The recent murder of Jordan Neely, a young unhoused Black man living with mental health complexities, on the New York City subway has left New Yorkers outraged and frustrated. According to a witness that spoke to the New York Times, Jordan shouted that he was “hungry and thirsty” and “tired of having nothing” but did not physically harm or threaten anyone. He threw his jacket on the ground, at which point, a young, white man, and former U.S. marine, placed him in a chokehold while two other men held Jordan’s arms and legs down. Instead of holding the man accountable, the NYPD released him from custody and protected his identity in the first few days after Neely’s murder yet, had no hesitations about releasing Neely’s rap sheet.
Through these actions, the NYPD demonized Neely and minimized the violence that took his life away. Since then, right wing conservatives like Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis, have hailed Daniel Penny, the man who placed Jordan Neely in a deadly chokehold, as a “good samaritan” and have collectively raised over one million dollars through a gofundme account to support Penny as he faces manslaughter charges. The truth is that Daniel Penny isn’t solely to blame for Jordan Neely’s death, but rather our state’s long list of policy failures, our culture of victim shaming, and our culture of white supremacy are responsible for the death of yet another one of our most vulnerable community members.
Jordan Neely was a survivor of violence. When he was just 14 years old, his mother, Christie Neely, was brutally murdered by her partner. According to a Daily News interview with Jordan’s biological father, this tremendous and traumatic loss left Jordan deeply troubled. He struggled with mental health issues from that day until his last. Like many other survivors of violence, instead of getting the services he needed, Jordan ended up unhoused and unhealed.
One of the most pervasive narratives around unhoused people we hold onto in this country is that it is a result of an individual’s failures rather than a structural problem rooted in economic inequality, inadequate housing, and inequitable policies. This view often ignores the fact that many people experiencing homelessness, like Jordan, are victims of circumstances that are beyond their control and have been fostered by structural violence, such as job loss, eviction, or domestic violence.
Governor Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams have both espoused their disregard for Black and brown New Yorkers, especially those experiencing homelessness and mental illness through their policy decisions. If either of them cared about communities of color or unhoused people or people living with mental illness, they would invest in housing, public education, and other social services that have been proven to reduce violence and foster safer communities.
In her initial comments, rather than condemn the violent, racist act that was Neely’s murder, Governor Hochul instead chose to double down and push for parole and over-policing on public transit as necessary crime prevention methods. This reaction came on the heels of her rollbacks to 2019 bail reforms, which will undoubtedly fuel the mass incarceration of low-income people, Black and Brown people, and people experiencing homelessness and/or mental illness, people like Jordan Neely.
This year’s budget made it clear that Governor Hochul and supporters were going to place the solutions to address the root causes of violence on the back burner. One of the main indicators was the clear disregard for the housing needs of low-income New Yorkers. Despite calls from legislators and their constituents, Governor Hochul omitted the Housing Access Voucher Program, which would create the state’s first low-income rental subsidy program, as well as “good cause” eviction legislation, which would reduce rent hikes and evictions. Governor Hochul is evidently committed to criminalization over investing in real, community-led public safety. Safe communities are well resourced, not over-policed and over-incarcerated.
Meanwhile, in New York City, it has been a year since Mayor Adams began implementing policies that he thought would make New Yorkers safer, like increasing police presence in the subway system. He has also propped up involuntary institutionalization as a sustainable solution to reducing homelessness and increasing “safety” with subway removal policies. As described in an article by Leah Harris, Liat Ben-Moshe, and Vesper Moore for Truth Out, “they seize on mass shootings, subway pushing incidents, and other horrific and extremely rare acts of violence committed by disabled people – who are far more likely to be at the receiving end of violence – to call for more force in the name of ‘treatment before tragedy.’”
Furthermore, elected officials have used fear-mongering tactics to essentially turn New Yorkers against each other. As we shift the focus on treatment instead of jails or murder—we also need to shift the narrative of how people view unhoused individuals and those with mental health issues. Instead of investing in social services like the kinds that Jordan Neely so desperately needed, New York’s political leaders have chosen to over police, incarcerate, institutionalize, and excuse violence against Black and brown people.
Jordan Neely deserves to be alive today. He deserved to have housing and he deserved to have his most basic needs met. We cannot continue to normalize the violence that ended his life, nor can we expect to keep investing in police and incarceration and build a future where housing is accessible and where we center the needs of folks who have been harmed or live with mental health challenges. Everyone deserves the services they need to live a full and safe life.