It took a full eleven days and immense public pressure before Daniel Penny was finally charged for the murder of Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old Black man and talented dancer who made money as a Michael Jackson impersonator on the NYC subway.
There was no ambiguity about how Jordan died or who killed him. His final moments were captured on video, showing Penny, who is an ex-Marine, locking Jordan in a chokehold as two other passengers held him down after he acted erratically during the afternoon commute on a Manhattan-bound F train. The video is around three minutes long, but witnesses say Jordan was held down for up to fifteen minutes. A longer video shows that Penny continued to restrain him after he went limp and defecated on himself, even as one passenger warned, “You’re going to kill him.”
There is only one acceptable response to an unarmed, unhoused Black man in the throes of a mental health crisis being choked to death, rather than helped: outrage. How does this need explaining to anyone after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis—also choked to death—which sparked the largest anti-racist protests in U.S. history? Or the killing of Eric Garner, choked to death in Staten Island? Or of Edward Bronstein, choked to death in LA, and too many others?
Yet, within hours, NYPD officers had already released Penny, whose name they initially withheld, in spite of activists’ attempts to confirm his identity. By contrast, journalists immediately detailed every aspect of Jordan’s past and his run-ins with the legal system–as if this history had any bearing on another passenger’s decision to extinguish his life.
Meanwhile, New York’s political leaders and mainstream media spent over a week feigning confusion as to what happened or, worse, implying that Jordan somehow bore responsibility for his own death.
No response has been more callously or predictably disgusting than the New York Post, which referred to Penny as a “hero.” They doubled down in an editorial that preemptively absolved Penny of any “intent” to do harm, while denigrating Jordan as one of the “dangerously mentally ill” who should be locked away in the interest of public safety. Meanwhile, liberal outlets inexplicably downplayed Jordan’s cause of death—stating that he “died,” rather than being “killed.” Others have suggested that there’s a good-faith debate to be had about the appropriateness of deciding whether a disruptive, unarmed passenger is too dangerous to live.
Among top politicians, NYC Mayor and former-cop Eric Adams initially refused either to condemn the killing or to call Jordan’s death a murder, chastising Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Comptroller Brad Lander for stating the obvious on Twitter. NY Governor Kathy Hochul eventually expressed sympathy with Jordan’s family, but only after an astoundingly tone-deaf statement about her administration’s work to remove the unhoused and people with mental illness from the subway and the need to have “consequences for behavior”; Hochul passed on the opportunity to clarify whose behavior she was referring to, the man who was killed or the person who killed him.
For all the talk of de-stigmatizing mental health issues in light of the pandemic, Adams and much of the press have primarily cited Jordan’s outburst and arrest record in order to portray him as an irredeemably unstable, violent individual and, thus, a less-than-perfect victim. This is nothing new in the history of Black people killed by police or at the hands of self-appointed vigilantes, whose histories are mined for “proof” of their inherent criminality in order to conclude they had it coming. This criminalization ensures that Black people continue to be broadly perceived as uniquely threatening, regardless of circumstances, including when they are unarmed.
While many reports have repeated the claim that Jordan was “harassing” or “threatening” passengers, there is nothing in witness accounts to suggest that he directly threatened anyone before Penny attacked him. According to the freelance journalist who took the video, Jordan shouted that he was thirsty and hungry, and that he was not afraid to go to jail or die. Rather than a threat, this was a cry of profound desperation. Perhaps it is worth asking how other passengers might have responded if it was more widely known that people with mental illness are significantly more likely to harm themselves than others, and are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. In the end, the most “violent” act Jordan committed was throwing his jacket on the floor, harming no one.
Jordan Neely did not deserve to die for being poor, Black, and having a mental illness. He did not deserve to die for disturbing people during their commute on the subway. He deserved help and compassion and a society in which he might have had the resources to live up to his full potential. We are right to be devastated and angry about his murder, not least of all because his life and death were profoundly shaped by multiple systems that set him and others like him up to fail: In a heartbreaking parallel, his mother was brutally murdered by a domestic partner when he was 14 years old; at 18, he testified at the trial for her death; he was in and out of the foster system and suffered serious mental health issues; living without stable housing, he was repeatedly targeted by police and arrested 42 times. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of these arrests were for trespass, fare jumping, and petty theft–offenses that reflect the extent to which poverty itself is a crime in the U.S. At the time of his death, Jordan was on a list of unhoused New Yorkers in most acute need. And even under these conditions, he managed to bring joy as a dancer and shared the money made from his performances with other foster kids.
The denial of Jordan’s most basic humanity in the aftermath of his death speaks to how deeply, intractably racist this country remains, and to the utter dehumanization of the poor, unhoused, and people with mental illness who have the audacity to eke out an existence—or struggle too obviously—in public view. It is also the utterly predictable outcome of the war on the houseless being waged by politicians around the country. In stoking fears about a “crime wave,” they have deliberately primed commuters to implicate poor people and to accept a crackdown by police, and even violence, as an appropriate response to those living without guaranteed housing or healthcare and in desperate poverty in the richest country on earth.
Crime hysteria and the social crisis
Despite a spike in homicides during the pandemic, violent crime in New York remains at historic lows and has dropped by an additional 5.6 percent in recent months; the city’s murder rate was five times higher during the 80s and 90s than it is today. Even for cities like Chicago, L.A., and D.C., where rates of deadly gun violence reached their highest point in a decade, other violent crimes actually decreased nationally during the pandemic.
Nevertheless, the day-to-day anxiety people feel while riding the subway is real, and the signs of social decay and neglect are all around us, as rent skyrockets and more people already close to economic devastation are pushed over the edge. The U.S. already faced a significant rise in houselessness prior to the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic, which left millions more people unemployed. In NYC, which is tied with Singapore for the highest rents in the world, nearly 70,000 people sleep nightly in the city’s shelters, bringing houselessness to its highest level since the Great Depression, while over 100,000 students experienced houselessness during the most recent school year. Indeed, a majority of New Yorkers currently pay more than 40 percent of their income on rent, while many have had to fight to remain in their homes since the lifting of the eviction moratorium. And still, NYC’s Rent Guidelines Board took a preliminary vote earlier this month in favor of the steepest rent hikes in a decade (the final vote will happen in June).
The unwillingness of state and local governments to respond to this emergency by providing affordable housing has both exposed and exacerbated extreme poverty on a new scale, whether in the proliferation of encampments by unhoused people or the greater numbers of people taking shelter on the subway. As a result, unhoused people are themselves left increasingly vulnerable to violence and premature death: In 2022, 815 unhoused people died in NYC, more than any year on record, with a majority dying from drug overdoses, followed by heart disease and other treatable chronic illnesses. In other words, the majority of these deaths were entirely preventable. Although this vulnerability is frequently attributed to a housing “shortage,” there is actually no shortage of housing in NYC. By some estimates, there are tens of thousands of apartments sitting empty throughout the city; it is simply not profitable for landlords to fill them. Instead, poverty is treated as a matter of individual failure, and houselessness is conflated with criminality.
At its worst, this heightened fear-mongering and sheer disdain for unhoused people has also subjected them to an alarming rise in vigilante violence. In one egregious example, a former-San Francisco Fire Commissioner claimed to have been attacked by an unhoused man, only for prosecutors to reveal that the ex-commissioner had first attacked the man with bear spray; over the last two years, he had repeatedly targeted other unhoused people in similar, unprovoked attacks. According to The Nation, murders of houseless people nationally have rapidly increased since the pandemic. The fact that police are similarly set up to treat people who are unhoused, Black, and/or experience mental illness as distinctly dangerous serves to legitimize violence against them, whether legally sanctioned or not. As of this writing, Daniel Penny has received more than a million dollars in donations to his legal defense fund, as compared to the roughly $90,000 raised through the GoFundMe set up by Jordan’s family to cover his funeral expenses, which speaks to the challenges we are up against in seeking justice.
Rebellion, racism, and the bipartisan politics of backlash
The choice by politicians to embrace a tough-on-crime approach to unhoused people is consistent with the bipartisan backlash against the George Floyd Rebellion. The mass, disruptive protests of 2020 temporarily forced the entire carceral system on the defensive, as activists raised demands to “defund the police” while projecting an alternative vision of safety–one that required re-investing in social programs and communities, rather than police and prisons. This was further than politicians of either party were prepared to go, especially as ongoing economic instability prompted city officials to embrace austerity (which, in turn, will require more police to control the fallout among populations with the least to lose from resisting).
With the movement beaten back, the ruling class has largely succeeded in reinforcing public fears about crime and the idea that more police are necessary to address it. If Republicans have embraced racist book bans and attacks on the teaching of Black History, then it has largely been the Democrats in major urban centers who have pursued racist law-and-order policies, with police as the first line of defense. At the state level, Hochul has capitulated to baseless accusations by the right wing that blames rising crime on recent reforms to the criminal legal system and protests against police brutality. Simultaneously, under Adams, the NYPD’s budget has ballooned to $11 billion, making it the largest police budget in the country. He has green-lighted a crackdown on unhoused people in the subway, explicitly framing this as a matter of “public safety.” In addition, Adams has been widely criticized for a plan to impose involuntary commitments on people with mental illness in crisis while gutting funding for NYC’s houseless service agencies, further underscoring that his singular approach to “safety” is surveillance and policing. This will not solve the compounded problems that led to Jordan’s murder; it will ensure his death is not the last.
In a society that actually functioned for ordinary people, Jordan would have never been left without housing, in want of food or shelter, or begging on a train to survive in the first place. His murder stands as an indictment of every empty gesture and symbolic statement that “Black Lives Matter” while refusing the fundamental change needed to actually make it so. As Dream Defenders noted, “Jordan Neely died at the hands of a racist man, a racist system, and a society that needs more than just thoughts and prayers, it needs a revolution.”
We must continue to demand nothing less than the total transformation of this rotten country, from the bottom up. Our lives depend on it.
Featured image credit: Adam Fagen; modified by Tempest.
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Haley Pessin is a socialist activist living in Queens, New York and is a member of the Tempest Collective. They co-edited the book Voices of a People’s History of the United States in the 21st Century: Documents of Hope published by Seven Stories Press.