WASHINGTON (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis urged the nation to show Daniel Penny that “America's got his back.” Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley called for New York's governor to pardon Penny, and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy donated $10,000 to his legal defense fund.
Republican presidential hopefuls have lined up to support Penny, a 24-year-old U.S. Marine veteran who was caught on video pinning an agitated fellow subway passenger in New York City to the floor in a chokehold. The passenger, 30-year-old Jordan Neely, later died from compression of the neck, according to the medical examiner.
Penny has been charged with manslaughter. His attorneys say he acted in self-defense.
He's already become a hero to many Republicans, who have trumpeted Penny as a Good Samaritan moving to protect others in a Democrat-led city that they say is unsafe — even though criminal justice experts say current crime levels are more comparable to where New York was a decade ago, when people frequently lauded it as America’s safest big city.
The GOP support for Penny has been unwavering, despite the fact that Neely, who was Black, never got physical with anyone on the train before he was placed in the chokehold for several minutes by Penny, who is white.
The rush to back Penny recalls how then-President Donald Trump and other top Republicans fiercely supported Kyle Rittenhouse during the 2020 presidential election. Rittenhouse, a white teenager who killed two men and wounded a third during a tumultuous night of protests in Wisconsin over a Black man's death, was acquitted.
More recently, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott vowed to pardon Daniel Perry, a white Army sergeant who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for fatally shooting an armed man during a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in the state's capital of Austin.
Top Republicans have tried to make rising crime rates a political liability for Democrats. The Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee traveled to New York City last month — before Neely was killed — for a hearing examining “victims of violent crime in Manhattan.”
Democrats and racial justice advocates counter that GOP messaging around restoring “law and order” plays on deep-seated racism.
“They have a playbook of winning elections that is based on really tapping into the worst parts of human nature and really driving it home with division and fear," said Jumaane Williams, a Democrat who is New York City’s public advocate. "And, if there’s race and class played into it, then it’s like Christmastime for them.”
Neely, known by some commuters as a Michael Jackson impersonator, had a history of mental illness and had frequently been arrested in the past. Bystanders said he had been shouting at passengers, begging for money and acting aggressively, but didn't touch anyone aboard the train.
Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, said GOP presidential candidates see Penny's cause as a way to excite their party's base.
“There’s very little downside within the Republican electorate, given that it overlays so nicely with the issues that are incredibly salient among Republican voters in terms of law and order and fitting this narrative about the degeneration of urban life,” Borick said. “That’s the message — Trump’s and his bloc of Republicans’ message — that the ‘crazies’ are a threat, and we have to do what we can to protect ‘Americans’ any way we can.”
But the GOP defense of white people after Black people are killed is often very different from incidents in which white people are killed. A key example is Ashli Babbitt, the white former Air Force veteran who was shot to death by a Black police officer while trying to climb through a broken window at the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.
Trump called Babbitt an “innocent, wonderful, incredible woman” and labeled the Black officer who shot her a “thug.” Other Republicans have mourned her as a martyr.
Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of Black PAC, said the issue goes beyond the presidential race, noting that some Republican-controlled legislatures passed measures after the wave of protests in 2020 against institutional racism and police brutality, seeking to more severely punish demonstrators.
Shropshire, whose group works to increase African American political engagement and voter turnout, said the issue reinforces the GOP's long-standing commitment to "protecting whiteness, which is what this is fundamentally about.”
As for Democrats, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York tweeted before charges were filed that Neely's “murderer” was being “protected” while “many in power demonize the poor.” New York Mayor Eric Adams called Neely's death a “tragedy that never should have happened” but warned against irresponsible statements before all the facts are known.
Rafael Mangual, head of research for policing and public safety at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative New York think tank, said the case features deep legal ambiguity that many people from both parties are overlooking.
“I’ve been very put off to the degree by which politicians on the left have decried Daniel Penny a murderer and politicians on the right have come out and said, 'This is what we need to do,’ Mangual said. “I don’t want to live in a world in which maintaining public order falls to everyday straphangers.”
There was no such hesitation from Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who called Penny a “hero," or Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, who dubbed Penny a “Subway Superman" and once offered an internship to Rittenhouse.
Trump, now running for president for a third time, said this week that he hadn't seen the video but told The Messenger that he thought Penny “was in great danger and the other people in the car were in great danger.”
Helping fuel Republican anger is the fact that Penny's case is being handled by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who is leading the prosecution of Trump on charges he paid hush money to cover up an affair during his 2016 presidential campaign.
“We must defeat the Soros-Funded DAs, stop the Left’s pro-criminal agenda, and take back the streets for law abiding citizens,” tweeted DeSantis, who is preparing to announce his 2024 presidential bid, repeating false claims that billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros orchestrated Trump's indictment.
“We stand with Good Samaritans like Daniel Penny," DeSantis wrote, including a link to a fundraising page for Penny. "Let’s show this Marine... America’s got his back.”
Former ambassador Haley told Fox News Channel that New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, should pardon Penny. Ramaswamy donated to the defense fund for Penny via GiveSendGo, a site that also raised funds to support the insurrectionists who attacked the Capitol on the day Babbitt was killed. It has collected around $2 million in donations for Penny.
During Neely's funeral Friday, the Rev. Al Sharpton offered an indirect response to Penny's supporters, saying that "a Good Samaritan helps those in trouble, they don’t choke them out.”
Williams, an ombudsman who can investigate citizen complaints about agencies and services, said prominent Republicans have been capitalizing politically on violence with racial overtones since 1988 political ads featuring Willie Horton, a Black murderer who raped a white woman while on a weekend furlough from prison. He also noted that many of the people now contributing to Penny's defense fund also are likely to have supported cutting social programs that might have benefited people like Neely.
“These folks are not saying, ‘Let’s let it play out, see what happens,'" Williams said. “They’re immediately making someone a hero who killed someone on a train who was screaming and yelling about being hungry.”
Associated Press writer Luke Sheridan contributed to this report from New York.