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How Jordan Neely’s subway killing has divided New York City

On Today, Explained, WNYC reporters Matt Katz and Samantha Max explain the complexity of the incident.

A white police officer facing a black protester in a crowd who has his arms over his head and is yelling.
Black Lives Matter protesters march through the streets to demand justice for Jordan Neely on May 6, 2023, in New York City, New York.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

The killing of Jordan Neely on a New York City subway train last week has sparked protests about the police handling of the case, brought new focus to conversations about crime in big cities, and raised questions about New York’s policies governing the unhoused.

Neely, a 30-year-old Black homeless man known to New Yorkers for his impersonations of Michael Jackson, was put in a chokehold by another passenger, 24-year-old Daniel Penny, a white Marine veteran from Long Island.

Passengers on the Manhattan F train said Neely appeared to be in the midst of a mental health crisis. Neely reportedly shouted that he was hungry, thirsty, tired, and that he didn’t care if he died or went to jail.

A three-minute video, recorded by freelance journalist Juan Alberto Vasquez, showed Penny choking Neely, with several other passengers helping to restrain Neely or watching.

Neely’s death was ruled a homicide, but Penny has not been charged with manslaughter or murder. Police and the Manhattan district attorney’s office are investigating the killing and interviewing other eyewitnesses.

Attorneys for Penny released a statement Friday offering condolences and arguing he was a good Samaritan. Neely’s family has called for justice for Jordan’s killing.

New York Mayor Eric Adams, who cast the city as crime-ridden during his 2020 campaign, has faced public criticism for not condemning the killing. As Neely’s death became national news, Adams told CNN, “We cannot just blanketly say what a passenger should or should not do in a situation like that. We should allow the investigation to take its course.”

Samantha Max and Matt Katz, public safety reporters for WNYC and Gothamist, spoke to Today, Explained host Noel King about the killing of Jordan Neely and the response from law enforcement and public officials. They explained how the incident has become a “kind of a Rorschach test” for how Americans think about class, and about the value of Black life in America today.

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity. There’s much more in the full podcast, so listen to and follow Today, Explained on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you find podcasts.

Noel King

Tell me what we know about Jordan Neely. Who was he?

Matt Katz

He’s somebody that had long struggled with mental illness. His life at a young age was quite tragic. His mother was murdered when he was 14. She was actually strangled to death, which just has an eerie resonance here. And he testified at the trial for the man who killed her, who was convicted. [The murderer] was a domestic partner of hers.

He made a living as a moonwalking Michael Jackson impersonator who danced on the subways and on the subway platforms of New York City since at least 2009. He was very well known to commuters. He was beloved by many people because he was very good at what he did. He was part of a little community of Michael Jackson impersonators who worked the streets of New York City. Our colleague spoke to somebody who knew him from foster care and said he used to share the money he made on the subway with other kids from foster care.

Outlets who have gotten information leaked to them by law enforcement have reported on many arrests for low-level offenses that Neely had in his past. A victim of Neely’s gave an on-the-record interview to The New York Daily News and said he was punched in the face by Neely just while standing on a subway platform a few years ago. Neely was arrested after that, and the victim thought Neely should be getting treatment for what seemed to him like untreated drug addiction and mental illness. So we know that he had many brushes with the law by nature of the fact that he lived on the streets and lived in the subways.

Noel King

Is what Jordan Neely was doing an uncommon thing to see on a subway in New York these days?

Matt Katz

It is not uncommon. From my anecdotal experience, there are more people who are displaying signs of mental illness or drug use on the trains now than they were several years ago. I’ve had personal encounters. I was on my way to WNYC a few months ago to guest host a radio show, it was eight in the morning. The train was not empty in any respect. And a man who appeared at first to be just an aggressive panhandler somehow picked me out of the crowd, got in my face, spit in my face — I was wearing a mask, fortunately — and then moved on. And part of what I found a little unsettling about it was, nobody else on the train intervened. I understand that, but nobody even said anything to me afterward, like, “hey, are you okay?” or, “hey, sorry about that.” And I think what that indicates is, it’s so normal. You know, I doubt the people, once they got off the train, thought much about it or texted a friend about the incident. So, yes, this is a common thing.

Samantha Max

That being said, it’s still very rare for there to be violent crimes happening on the subways, especially compared to historic times. But it has become a huge point of contention for the elected officials in New York City and in New York State.

Both Mayor Eric Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul have made a huge point of flooding the subways with police officers. They are in the process of installing surveillance cameras on every single subway car. They’re sending mental health professionals into the subways. The mayor and the governor have gotten a lot of criticism for plans that they’ve put in place to forcibly remove people who seem to be in the midst of a mental health crisis. A lot of New Yorkers are just really conflicted about it.

Noel King

What happened in the days after Neely was killed?

Samantha Max

The medical examiner ruled that the death was a homicide. That is not a legal term, it’s a medical term. But it’s essentially a finding that someone has died at the hands of another person and the way that that death happened was through compression of the neck. So any question that we had about whether or not it was actually the chokehold that caused his death, the medical examiner ruled that that was what happened.

Of course, from there you have people wondering, we have this ruling from the medical examiner, why have no charges been filed? And the Manhattan DA’s office comes out with a statement saying essentially, please be patient, we are investigating and we’re asking anyone who might have witnessed this to come forward. And, that’s still where we’re at right now.

Noel King

Sam, you were at a protest and you talked about how people there were feeling. Let me ask you both: More broadly, as you talk to New Yorkers, what are you hearing?

Samantha Max

I think people are just really upset and disheartened. That being said, I think it is kind of a Rorschach test, because if you look at my Twitter DMs right now, there are some people that are not upset that this happened. And I think it really is just kind of a litmus test to see how people react to something like this.

I was speaking with two men who were on the train, and they came onto the platform as all of this was going down. Their names were James Kings and Johnny Grima. They both throughout their lives have experienced homelessness. I think for them, it was just a really scary scene to stumble into because James Kings,[told] me he felt, as a Black man who has lived much of his life unhoused, like that could have been him. And he just was really scared by that and just feeling very unsettled by it. I think they both also felt really helpless, like they had stumbled onto the scene when it was too late for them to do anything. And yet they still felt like they should have done more.

Matt Katz

This is totally, as Sam said, a prism for how people view so many different hot-button issues: safety in public places, the treatment of young Black men, the broadening mental health crisis in the wake of Covid, the effectiveness [and] the usefulness of policing. And it’s become, through the media and social media, a major debate now in the larger national culture war. I mean, despite a lack of details that we have about what’s going on, we already had Elon Musk liking a tweet referring to Jordan Neely as a “worthless individual.” You see that kind of rhetoric now.

And then the question is for so many people, and the debate is, was the person who put him in a chokehold a bloodthirsty racist, or was he a hero who was protecting innocent commuters? Is this about the government’s failure to provide shelter and food to the poor? Because Neely reportedly had complained about being hungry and thirsty before he was put in a chokehold. Or does this whole incident show the failure of government to provide law and order, and this is just evidence of the fact that people have to take matters into their own hands?

So this is going to be a continuing conversation. And I feel like it’s going to shadow our politics in the city and maybe beyond the city for quite a while.

Noel King

When we bring our thoughts back to Jordan Neely, are there policies that might have prevented this incident? Is there something that should have been in place that currently isn’t?

Samantha Max

The subways have been flooded with cops and yet it is impossible to have a police officer on every single subway car all the time. So when this happened with Jordan Neely, there were no police officers there. And it took several minutes, even once they were on the platform, for police officers to arrive. So that is certainly question No. 1 of how many officers is enough, and whether or not police officers actually do make people feel safer and who they’re making feel safer. Because certainly at the protests I was at, there were some people who felt less safe having the police officers around.

The mayor and the governor have been sending outreach teams into the subways, particularly at the stops that are at the end of the line, once the train has stopped, before it turns back around, where they are often finding folks experiencing homelessness. And the idea is that they’ll be offering resources to them, trying to get them the care that they need. But it’s still only scratching the surface of the amount of need that [exists].

We also have a huge shortage of affordable housing and places for folks to go and a bunch of psychiatric hospital beds that went offline during the pandemic and are just now starting to be brought back online. There’s just more need than there is capacity to serve at this point.