The New Lynchings of the 21st Century
Updated on May 16th to reflect current developments
What does Walgreens carry on its shelves that could be worth a human life? Banko Brown was a young Black trans activist who had been unhoused in San Francisco for a decade. In his volunteer work and community organizing with the Young Women’s Freedom Center, he consistently advocated for basic access to services, and was beloved by his community. Last month, he was shot and killed by a security guard at Walgreens on Market Street, reportedly in response to alleged shoplifting. The killer was arrested at the scene, but was released. District Attorney Brooke Jenkins quickly announced that no charges would be brought against killer Michael Earl-Wayne Anthony, and has not walked back her statement since releasing damning footage of Anthony’s attack on Brown.
Less than one week later, on the opposite coast, a homeless man named Jordan Neely, known for his charming Michael Jackson impersonation routine, became angry on New York City’s F Train, saying he had no food and no water and didn’t care if he lived or died, according to bystanders. Daniel Penny Jr., a former Marine, assisted by two other riders, responded by putting him in a chokehold that reportedly lasted 15 minutes, until Neely lost consciousness, which he never regained. The medical examiner determined homicide as the cause of death, but Manhattan’s District Attorney dragged its feet on charging the killer, and only under immense public pressure did they finally charge Penny with manslaughter. Right wing agitators have raised nearly $2 million for his legal defense.
We have a word for this. We have a word to describe the particular injustice when people are executed in broad daylight outside of the legal system, when the death of a marginalized person becomes a public spectacle that reinforces the social order. The word is lynching, and it has a long history in the United States, rooted in white supremacy.
The day after protesters staged an action outside of the Walgreens where Banko was murdered, SFGate reported an unidentified protester having this to say at a Board of Supervisors meeting at City Hall: “The death of Banko Brown … was nothing short of a lynching, and anyone that stands beside that is standing beside lynching. There is no gray area there. San Francisco’s current approach to public safety is not safe at all, nor is it public. It is organized coercion, organized violence against our communities. We keep our communities safe, and we demand that you get your boots off our necks.”
From San Francisco to New York City, politicians have built their careers off of demonizing poor and homeless people, and the initial responses both from politicians and from the media belies a politic that deems Black, homeless people criminal and deserving of death. From sit–lie laws that prohibit unhoused people from doing life-sustaining activities in public spaces—the only spaces they have access to—to the ongoing encampment sweeps carried out in clear violation of federal law, to Mayor London Breed texting Chief Bill Scott to remove a homeless man from her sight while eating lunch, our electeds have built a culture that denigrates the humanity of the poorest and most vulnerable people living in the United States’s richest cities.
New York Mayor Eric Adams has refused to condemn Penny’s actions against Neely. He told CNN, “We cannot just blatantly say what a passenger should or should not do in a situation like that, and we should allow the investigation to take its course.” News coverage of the murder has focused on Neely’s history of being criminalized on the subway—an inevitable result of Adams’ own Subway Safety Plan, which expanded police presence and enforcement on subway cars last year—thick with implication that his murder was provoked.
And we have seen again and again how this culture of dehumanization translates into an invitation to violence. We’ve seen footage of former San Francisco Fire Department Commissioner Don Carmignani allegedly bear-spraying homeless people near his mother’s home in the Marina district. We saw Collier Gwin soaking a homeless woman with a hose outside his upscale art gallery. We remember the menacing warnings posted up at homeless encampments by Jason Perkins, the former owner of Brick and Mortar, which read “IF YOU ARE STILL HERE AFTER DARK TONIGHT, the hunters will become the hunted. We will pound you, burn you, beat you, and fuck you up if you are within a 100 yards of this park starting after sun down tonight.”
In New York things on the ground aren’t much different. Gentrification has brought increased police presence in predominantly Black neighborhoods, and politicians have cut funding to schools, libraries, mental health care and other services in order to fund the cops. Imani Henry is the lead organizer at Equality for Flatbush, a Black Lives Matter organization that has resisted policing, displacement, and gentrification in Brooklyn since 2013. He says that Neely’s murder was the result of ten years of disinvestment from local communities and intentional fear mongering from the city as Mayor Adams pushes to make the city safe for richer, whiter residents.
“So here is Jordan Neely in emotional distress. Imagine that you’re homeless, you’re saying that you’re hungry, and no one is helping you. And because you speak that out loud, this white supremacist just jumps on you,” said Henry. “He could have offered help, could have given him a sandwich. Real New Yorkers do this. This is how we take care of each other. But instead they called Jordan Neely a vagrant. A black man was murdered in broad daylight, and people cheered as he was taking his last breaths.”
In New York as in San Francisco, local organizers are pushing for justice, and for an end to the dehumanization and violence against Black and Brown communities. Henry told Street Sheet that a recent vigil in Jordan Neely’s honor was disrupted by police who arrested mourners and ripped down candles and flowers put up in his honor. Here in San Francisco, protestors have gathered to decry the murder of Banko Brown, and successfully demanded that the surveillance footage of his murder be released to the public.
“Banko was a loving person,” said Julia Arroyo, Co-Executive Director of the Young Women’s Freedom Center, in a clip posted on the organization’s Instagram page after the protest outside Walgreens. “He walked into the center, anytime Banko walked in he was surrounded by small children and a gang of people around him. And even when he was turned away from doors, he still brought people to get resources. That’s how he was. Even if he wasn’t gonna have somewhere, he was the type of person to give you the shirt off his own back. That’s the kind of person Banko was, that’s how we knew him.”