Daniel Penny shows how much the right loves white vigilante violence
"Law and order" is often code for white supremacy.
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By Noah Berlatsky
Republicans often present themselves as the law and order party — the ones committed to public safety and fighting crime. But when Daniel Penny choked Jordan Neely to death May 1 aboard the New York City subway, the right did not call for police intervention.
Penny is white and a former Marine. Neely was Black and unhoused, and was talking loudly about how hungry and unhappy he was. Neely was not threatening or assaulting anyone, but Penny put him in a chokehold and killed him. Then when Penny was charged with second-degree manslaughter, the right rose as one to condemn the law.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis described Penny as a “Good Samaritan” and called on conservatives to “stop the Left’s pro-criminal agenda” — though, again, DeSantis was the one defending a man who had allegedly broken the law and been arrested.
Even more crudely, Rep. Matt Gaetz called Penny a “Subway Superman.”
Political scientist and right-wing intellectual Richard Hanania said, referring to Neely and his defenders, “these people are animals” — less a dogwhistle than a dog siren. Meanwhile, New York Times opinion columnist David French, a supposedly reasonable conservative and anti-Trumper, justified Penny’s actions by musing, “What if Penny had done nothing? Would everyone — including Neely — have emerged from that subway car unscathed?” Neely did not threaten anyone or attack anyone. But French twists himself into knots to find a way to claim that the murder was a tragic necessity.
It’s not just politicians and faux intellectuals who have rushed to Penny’s defense. Penny’s legal defense fund has raised more than $2 million from right-wing donors —including from singer Kid Rock, who declared, “Mr. Penny is a hero.”
Not hypocrisy, but consistent racism
You could argue that this is an example of conservative hypocrisy: The GOP claims to support law and order, and then turns around and rallies behind homicidal violence when it’s convenient. They don’t abide by their own principles.
But I think in this case the GOP is upholding their core beliefs. That’s because the law they promise to uphold is the law of white supremacy and impunity, and the order they want to impose is one in which Black people are deferential, on pain of death.
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Scholar Frank Wilderson III writes, “White people are not simply ‘protected’ by the police; they are the police.” White people, and whiteness, are the law; Black people are always on the wrong side of it. A white person subjugating a Black person is therefore doing the work of the law, and so of course the “law and order” party rushes to his defense.
For conservatives, racist vigilante violence undertaken by white people isn’t really vigilante violence, because white people are all, in Wilderson’s words, automatically “deputized.”
The law of Dirty Harry
Vigilante violence as white supremacist law has a long pedigree in American history. In the 1830s in New York City, for instance, kidnapping rings seized Black children and transported them into slavery. While these rings were technically outside the law and operated in semi-secret, often they were aided by New York marshals like Isaiah Rynders, and by police and judges who operated what historian Jonathan Daniel Wells referred to as a “reverse underground railroad.”
Like Neely today, Black people in the 1830s in New York were considered an affront to order merely by existing, and white people were empowered to remove them from the city with or without the direct collaboration of law enforcement.
As before the Civil War, so afterwards. Lynchings in the South in the Jim Crow era were technically illegal. But targets were generally accused of some crime — especially sexual crimes — and so their murders were carried out in the name of law and order. Executions of Black people were often staged on the courthouse lawn as a way of emphasizing their semi-official nature and their supposed enactment of justice.
When vigilante justice was less public during Jim Crow, officials would generally hurry to cosign it. The murderers of Emmett Till — a Black 14-year-old accused of whistling at a white woman in 1955 — were acquitted by an all-white jury in deliberations that took only an hour.
The Civil Rights movements of the latter 20th century couldn’t erase the subjugation of Black Americans by white authorities. In the 1970s and continuing for 20 years, Chicago police detective Jon Burge and some of his fellow officers used torture to elicit false confessions from more than a hundred Black men in Chicago. Suspects were beaten and shocked with cattle prods. Some were in prison for decades. Mayor Richard M. Daley, then Cook County state’s attorney, covered up the crimes.
In the Burge case, the police themselves were essentially engaged in a systematic, vicious, decades-long campaign of vigilante violence with the collaboration of overseers. That vision of law and order has often been celebrated and glorified in popular culture — as in the Dirty Harry movies, in which a rogue cop takes justice into his own hands, or in innumerable Batman stories, in which the Caped Crusader violently assaults whoever he feels has it coming — all with the enthusiastic support of police chief Jim Gordon.
Bernhard Goetz, George Zimmerman, Daniel Pantaleo, Derek Chauvin, Kyle Rittenhouse, Daniel Penny. Some were cops, some weren’t. But they all received right-wing support because they all were doing the work of law and order — defined as the violent suppression of Black people.
White supremacy Is white vigilante violence
But every once in a while, a different vision of law and order wins out in the United States — one that sees white supremacist violence as a threat to public safety, rather than as its apotheosis.
In 1996, an electronics specialist named Bernhard Goetz lost a $43 million dollar civil suit brought by his victims — four men he shot on a NYC subway in 1984. Burge eventually served two years in prison for perjury related to police torture; Chicago paid reparations to his victims. Derek Chauvin was convicted for his murder of George Floyd. Sometimes, to some degree, a different vision of law and order wins out in the United States — one that sees white supremacist violence as a threat to public safety, rather than as its apotheosis.
But conservatives are desperate to preserve the privilege of white violence, which is why the defenses of Penny sound so rabid and so unhinged. For conservatives, a world in which white men are held accountable for racist murder is a world without law, without order. It’s a world in which chaos (that is, equality) is let loose, and America’s essence (that is, white supremacy) is perverted.
Scholar Thomas Zimmer, in a thoughtful essay, argues that the right’s support of vigilantes is part of a deliberate plan to fight back against creeping egalitarianism and establish an authoritarian fascist state through widespread terror and intimidation. The celebration of Penny “encourages white militants to use whatever force they please to ‘fight back’ against anything and anyone associated with the Left by protecting and glorifying those who have engaged in vigilante violence,” Zimmer says. It’s laying the groundwork for the next coup.
Zimmer isn’t wrong. I think it’s worth emphasizing, though, that legitimizing vigilante violence is the new tactic because it’s the old tactic. Whenever confronted with a threat to white supremacy — the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, the George Floyd protests — conservatives turn to the law and order of white impunity and white violence. White supremacy in the US has always been challenged, which means it’s always on the defensive, always insisting that extrajudicial violence is necessary and glorious.
The forces of white supremacy always deputize vigilante violence, because the right to vigilante violence against Black people is arguably what white supremacy is. The right is fighting for the right of white people to police Black people, and to inflict any extreme of violence upon them in the course of that policing. Black people “have no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” in the words of that bastion of law, the Supreme Court. That’s what American fascism looks like. It’s been around a long time, and we are not rid of it yet.
Aaron’s clip room
By Aaron Rupar
I spent much of Tuesday prepping for my podcast and an interview I’m conducting today with Tim Mak, a former NPR reporter who’s now working as an independent war correspondent in Ukraine — our conversation will run in Friday’s edition of the newsletter — but I still had time to watch most of a couple congressional hearings and some cable news too.
As always, to see all my videos check out my Twitter account (for now, at least), but here are a few highlights.
Nancy Mace gives up the game
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