A protest on a downtown Manhattan subway platform over the death of a man suffering an apparent mental health episode aboard a train turned into an angry confrontation over policing and social welfare priorities in New York City on Wednesday.
Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old unhoused man who had at one time earned a living in the city as a skilled Michael Jackson impersonator who performed in Times Square, died on Monday afternoon after a confrontation with a fellow passenger.
According to police officials and video, Neely had been harassing passengers on the subway and making threats when he was placed in a minutes-long headlock by a 24-year-old former US Marine.
By the time the train pulled into Broadway-Lafayette, a stop that borders the SoHo and NoliTa neighborhoods, Neely was no longer conscious. He was later pronounced dead in hospital. The city’s medical examiner is investigating the cause of death.
Juan Alberto Vazquez, the reporter who captured the incident, told the New York Post that Neely was screaming “in an aggressive manner” and complained of hunger and thirst but had not physically attacked anyone.
Vazquez said the 24-year-old man approached Neely after he threw his jacket to the ground. When the video starts Neely was already on the subway car’s floor, with the man’s left arm around Neely’s neck. A second man holds his arms and a third held down his shoulder. After briefly trying to free himself he eventually goes limp.
Forty-eight hours later, Neely’s death, and the response to it, threatens to become a flash-point highlighting what some say is a semi-sanctioned vigilante response to homelessness and the mental health crisis, with others defending the actions of the Marine who had asked fellow passengers to call 911.
But as about 30 people gathered for a platform vigil where a support column had been daubed with “Who killed Jordan Neely?” those tensions soon turned into hostility toward New York’s policy towards the unhoused and transit authority police.
“This was a horrible lynching – the murder of someone needing help,” said student Shifa Rahman. “He was at a point of desperation and a citizen, acting in racial bias, acted to suppress that.”
King James, 47, said he’d been on the F train in a separate subway car when the incident occurred. James said the station, which is warm and spacious, was a gathering place for panhandlers like himself.
“It was a long time that he was in the headlock,” he said. “He put him a hold that you can only apply from behind,” James said. “The white guy did it out of aggression to a homeless person, and he [Neely] had no chance of defending himself.”
“This is not one-time thing – numerous things happen on the subway,” he added. “This is where the mental health patients are.”
Minister Ray Tarvin said he knew Neely as a man in need. “He was a nice person, not aggressive or violent. Everyone who knew him knows that. He’d accept anything you had – many of the homeless down here are sober. They’re needing food or shelter or clothing, not strung out and shooting up dope.”
The former-Marine involved in the headlock has not been named. The death has been reportedly ruled a homicide by the New York medical examiner.
Neely’s father, Andre Zachery, told the Daily News that Jordan’s mother, Christie Neely, had died at the hands of another person when her son was 18 years old.
Christie Neely was found dead in a suitcase at age 36 on the side of a Bronx roadway in 2007. Jordan testified in the murder trial against her lover, Shawn Southerland, who was convicted in 2012 and sentenced to 30 years in jail.
“His mother perished; she also got killed. And him now? Her boyfriend fatally shot her. And he now? By another person?” Zachery said. He remarked how well his son impersonated Michael Jackson but had not seen him for four years.
One of Zachery Neely’s neighbors told the Daily News that his King of Pop impersonation had helped him to deal with his mental issues. “He used to get tough. He knew how to move. A moonwalk. He was always pleased doing it. He would do it while he was getting ready to go to work. He used to be fantastic.”
The city’s financial chief, or comptroller, Brad Lander, warned that New York “must not become a city where a mentally ill human being can be choked to death by a vigilante without consequence.”
New York governor Kathy Hochul called the attack “deeply disturbing”. New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called Neely’s death a “disgusting” situation. “Jordan was houseless and crying for food in a time when the city is raising rents and stripping services to militarize itself,” she tweeted.
Social justice campaigners said the attack revealed stark inequalities, which some depicted as a wrongful act of vigilantism and noted that the former Marine was questioned by police but released without charges while an investigation continues.
“People experiencing homelessness, mental illness, hunger and frustration need and deserve compassion and trauma-informed care,” said NYC council member Tiffany Cabán in a statement on Twitter. “Officials and media outlets have instead told us that they are threats to be contained by force.”
“Jordan Neely’s murder is the inevitable result,” Cabán added.
The Rev Al Sharpton weighed in with a statement demanding that Neely’s death be investigated as a potential case of manslaughter. Sharpton referenced the Bernhard Goetz case in 1984, in which a white gunman was convicted of a weapons offense after he shot four Black men on a subway train.
“We cannot end up back to a place where vigilantism is tolerable. It wasn’t acceptable then and it cannot be acceptable now,” Sharpton said.
At Broadway-Lafayette, activist Alice O’Malley said the ex-Marine should have known how to restrain someone, if it was needed, without killing him.
“He was weak, he said he hadn’t eaten or had a drink. He was at the end of his wits. He had three men over him. You’re telling me those three men couldn’t have restrained him ’til the next stop? It’s New York, get off the train,” O’Malley said.