was a threat, they insist.

But these observations defy reason and are indicative of the racial animus that plays a role in such instances.  As with so many Black men before him, Neely brought about his own death by presenting such a “danger.”  Like George Floyd, who passed a counterfeit bill; or Eric Garner, who sold a cigarette; or Trayvon Martin, who looked “suspicious.”  There are too many more to contemplate.  As in so many of these cases, it was an alleged “threat” that drew a death sentence for Jordan Neely.  He touched no one, yet Penny approached him from the back, took him to the ground, and choked him to death.

I have read no news report that mentions this crucial fact:  Neely’s petty criminal history was not – could not have been – known to Daniel Penny or anyone else on that train.  Even had it been known, it would not be justification for his execution.  It is alarming and disappointing that the media emphasize Neely’s history, thereby perpetuating the implicit and explicit biases that contributed to his murder.  “Perhaps he didn’t deserve to die, but . . .”  And Daniel Penny was a white ex-Marine, a category that confers virtue, heightening the judgment that he was the hero, while Neely was the villain.

My wife and I lived in NYC for 19 years and I was a frequent subway traveler.  I may have seen Jordan Neely, although it’s difficult to differentiate among the many sad young men, mostly Black, who are reduced to dancing for their suppers, as with generations of minstrels in America.  It is not mere coincidence that Neely impersonated Michael Jackson, who, in admittedly more glamorous settings, sang and danced for his supper too.  I don’t mean to demean Jackson’s enormous gifts, but racism and a dysfunctional childhood also led to his early death.

I watched several videos of Jordan Neely dancing.  He was good – damn good.  But not good enough to have enough to eat, or to dance away from the murder of his mother that seems to have haunted his life since age 14.  I thought of those videos and of the image of his dead mother murdered and stuffed into a suitcase as I watched his thin legs thrash in futile resistance until the life was choked out of them.

As many have noted, the system let him down; the mental health system, the foster care system, the criminal justice system.  But more than letting him down, the system pushed him down . . . and down and down, until Daniel Penny took him down for one, final, fatal time.

One less Black “crazy” man ruining the neighborhood.

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Steve Nelson
Steve Nelson is a retired educator, author, and newspaper columnist. He and his wife Wendy moved to Erie from Manhattan in 2017 to be near family. He was a serious violinist and athlete until a catastrophic mountain bike accident in 2020. He now specializes in gratitude and kindness.

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