Since 30-year-old Jordan Neely was choked to death on a New York City subway, much has been said about his state of mind in the moments before he was killed. Witnesses reported that Neely was upset and that he said he was hungry and ready to die.
Usually, none of those things would result in a violent, public death; but Jordan Neely was also Black. And his killing – along with the subsequent justifications of it – have revealed just how low the bar is for justifying Black death in America.
Any right-thinking person knows that being loud and showing distress on public transit should never lead to a person being killed at the hands of a stranger. But when the victim is Black, the story changes. And in the days since his death, both the public and the media have tried to reframe Neely’s killing as justifiable and worked to protect his killer.
That’s because in the American conscience, decisions about right versus wrong – necessary intervention versus gratuitous violence – are inextricably linked to the ways that Blackness has been pathologized. Black is bad and scary and threatening, even when Black is simply in distress and in need of a meal.
This is not to mention the fact that Neely was both homeless and suffering mentally, both experiences society has found a way to cast as dangerous and evil.
White violence has long been institutionalized as an antidote to the societal “nuisance” of unhoused, mentally ill and poor Black people. But it’s not just police who murder vulnerable Black people in broad daylight in plain view of bystanders who do nothing to help. Being Black and somewhat “disruptive” in public is a death sentence that even everyday citizens feel empowered to hand out.
Horrifying as it is, none of this is new – regular white people have always deputized themselves as agents of the state. From the KKK to the killers of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery, white men continue to view themselves as an extension of the agencies that were built to protect them and their property. And today, the bonds of that sinister marriage have been strengthened by the combined forces of lax gun laws, a rise in government-sanctioned white supremacy, manufactured white fear and government disinvestment in vulnerable populations.
And make no mistake, the convenience here flows both ways. Just as white society needs racist police forces and governments to uphold, protect and further its violence, so does a racist government need willing individuals to help maintain its status quo.
Whether it’s a Black man pleading for help on the subway, or a teenager who accidentally rang the wrong doorbell looking to pick up his little brothers, the willingness to deploy the deadliest force possible on Black people is a feature, and not a bug of America’s political ethos. And it’s a feature that is readily available once any white person cries foul.
Daniel Penny, the white 24-year-old former US marine who held Neely in a deadly chokehold for several minutes while he flailed around and struggled to get free, said he “never intended to harm” Neely and “could not have foreseen his untimely death”.
In a statement shared through his lawyers, he also called Neely’s death an “awful tragedy” and called for “a new commitment by our elected officials to address the mental health crisis on our streets and subways”.
Penny – and his online supporters by proxy – have centered themselves as the “real” victims in this, casting Neely’s death as an unfortunate result of them needfully enforcing their right to feel “safe” in a public space.
If there’s one thing all sides of this can agree on, it’s that this story is about mental health and homelessness – but it’s also really about vigilantism and the consequences of being a Black person in a public space.
Black people deserve safety too, no matter what their situation is. So how do you stay safe when you’re Black in America? Right now, it seems no one has the answer to this question and many don’t seem to care. But the longer we wait to figure it out, the longer we leave the door open for more of this violence.
Tayo Bero is a freelance writer