A commentary from the editors of MindSite News

Two ugly strains of American life came together with tragic consequences this week on a subway in New York City: the fear and hatred of people with mental illness – especially Black people – and the seemingly growing belief that vigilante action is justified against people who make others frightened or uncomfortable.

Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old homeless man and street performer known for his Michael Jackson moonwalks, fit all of these categories, and now he is dead. He was choked to death Monday afternoon by a white man reported to be a 24-year-old former Marine. Other riders watched as Neely lay on the floor of the subway in a chokehold, flailing his arms and kicking his legs until he went limp.

Before he was killed on the F train Monday afternoon, he did a “theatrical but heartbreaking” performance, according to Juan Alberto Vazquez, the freelance journalist who filmed the deadly encounter. He also, according to Vasquez, yelled: “I don’t have food. I don’t have anything to drink. I’m fed up. I don’t mind going to jail and getting life…”

His death was ruled a homicide by the coroner’s office. Yet the man who killed Neely – identified Thursday in multiple social and news media accounts as Daniel Penny from West Islip, Long Island – was arrested and subsequently released. The district attorney’s office is investigating the case, but so far no charges have been made.  

Vazquez posted a 3-minute and 48-second clip of Neely’s death on his Facebook page, “Luces de Nueva York.” (Warning: the video is graphic and deeply disturbing.) Vasquez told MindSite News over Instagram that he was “very disturbed right now” and hoped that “maybe next week I will be in a better place” and able to write more about what he had seen.

According to news reports, Neely had spent years in the foster care system and had experienced serious mental illness after his mother was murdered in 2007. He also, according to Forbes, had been arrested 42 times on charges that include petty larceny, theft and assault.

“This brother was someone who was failed by the foster care system. He was failed by so many layers of government,” homeless advocate Shams DaBaron told MSNBC’s Joy Reid. “I know what it’s like to be a foster child, to be on the streets, and to try and find a way to survive.”

Fountain House, a nonprofit that provides services and supports to people with mental illness and was founded in New York, issued a statement deploring his death:

“Jordan Neely’s violent death while experiencing a mental health crisis and pleading for help is a direct result of our failure, as a city and as a community, to invest in the public health infrastructure and supports that could have spared his life. The fact that his desperation was interpreted as a threat is particularly painful for our community. The fact that he was Black and publicly killed by a white man, without intervention or immediate consequence, reflects the ceaseless, dehumanizing cost of being Black in America.”

Albert Burneko, a writer for The Defector, put Neely’s killing in simple, human terms:

I’m struggling to put this into words…Sometimes you have something that somebody else needs more than you do, and you can afford to spare it, and the easiest thing in the world is just to give it to them. In that moment, to have what you can give them is, itself, a gift, a thing to be thankful for. In my lifetime this society has seemed ever more fanatically opposed to that possibility, and ever more committed to the idea that of all the things a vulnerable person might legitimately need, help – simple material help – is never one of them…How come nobody just, like, offered Jordan Neely a swig from their water bottle? Or, hell, tried to pry off the guy literally strangling him to death right there on the floor? Did any of them have anything at all they could give to the person first suffering, and then just straight-up dying, right in front of them?

“Jordan Neely was a squishy little toddler yesterday, a gangly kid 10 minutes ago. At 30 he had no place to live. He was hungry and thirsty and tired and upset. He was experiencing a whole stack of separate crises piled onto each other. He walked into a crowded subway car carrying those crises; one of the people there decided that the problem, in that situation, wasn’t that Jordan Neely was hungry or thirsty or tired, or that he was in obvious distress…That was Jordan Neely’s whole and only life. It ended when he walked into a room full of people, homeless and hungry and thirsty and tired, and they helped themselves to his silence.”

Distressingly, many people on social media applauded the killing. “Justice was served,” wrote one.  “This was self defense. I applaud the marine for subduing him and securing the safety of the passengers,” wrote another.

American’s treatment of people who are mentally ill and homeless is an ongoing civil rights violation; Neely’s killing takes that to a shocking new level. New York City – and the entire nation – should be ashamed. Repentance should come in the form of action to provide the housing and services that so many people so desperately need.

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