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The New York subway death is a symptom of a bigger problem

A deadly incident on the New York subway exposes the danger of stigma against homeless people.

UPDATE (05/05/2023 4:20 p.m. E.T.): The New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on Wednesday ruled Jordan Neely died of “compression of neck (chokehold)” and that the manner was homicide. No charges have been issued.

A passenger on the New York City subway reportedly put a homeless man exhibiting mental distress in a chokehold for 15 minutes on Monday, after which the man died. The tragic incident is a reminder of how we need to temper reactionary rhetoric vilifying homeless people in cities across the country.

Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old man who reportedly was homeless and had a history of mental health issues, started shouting at passengers while traveling on the F train in Manhattan. “'I don’t have food, I don’t have a drink, I’m fed up,’” the man yelled, a witness told The New York Times. “‘I don’t mind going to jail and getting life in prison. I’m ready to die.’” He also apparently used threatening language — a law enforcement source with knowledge of the case told NBC News that an eyewitness said Neely said, “I’ll hurt anyone on this train.” Then, according to the New York Post, a 24-year-old Marine veteran came up behind Neely, took him to the ground and put him in a chokehold.

A 30-year-old man died aboard a Manhattan subway train Monday following an altercation that began with him threatening other passengers, according to investigators, and ended with him being put into a chokehold.
A 30-year-old man died aboard a Manhattan subway train Monday following an altercation that began with him threatening other passengers, according to investigators, and ended with him being put into a chokehold.Juan Alberto Vazquez

The chokehold was notable for a few reasons. No reporting indicates that Neely attempted to harm someone before he was placed in it. The person who placed Neely in a chokehold approached him from behind. The chokehold — a potentially lethal restraining position which aims to restrict blood flow or air flow —lasted 15 minutes, according to a witness. And news reports and video footage indicate that the chokehold was held well after the train had stopped and authorities were alerted, with multiple men helping restraining Neely after most passengers had left the subway car. In footage of the incident, a bystander can be heard expressing concern about the risk of Neely dying, in part because of the perceived intensity of the chokehold.

Neely lost consciousness and paramedics were unable to revive him. The veteran was taken into custody but released without charges. (That may change after autopsy results, according to the Post.)

Based on the known facts, it appears that the fearful subway passenger acted aggressively in response to a situation where it was unclear how Neely, who was experiencing acute mental distress, was going to behave. With limited information, it is difficult to issue judgment on how defensible use of force was. It is an extremely common occurrence for people to yell aggressively on the New York City subway, which serves as a de facto shelter and panhandling space for people experiencing mental health problems, and the majority of the time nothing happens. That it’s commonplace doesn’t make it any less stressful or frightening for passengers, and the reality is it's difficult to assess when such incidents seem to be ignorable and when they could foreshadow actual violence.

What's easier to question is the use of a chokehold, and the use of it for so long. Why did this person feel entitled to use such a dangerous mode of restraint, especially when he had the assistance of other subway riders, and when other passengers had left the train? A more measured response and Neely could very well be alive today.

"I saw Jordan Neely perform his Michael Jackson routine many times on the A train. He always made people smile," Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine tweeted on Wednesday. "Our broken mental health system failed him. He deserved help, not to die in a chokehold on the floor of the subway."

It can't be forgotten that Neely's death took place as a broader policy regime and culture of stigmatizing people without housing makes incidents like this more likely. New York Mayor Eric Adams, a former police officer, has pushed for aggressive encampment sweeps and involuntarily hospitalizing mentally ill people while simultaneously pushing for cuts to homeless services. One point of focus for him has been removing homeless people from the subway system. Coupled with his fearmongering about crime and emphasis on aggressive policing, Adams and his allies have contributed to an atmosphere of paranoia about some of the most marginalized people in the city. But what's needed is far more investment in social services and supportive housing — and a culture of compassion for people who are suffering.

The media plays a huge role in fearmongering as well. Fox News pundits obsess over homelessness — but view the people suffering from it with spite and disgust. It's not hard to see the connections between disdain for people without housing and the news that a former city official in San Francisco has used bear spray to attack multiple homeless people. When the New York Post ran an article on the recent New York incident, it described the veteran as a passenger "taking matters into his own hands" while labeling Neely as "unhinged." That's not approval of Neely's death, but it's uncomfortably close. In reality, what happened to Neely is a symptom of societal failure. It should prompt reflection, not celebration.