Jordan Neely's killing brings outrage, blame — and no easy answers
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On May 1 in New York City, a 30-year-old homeless Black man named Jordan Neely walked through an uptown-bound F train. Apparently in the midst of a mental health crisis, he shouted that he was hungry and that he wanted to die, witnesses said.
It is not clear whether Neely actually menaced any passengers, but a white former Marine named Daniel Penny, 24, decided that he was a threat. Penny confronted Neely and placed him in a chokehold, wrestling him to the floor of the car.
Penny reportedly maintained his grip on Neely for 15 minutes. By the time first responders arrived to meet the train at the Broadway-Lafayette station in lower Manhattan, Neely was dead.
On Friday morning, Penny surrendered to the Manhattan district attorney’s office, which is charging him with manslaughter. And whatever the outcome of the case against him, the killing is bound to continue generating debate about public safety, race and mental health.
Why there’s debate
New York experienced a crime spike during the coronavirus pandemic, as did most American cities. That trend has started to subside, but the sight of homeless people in the subway system — including many in the apparent grip of mental illness or drug-induced episodes — continues to enforce the perception of danger and disorder that New York City Mayor Eric Adams has been desperate to dispel.
Adams and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul have vowed to restore order underground. Civil libertarians and criminal justice reformers have criticized their approach as heavy-handed, while law-and-order conservatives say it doesn’t go far enough.
To some, last week’s deadly confrontation evoked a 1984 incident involving Bernhard Goetz, a white subway passenger who shot four Black teenagers who had reportedly tried to mug him. Some celebrated Penny as a hero, but many others thought his claims of self-defense were heavily tinged with racial animus.
Neely’s death was ruled a homicide, and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is set to charge Penny with second-degree manslaughter.
Penny himself has said nothing, but after the fatal encounter on the F train, his attorneys released a statement that described Neely as “aggressively threatening” riders. “Daniel never intended to harm Mr. Neely and could not have foreseen his untimely death,” the statement says.
In response, Neely’s family charged Penny and his attorneys with “character assassination.”
New Yorkers are deeply divided about why Neely lost his life — and about what could have been done to not only keep him alive but to provide him with the care that he so obviously needed.
Penny was a racist vigilante
To some, Penny was nothing more than a modern-day Goetz who apparently thought he could use the cover of whiteness to assume — and abuse — legal and moral authority.
“It reignites the terror in the souls of Black folks when we witness these killings of our people without trial, without jury, without adjudication,” Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist Donald Grant told NBC News.
The killing was a consequence of deepening antipathy toward the homeless
Others pointed to increasing hostility toward homeless people — who have become more visible in recent years — across the nation.
“In a place like New York City, it is illegal to be homeless. If you’re outside, that’s loitering. You’re not supposed to be on the train. It’s really easy to get picked up by the police if you’re in the streets constantly as a Black man in New York,” one advocate told Yahoo News.
Lenient policies geared for social justice failed Neely
Neely had a considerable record of criminal activity, including several charges of assault, but seemed to pass through what law-and-order conservatives have charged has become an all-too-rapid revolving door between jail and the streets. They have charged progressive prosecutors like Bragg with endangering public safety by refusing to level longer sentences against repeat offenders.
Neely was also on a list of high-concern homeless people kept by outreach workers. Mayor Adams recently implemented a plan to expand involuntary confinement of homeless people undergoing the most serious cases of psychic disturbance. The plan has been criticized — but arguably could have helped Neely.
“His death is a tragedy that never should have happened,” Adams said on Wednesday.
There are no easy explanations, no neat narrative to this tragic encounter
But as is the case with many tragedies, a single explanation may not suffice.
The New York Daily News cautioned in an editorial that “no one should gloss over complicated, messy reality by righteously and simplistically declaring, as countless local politicians and advocates have, that Neely died simply because he was poor, mentally unstable or unhoused.”
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