Jordan Neely and the politics of disposability

On the burdens of bearing witness

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 9, 2023 6:30AM (EDT)

People attend a rally to protest the death of Jordan Neely, a homeless man who was choked to death on the subway, May 5, 2023, in Washington Square Park, New York City, New York. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
People attend a rally to protest the death of Jordan Neely, a homeless man who was choked to death on the subway, May 5, 2023, in Washington Square Park, New York City, New York. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Last Wednesday, my editor asked me to write an essay about the killing of Jordan Neely in New York.

I told her that I didn't know what she was talking about. I had not yet heard about what happened to Jordan Neely.

The next day, my editor asked me again if I was inclined to write something about Jordan Neely.

I politely told her that I don't know.

To be expected to write something or otherwise comment every time a Black person suffers some particularly horrible end in public be it from the police, a vigilante, or some other such encounter, is draining and exhausting.

Am I fated to be trapped and tethered to such things as a "Black writer?"

As for being a "Black writer," I don't think of myself that way. And in 21st century America, a society where neoliberal multiculturalism and fake "diversity" dominate most areas of our culture at the same time when white supremacy and neofascism are ascendant, I don't even know what being a "Black writer" really means anymore. But I do know for sure that I am a "blues man."

There is so much Black death. But we have a finite amount of time and energy. Racial battle fatigue has weathered me; it has weathered so many of us. There is great pressure on people who write and think publicly or aspire to be a member of "The Church of the Savvy" or "the punditry" or the "commentariat" to speak with certainty even when they are uncertain and to be fast when they should be slower and meditative. I am not a careerist; I have no such aspirations. Although I try to resist them, I do feel the pressure to be faster when I would prefer to be more meditative. That is an inescapable consequence of the 24/7 news cycle and a society where it too often feels like nothing really matters anymore because there is always some new crisis, real or manufactured, and empty "content" (digital detritus), competing for our energy and attention.

I have to overcome other challenges as well if I am to write about Jordan Neely.

I don't watch new-age lynching videos. I have books full of images of Black people being lynched by white people. I don't want or need to watch what happened to Neely to know that it was horrible. 

Bearing witness is a muscle; it is both a noun and a verb; it is something that we must exercise lest it atrophy.

I often fail to consistently live by the principles of radical empathy, linked fate, and embodied solidarity to the degree, and in the ways, that I aspire to. In practice, this means that the "perfect victim" is much easier to write about because there is much less anxiety about being wrong and elevating someone to the level of righteous victim and then finding out that they were not deserving. 

Jordan Neely is not perfect. I am not perfect. You and we are not perfect. If you are Black or brown, THEY most certainly will find a way to make sure that you, even when you are obviously and clearly the victim, are ultimately responsible for your own suffering and unjust fate.

You ran into the knife ten times that killed you.

You jumped in front of the bullet that hit you.

You somehow provoked your own killing because of your naturally menacing giant and dangerous Black body or that you were somehow not sufficiently deferent and compliant to the white person or other "authority" figure who confronted you for the "crime" of being "suspicious" – which means being Black, breathing, nearby, and just going about your day.

But in the end, I decided to write about Jordan Neely and what happened to him last Monday afternoon on the F subway train in New York City. Why? Because bearing witness is not easy or simple. To truly bear witness demands much of us. Often it is uncomfortable. Bearing witness is a muscle; it is both a noun and a verb; it is something that we must exercise lest it atrophy.

I also remembered that bearing witness is not something that we have to do alone; We can lean on and encourage and support one another; We can bear witness together as a type of chorus.

So what do we know?

Last Monday, Jordan Neely was choked to death on a New York City subway train. Witnesses said that he was agitated and acting "aggressively" as he kept saying that he was hungry, thirsty, and had given up on life. Neely apparently also said that he did not care if he went to jail. Neely, 30, was unhoused and suffering from mental illness. Those same witnesses also report that Neely did not make any threatening moves towards them. A verbal exchange took place between Neely and another passenger (now identified as Daniel Penny). Penny, a 24-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran, then put Neely in a rear naked choke hold, taking him to the ground, and continuing to apply pressure to his neck for approximately fifteen minutes. One of the passengers helped to hold Neely down on the ground. Neely quickly passed out. Medical examiners ruled Neely's death to be a homicide. Penny was questioned by police and then released from custody. At the time of this writing, he has not been charged with a crime.  

In America's gangster capitalist society, all aspects of life are financialized.

Before Jordan Neely is "read" and interpreted as some type of sociological and/or political symbol, made into a "text" or a slogan, he is first and most importantly a human being. He was a son and a friend and a member of a community. By all accounts, he was a very talented singer and dancer who did a great impersonation of Michael Jackson.

Like so many other millions of other people in America, Neely suffered great tragedy and loss, traumas that contributed to him becoming mentally unwell and unhoused. Moses Harper told CNN that his friend was deeply traumatized by the horrific murder of his mother as a teen. "He was not expecting that, the brutal way she was taken. That had a big impact on him. The brutality behind that, that traumatized him….This kid has cried in front of me. That hurt him in his heart."

Neely's aunt told the New York Post that, "My sister Christie was murdered in '07 and after that, he has never been the same…. It had a big impact on him. He developed depression and it grew and became more serious. He was schizophrenic, PTSD. Doctors knew his condition and he needed to be treated for that…The whole system just failed him. He fell through the cracks of the system." 

What does the killing of Jordan Neely indicate about us, the Americans, as a society and a people? New York City's elected leaders failed Jordan Neely and all the other people who may at some point in their life need assistance from the social safety net because they are experiencing a crisis.

At Slate, Nitish Pahwa offers this criticism:

Whatever one makes of these reports, it shouldn't be difficult to say that the 30-year-old Neely obviously did not deserve to die, and that a nearly 15-minute-long chokehold involving multiple assailants was an alarming overreaction to his cries of distress. But New York's most powerful officials couldn't even clear that bar.

Mayor Eric Adams, who has been touted as the future of the national Democratic Party, simply proclaimed that "any loss of life is tragic" and that, while he'd "refrain from commenting further," he understood that "there were serious mental health issues at play here" and boasted that his "administration has made record investments in providing care to those who need it." Later, when CNN Primetime's Abby D. Phillip asked him whether such acts of "vigilantism" are permissible, Adams further demurred: "We cannot just blanketly say what a passenger should or should not do on a situation like that."…

Gov. Kathy Hochul hardly did better in her initial declaration that "there are consequences for behavior." It wasn't until Thursday afternoon that Hochul clarified she meant that the killer should face consequences, although she hesitated to deem the Marine a "vigilante." Neither Adams nor Hochul mentioned the fact that the city's medical examiner determined Neely's death to be a homicide on Wednesday itself. And they both seemed happy to talk up large investments toward "mental health," while neglecting to explain just what kinds of services they were funding, or what those would do to prevent another homicide of this nature….

Jordan Neely's hometown failed him—it couldn't even provide him a stable home and life. The reportedly autistic young entertainer, whose spot-on Michael Jackson impressions often went viral and brought joy to countless New Yorkers for over a decade, was denied a stable life by employers who didn't understand his condition and cops who arrested him dozens of times instead of pointing him to the help he could have used. When New York's elected officials continue to embrace aggression against the unhoused, brutal stances on criminal justice, and public-service austerity, other New Yorkers follow by choosing cruelty over compassion. And when they waffle on why a houseless person shouldn't be killed for complaining about his circumstances, they only pave the way for more deaths to come. Adams and Hochul may say they're doing what they can for New Yorkers' mental health. Their actions clearly don't back that up.

A few of New York City's leaders chose to tell the truth about the killing of Jordan Neely.

Jumaane Williams, New York City's public advocate, asked: "What if it was the Black homeless man who had choked to death a White Marine because he was scared? We'd probably be having this conversation with him with charges sitting on Rikers Island."

As for the former Marine who choked Jordan Neely to death, Myke Cole, who is also a veteran, explains in an essay at Slate how Daniel Penny's decision to choke another person to death on the floor of a subway train was not an example of "heroism" or proper military training:

In many tweets and news headlines, he is identified as "the Marine" who "recognized this guy as a dangerous menace" or "A former Marine" who "intervened vs a subway psycho" or "a brave Marine who acted in his & others' defense."

It is this man's "Marineness," his status as a military veteran, that is being singled out for relevance, as if he could have acted no other way, and as if it is the training and culture of service members to choke unarmed men into unconsciousness.

This is not true.

In fact, the use of force possibly out of proportion to a threat, creating a media firestorm that casts discredit on the person applying that force, is the polar opposite of how I was trained and antithetical to the culture in which I served as a military member, as a private military contractor, and as an armed intelligence officer serving with the Defense Intelligence Agency in Iraq.

I can't speak to why this man intervened and choked Neely. But I do know this: Neither the military nor any of the vast network of PMC firms or paramilitary federal agencies that conduct operations side-by-side with it taught this man to choke an unarmed civilian into unconsciousness, unless the military I served in has radically transformed since my discharge in 2020.…

But where he acquired the capacity doesn't matter. The way he acted is not the way armed service members are trained to act, and anyone claiming that his status as a Marine indicates a kind of professionalism either doesn't know what they're talking about or is deliberately obfuscating what it means to have military training in interacting with civilians under duress. The public discourse implying that his actions were in any way in accord with the doctrine and culture of the military—and the legion of institutions, public and private, whose armed members support its mission at home and around the world—is absolutely false.

Whatever the details of Daniel Penny's fatal encounter with Jordan Neely, one thing is clear: Power is not just something abstract. Power is made most real when it acts on human beings. Necropolitics decides, quite literally, whose lives are valuable, whose are not, and thus who lives or dies.

To that end, in America's gangster capitalist society, all aspects of life are financialized. As such, dominant American society views unhoused people like Jordan Neely as being disposable, literal human trash. This is even more true for unhoused Black and brown people (and the mentally ill, the handicapped, and the otherwise disabled).

In a new essay that can be read at his website, public scholar Terence Lester offers this context:

I immediately opened Twitter, and there it was: a young Black man, known for his Michael Jackson impersonations and without an address, violently choked and murdered by an ex-Marine. The incident was caught on camera and shared on social media sparking protests and outrage.

Many emotions swirled around in my head as I read the information on Neely's past, including his 42 arrests and lack of access to mental health resources. I had so many emotions reading the story because Jordan reminded me of the long list of cases where violent attacks against the unhoused have gone unnoticed due to decades of social hatred towards this population and a lack of mental health resources.

Violence towards this community is not just about social stigma, hostile architecture, and public sanitation. It has also been fueled by a long history of political and social rhetoric, public policy, and the stripping of access to mental health resources over decades.

However, people forget that punishment towards a vulnerable population can be fueled by hate itself.

Sometimes, people forget how social stigma and public policy can impact:

  • How the unhoused are seen and treated by society.
  • How mistreatment based on social stigma can impact the self-worth of those experiencing homelessness.
  • The emotional toll that social injustice can have on the unhoused.
  • Whether social constructions influence behavior toward those, who are unhoused.

I wept because, for almost a decade, I have worked in an organization that has worked closely with the unhoused community and seen the violence, public mistreatment, and horrible perspectives about this community.

I wept because time and time again, I have had to write public apologies about the mistreatment that the unhoused community faces while also trying to wrestle through the most challenging moments of their life.

History is indeed a moving train. Last Tuesday, something horrible happened to Jordan Neely on that literal and metaphorical train. All of us, we the Americans, the leaders and the everyday people, share some responsibility for this broken system and how it views and treats some people as disposable – and others such as Jordan Neely much more so than others. We are complicit.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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