A man was choked to death on the F train in New York City this week. The victim, who appeared to be homeless, was allegedly being “hostile and erratic” on the subway, but he wasn’t being violent. He said that he was hungry and thirsty, and that he was prepared to die. Another man, whom reports have identified as a former Marine, put him in a choke hold and killed him. The murder happened in broad view of the other passengers and was captured on video. The alleged assailant was briefly questioned by police, then released. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg says the investigation is “ongoing.” On Wednesday, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide, but no charges have been filed as of this writing.
Having told you all that, do I even have to tell you the race of the assailant or the victim? Does anyone think there is a Black man alive in this country who could walk up to a nonviolent white person, in public, choke him to death in full view of other passengers and on video, and then just walk away after a brief chat with the police? Barack freaking Obama would not be allowed to walk away after choking a homeless white man to death on the subway. If you do think that he could, please step forward and claim your complimentary dunce cap, and infuse it with your own naivete.
The victim was Black; the assailant was white. The victim pretty much had to be Black to support the callous disregard for his life, and the assailant had to be white to secure the disregard of law enforcement. This is a story that could only happen in America, where white supremacy and anti-Blackness combine to make the violent murder of a human being on public transportation into the kind of thing white people can do and then go home. At some level, this could only happen on the New York City subway, one of the few places in the entire country where people from all different races, creeds, and classes are forced into close contact and required to behave with a modicum of civility and empathy toward their fellow citizens, if only until the next stop.
But, to be honest, the racism saturating every part of this story is only the most obvious of its horrors. This murder takes many of the problems we have in our society and shoves them into a giant melting pot.
Everything starts with the plague of poverty and homelessness. New York City is one of the wealthiest cities, in one of the wealthiest countries, on Earth, and yet many of us just accept that some of us are starving. Some of us are destitute. Some of us—in fact, tens of thousands of us—have nowhere to live. Indeed, it’s so common to see people sleeping on the street that most of us, myself included, develop a practiced, willful blindness to the problem. I can step over a homeless person on the sidewalk without breaking stride or interrupting my train of thought, and I don’t think I’m the only one. And it is horrifying. I don’t know when or how I learned to be like this. But I know it makes me part of the problem.
People will say that the murdered man was mentally ill—that screaming at subway passengers is a sign of serious psychiatric illness, and likely it is—but it’s also worth considering that screaming at people is the rational play when you live in a city where so many people ignore your physical existence. I scream at people who don’t notice issues I think are important. I can’t imagine how “hostile and erratic” I’d become if all of society didn’t acknowledge my existence—my hunger, my misery, my struggle to stay alive—for a period of months or years.
All of it flows together. It’s costly and difficult to access mental health care, so it’s one of the hardest things to get to impoverished people who may be in crisis. Then, we exacerbate the problem by depriving people of one proven stabilizing and effective intervention to help people in crisis: supportive, affordable housing. We leave people struggling with mental illness or addiction to fend for themselves on the streets, but then carry out entire administrative campaigns to keep them from being seen in our public spaces. Poverty and homelessness is a policy choice, and yet privileged people always seem annoyed when the results of those choices interrupt their subway commutes.
So yes, perhaps the victim was struggling with mental illness, but perhaps the assailant was suffering from mental illness as well. I’m sorry, but when I read about a former soldier reacting with disproportionate violence to a “tense” but nonviolent social situation, my knee-jerk response is empathy. My first question is whether that former soldier received the mental health services and social supports he needed to readjust to peacetime society. There is no doubt in my mind that this former Marine committed a crime: Again, he is on video choking an unarmed, nonviolent man to death. He committed an unjustifiable homicide, and justice demands accountability for those actions. But we should be able to acknowledge, and prosecute, and punish the criminal act, while also understanding that this assailant likely needs therapy at least as much as he deserves incarceration.
Saying that his culpability might be mitigated by mental health concerns is different, of course, from saying that his actions were justified by the need to defend himself or others. Other people will no doubt take this line, but that just exposes another of the social ills behind this story: the proliferation of firearms. This story won’t register as a “gun violence” story because no weapons were used by the victim or the assailant, but I think it is a guns story, because you can’t really explain the actions and reactions of everybody else on the train without the ominous threat of gun violence.
When somebody acts out in public, it is frightening because, for all we know, that behavior is a prelude to another mass shooting. It is difficult to ignore a person who seems menacing in public because, thanks to the NRA and the Republican-controlled Supreme Court, literally every person could be packing. It’s outright dangerous to involve yourself in conflicts that appear to be happening to “other people” because you don’t want to get caught in a cross fire should things get to that point. I have been known to switch subway cars if another person breaks the cardinal rule of not establishing eye contact on the train. My number-one goal when on public transportation is to not die. Everything else, from on-time arrival at my destination to supporting the causes of social justice, is secondary to my strong preference to avoid being shot to death—a goal that feels harder and harder to attain, not because the subway is inherently dangerous but because the gun lobby wants to turn the entire country into a war zone.
I think that is part of the reason the other passengers did nothing to prevent the murder happening before their eyes. In fact, some of the other passengers helped the assailant hold the victim down while he was being suffocated to death. The guy who shot the video (who, by the way, pulled out his phone to capture a video instead of doing anything to try to save a man’s life) said he was “conflicted,” but only after the fact, when the man was dead. In real time, they didn’t think they were killing him, and another passenger apparently looked at the victim’s lifeless body and said, “He’ll be alright.”
Who the hell are these people? They are me. They are you. This happened around 2:30 in the afternoon, so I’m assuming they are people who just wanted to get to lunch. In a country where it feels like any conflict can escalate from heated words to mass murder in an instant, it’s not surprising that most people will just look the other way. I’d like to think that, had I been on the train, I would have said something. “Please stop, you’re killing that man.” But would I have physically intervened? Would I have tangled with soldier boy to try to break the choke hold? I don’t know. I suspect not, to my shame.
The subway murder should trigger justice, accountability, and nuanced discussions about who we want to be as a society. But it won’t, because one other gigantic societal failure has gotten involved in the tragedy: the media.
The New York Post is already trying to paint the assailant as some kind of avenging subterranean ninja turtle. They’re calling the victim a “disturbed homeless man,” while calling the assailant a “straphanger” and “vigilante.” They want to turn the guy into Batman, but they’ll only succeed in turning him into the next Bernhard Goetz.
In 1984, Goetz (who is white) shot four unarmed Black men on the subway. He claimed that they tried to rob him, a claim he was never able to substantiate. He was, after massive public outcry, charged with attempted murder and a number of other offenses. But he was eventually acquitted of all charges except a minor weapons offense. The New York media turned Goetz into an icon: the “Subway Vigilante,” they called him. Certain segments of the city will always treat white people who murder or try to murder Black people who bother them in some way as “heroic,” and for years, the New York Post has represented that segment.
Almost as bad as the coverage in the Post is that in The New York Times, which has decided that “both sides” murder, as if bad writing will cover their anti-Blackness. Their headline: “Man Dies on Subway After Another Rider Places Him in Chokehold.” Notice how they make it sound like the death is disconnected from the choke hold? That is intentional. “Man Choked to Death on Subway by Another Rider” would be more accurate. “Man Killed on Subway by Fellow Rider” would be accurate, as well as pithy. Or how about “Killer Chokes Rider to Death on Subway,” if you’re going for a more tabloid lead? Any of those might have worked, but the Times did not go that route. Intead, their headline is the one you write when you think there is a good chance that the victim deserved to die.
By the time the Post and Times are done with the assailant, Mayor Eric Adams will end up pinning a medal on him, while Fox News will offer him a chance to audition for the vacated Tucker Carlson time slot.
Our society is sick, and everything about this murder is a symptom of our collective rot. We treat poverty as a crime and poor people as demons; we treat soldiers as weapons that can be stowed. Meanwhile, there are literally more of us willing to hold down an unarmed man who is being suffocated to death than there are those willing to risk their physical safety to stop a murder. All of that awfulness is then repackaged and repurposed by a media that makes heroes of people who kill Black people; then that repackaged rot is handed off to a criminal justice system that doesn’t even bother to hold white men accountable until people start protesting in the streets.
The victim was named Jordan Neely. He was 30 years old. Reports indicate that he was a talented Michael Jackson impersonator. I do not know what turns befell him that brought him to the point of desperation. I know that if he was entertaining subway riders, he wouldn’t have been choked to death for daring to be in need in public. I know that if people could have continued to treat him as an entertaining character instead of a desperate man, he’d still be alive. I know that we failed him. I know we will continue to fail him.