The Tragedies of Jordan Neely’s Death

No New Yorker who rides the subway is unfamiliar with mentally ill, homeless people on platforms or inside subway cars screaming at people, behaving erratically, posing the possibility of violence. We mostly back away and don’t look. We sometimes change cars to avoid them.

When they put on a show or sit in their sad spot holding a sign that they’re hungry, some will throw them some change, but most walk by giving them a wide berth. They smell bad. There are too many of them. We can’t save them, or at least not them all. And we go on with our day.

Except for Jordan Neely, whose conduct on a subway train was erratic, was potentially threatening, but had yet to actually reflect any potential to harm anyone. His words, that he wasn’t afraid to be arrested, he wasn’t afraid to die, are the sort of words that can precede a violent act. They can also precede nothing more than more empty noise. For reasons that are unclear, one man on the train decided to take action by placing his arm tightly around Neely’s neck and keeping it there for about 15 minutes. He killed Neely.

Others on the train didn’t come to Neely’s rescue, Indeed, some rose to assist the man who choked Neely to death, suggesting that the choking man was not the only one on the train that day who thought Neely was the more dangerous of the two. Of course, people are inclined to act for their own preservation, and to the extent Neely posed a threat to anyone, it was more of a threat than the choking man. But that doesn’t mean Neely had taken the next step, beyond saying things that could be construed as threatening and actually causing physical harm.

Did the choking man go out that morning in search of a potentially threatening, mentally ill, erratically behaving man on the subway? It’s possible. Remember Bernie Goetz? But it’s more likely that the situation unfolded in front of him and he reacted. Perhaps he was being gallant, thinking Neely might harm someone weaker and more vulnerable, and he thought he was protecting them from the crazy man. There have been a few cases of mentally ill people pushing random riders onto the tracks to their deaths recently. Mentally ill people can be dangerous and strike without reason. It’s the nature of mental illness.

Some have seized upon Neely’s death as a condemnation of New York City’s failure to solve “houselessness,” cure mental illness, ignoring that these problems exist everywhere and there is neither a magic bullet nor sum of money that makes intransigent social problem disappear. In the meantime, there were a couple guys on a train, and one killed the other.

Politicians who would be remiss not to hop on the outrage train for their cause have called this death a “murder,” and a “lynching.” They have called the choking man a “vigilante.” They have trivialized the sense of what was happening on that subway train by characterizing Neely’s conduct as “discomfort.” This is all rhetorical manipulation, what some would call lying, to seize the opportunity to sow outrage. One aspect of that outrage is directed at the NYPD, who released the choking man that night. Why wasn’t he arrested and held? Why isn’t he being prosecuted?

On the one hand, there is nothing to suggest that there was justification for the use of force, no less deadly force. Neely never touched anyone. Whether the fear that he would was reasonable or not, anticipation of possible harm isn’t good enough to justify use of force. Choking man jumped the gun. Choking man used unjustified force. Choking man killed Neely rather than do any of many things done daily when a homeless mentally ill guy went off in a subway car.

It’s possible the choking man could be charged with Second Degree Murder, Penal Law § 125.25, on a “depraved indifference” theory, though it’s a stretch to contend that he knew his chokehold was likely to result in death. The more likely charge is Manslaughter in the Second Degree, Penal Law § 125.15, as a death caused by reckless conduct. Even if one believes that the choking man meant to protect others from Neely rather than cause harm or his death, he’s still constrained to act with sufficient care not to kill someone. He killed Neely. He should not have killed Neely and there is no justification for his having done so, regardless of his salutary intentions.

What happened here is replete with tragedy, from the most obvious of Jordan Neely’s death down the line to opportunists seizing upon the death for their own purposes. Ironically, Roxane Gay, of all people, makes an astute observation.

Every single day there are news stories that are individually devastating and collectively an unequivocal condemnation of what we are becoming: a people without empathy, without any respect for the sanctity of life unless it’s our own.

It’s easy, on social media, to say, “I would have done something to help Mr. Neely.” It’s easy to imagine we would have called for help, offered him some food or money, extended him the grace and empathy we all deserve.

It’s so very easy to think we are good, empathetic people. But time and time again, people like us, who think so highly of themselves, have the opportunity to stand up and do the right thing, and they don’t. What on earth makes us think that, when the time comes, we will be any different?

Even a blind squirrel finds the occasional nut.

14 thoughts on “The Tragedies of Jordan Neely’s Death

  1. Hunting Guy

    Mark Ruffalo.

    “A lot of people are living with mental illness around them. Either you love one or you are one.”

    Rosalynn Carter.

    “We know how to treat depression, we know how to treat mental illness, and we have not had the political will in our country to make it happen.”

  2. Jake

    If a mere scintilla of fear is justification for killing, does this mean we’re free to murder anyone who bumps into us when they board a crowded train without taking off their backpack? Asking for a friend.

  3. Elpey P.

    Welcome to Planet Earth, Ms. Gay.

    If there’s one thing we can count on with stories like this, it’s that people will respond incoherently. They will pretend their filtered fourth hand source of information is gospel. They will denounce racism while relying on an identitarian lens to determine where they see tragedy and dysfunction worth noting – or even where they cheer it on. They will claim that systemic accountability is the real concern, and implicitly not the actual lives affected upstream, then problematize enforcement and conflate selected incidents where it is swift and unequivocal to bolster a different narrative. And they will cry the sky is falling, while the papers both today and throughout decades past are filled with a steady stream of similar and more malevolent horrors that mean nothing to them.

  4. B. McLeod

    Of course, the first thing I wondered was how such a universally beloved figure, with so many important friends and supporters, came to be wandering without anything to eat or a place to stay. This “New York City” is a strange land.

    Now the police are behaving as though they are uncertain whether the force was unjustified. Neely was reportedly screaming at people he didn’t even know and throwing trash. Several other people shared choking man’s perception of a threat. People who were there. None of the people who were there intervened to help Neely.

    Now, as is the way of things, people who were not there are judging choking man (and, presumably, everyone else in the subway car). This, from a perspective of relative safety, where any screaming will be that of the supportive mob. AOC, who has been attacked at least twice by the shadow of every lamppost in Manhattan, knows that Neely posed no threat. Well, who can dispute such an expert?

    Meanwhile, every press report notes that choking man, as yet unnamed by the police, is white. This must be an important fact, because media standards call for racial descriptions to be omitted unless they are material to the story. Oddly and concurrently, the races of other participants who assisted choking man, and those who simply stood by, have not been detailed.

    Sail on, New York City. Fare you well.

    1. RBM

      I watched a 90 second video of an unarmed man being strangled to death while restrained by three men. The victim posed no threat to anyone while he was being restrained and killed. This was a homicide. It should be prosecuted.
      I have no idea what happened before the video clip. Maybe the victim stabbed three or four people or fired an AK-47 in the subway car. But for 90 seconds he was on his back, unarmed, helpless, under restraint by three men while being choked to death. That is probable cause for a murder or manslaughter prosecution. Whatever transpired before the video, the victim posed no imminent threat of bodily harm while he was being killed.

      The role of the DA is to try this case in court, not in the DA’s office. The perpetrators have the opportunity to explain their actions to a judge or jury. When a helpless victim is killed on video, there should be an arrest and a prosecution. That is SIMPLE JUSTICE.

      I am very disappointed by Alviin Bragg. I expected better from him.

      And yes, race matters. If the victim was white and the choker was Black the choker would be behind bars unless the cops killed him when they arrived on the scene.

      1. Miles

        Insisting that there is a racial component to this killing is facile. You can believe it if that makes you feel better, but too many impute racism onto every scenario that involves people of different races and hide under rocks when the tables are turned.

        There is racism, but that some rando “can’t shake his belief” is meaningless.

  5. The Infamous Oregon

    Quoth Ms. Gay, “It’s so very easy to think we are good, empathetic people. But time and time again, people like us, who think so highly of themselves, have the opportunity to stand up and do the right thing, and they don’t. What on earth makes us think that, when the time comes, we will be any different?”

    How about, “Because when the time came,* we WERE different?”

    *again and again and again in SO many different ways**, in my case…

    **which, to be fair, have not yet included dealing with anything nearly as problematic as the current subway issue. More on the order of feeding, transporting, assisting with solving legal bits, and suchlike

  6. JMK

    > though it’s a stretch to contend that he knew his chokehold was likely to result in death

    Err… I think it’s more of a stretch to contend that anyone has a good faith belief that choking someone for fifteen minutes would not be likely to result in death. The rule of threes suggests this is five times longer than a human would be expected to survive.

    1. B. McLeod

      I haven’t seen the video. A martial artist posting on a FB comment chain claimed to have timed the choke at 2 minutes before Neely stopped fighting, then 57 seconds after. This would be 57 seconds too long, but not a chokehold that should result in death. Concurrently, the press reports are generally reporting 15 minutes, which would be bizarre and which would be expected to result in death. Part of the purpose of the police investigation will be to sort out what the real facts were.

    2. J Holden

      I agree. I have a lot of difficulty believing that someone would do a rear naked choke and not be aware that it’s potentially deadly, particularly someone who was apparently trained by the military. It’s a very efficient blood choke and I really don’t see an excuse for someone to hold it after the person is unconscious. I have seen the 3 minute video and he holds it well past the point when Neely stops moving.

  7. RBM

    The video shows Neely being choked for several minutes with two other men assisting the choker. For those several minutes Neely was apparently unarmed and did not pose a threat of imminent harm to anyone. Even assuming Neely previously posed a lethal threat that might have justified a choke hold restraint, there was no justification for the three men restraining him to continue the choke hold when Neely was unarmed struggling on the ground..

    No matter what led up to the incident, the video is probable cause for charges of either depraved indifference homicide (P.L. §125.25[2]) or reckless manslaughter (P.L. §125.15[1]) against the choker and aiding and abetting against the choker’s helpers (P.L. §20.00). I am disappointed in Bragg. I expected better from him.

    I can’t shake the belief that if the choker was Black and Neely was white, the perps would have been arrested.

    1. B. McLeod

      A person being “unarmed” does not always equate to a conclusion that they don’t pose a threat. I think the police want to get statements from the people who were there instead of simply relying on the armchair experts.

Comments are closed.