‘When a human being with a mental illness is brutally murdered in a subway car full of people, it’s a pretty low bar to expect that there would be some legal consequences for the attacker’
Jordan Neely, 30, was known around New York City as a Michael Jackson impersonator, who moonwalked on subway platforms while wearing the red jacket from the “Thriller” video. He was Black, homeless and suffering from depression, schizophrenia and PTSD, problems which began when his mother died in 2007. This week, he was murdered on the subway.
In the moments leading up to his death, Neely was reportedly shouting at his fellow passengers, “I don’t have food, I don’t have a drink, I’m fed up. I don’t mind going to jail and getting life in prison. I’m ready to die.” No witnesses say he was trying to hurt anyone. Still, he was confronted by a 24-year-old as-yet-unnamed former marine, who placed him in a chokehold and held him there for 15 minutes, while two other men helped to restrain him.
After spreading online, footage of the incident inspired anger and condemnation. Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio Cortez wrote that Keely was murdered because “he was houseless and crying for food in a time when the city is raising rents and stripping services to militarise itself... It’s disgusting.” There have been protests in New York this week, and Black Lives Matter has called for the perpetrator to be held accountable.
But at the same time, a disturbing number of people on social media are arguing that Neely’s death was justifiable (on the basis that he was being ‘disruptive’) or, at best, morally ambiguous. For many commentators, the marine’s actions amounted to a form of self-defence – some even went so far as to depict them as heroic.
There seems to be a heightened level of suspicion and paranoia in the US today, which readily spills over into violence: within the last month alone, a 16-year-old boy was shot for ringing the wrong doorbell by mistake, and a group of cheerleaders in Texas were shot after accidentally entering a stranger’s car. As a Black homeless man, Keely was particularly vulnerable to this kind of suspicion. As much as the incident itself, the reaction to his death speaks to the way that homeless people have been dehumanised in the US (that Neely was Black is also surely more than incidental). In the years since the pandemic, major American cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco have been the sites of moral panics about homelessness, mental illness and addiction. These anxieties have some basis in fact – homelessness really has skyrocketed in recent years – but they don’t entirely reflect reality: despite the media’s obsession with portraying New York as a lawless hellhole, crime is actually decreasing in the city.
Still, even if a narrative is false, people can still buy into it, and it can still shape their perceptions of the world and those around them. As the online reaction to Neely’s death shows, many Americans are fed up with being ‘made to feel unsafe’; they are sick of being confronted with the existence of inequality. Without that sense of fear and anger, it’s difficult to account for how a carriage full of onlookers could allow someone to be killed right before their eyes, or why others would take to the internet to defend this is a just comeuppance.
“The dehumanisation, criminalisation, and marginalisation of people because of their housing status, race, or unmet health and mental health needs is at the core of the failure to address the profound economic and social inequities that have fueled the housing and homeless crisis for decades,” Dave Giffen, executive director of New York-based advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless, tells Dazed. “We as a community make choices about where to invest our resources, and framing homelessness as the fault of the homeless – instead of as the result of systemic failures in housing, health and mental health care, criminal justice, etc – has served as the unspoken justification for ignoring the problem for too long.”
“When a human being – and one with a mental illness and who is desperate for help – is brutally murdered by an ex-marine in front of a subway car full of people, and it’s even caught on video, it’s a pretty low bar to expect that there would be some legal consequences for the attacker” – Dave Giffen
As Giffen sees it, it’s understandable that people might feel unsettled and unsafe when they see someone acting out, especially in a closed subway car. “But the fact is that homeless individuals are far more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators. This incident tragically makes that point.” This is also true of mental illness: people who experience conditions like schizophrenia and psychosis are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators. And this is only going to be exacerbated in a country where there are many barriers to mental health treatment; last year it was reported that less than half of Americans with a mental disorder get adequate treatment. Research also suggests that the broader public typically exaggerates the link between violence and mental illness, and over-estimate their own risk. In other words, just because someone is making you feel unsafe, that doesn't mean they pose a threat. We can’t talk about making our cities safe, in the abstract, without that encompassing their most vulnerable inhabitants.
When the news of Neely’s death initially broke, it was reported that the perpetrator was released by the police without charge. Yesterday (May 4), it was announced that the incident is now being treated as a homicide. But Giffen doesn’t see this as a cause for celebration. “When a human being – and one with a mental illness and who is desperate for help – is brutally murdered by an ex-marine in front of a subway car full of people, and it’s even caught on video, it’s a pretty low bar to expect that there would be some legal consequences for the attacker,” he says. “If we’re celebrating the fact that it’s not acceptable to kill people merely for creating some minor disruption in public, we need to up our standards.”
There is no positive spin on such a tragic and brutal crime, but we can hope that Neely’s death will serve as a wake-up call. “There are a growing number of people in NYC who do understand that housing must be a human right, and that everyone who needs it should have access to voluntary mental health care,” says Giffen. “We just need our elected officials to stop offering panaceas and half-measures and instead commit the resources needed to turn things around.”