Typically, when dozens of people witness someone killing another person in a public space, one of two things happens: The killer is arrested or they flee. The tabloids might dub them “subway killer.”
None of that happened on Monday after a 24-year-old white former U.S. Marine whose name has not been made public killed 30-year-old Jordan Neely, who was Black, on an F train in the NoHo area of Manhattan. The 24-year-old man did not flee. He was not arrested. And the tabloids — along with more respected news outlets — issued glowing appraisals of him.
The unusual treatment may have had something to do with the victim: Neely was unhoused and had a history of mental illness.
Neely was shouting in a way that made subway riders uncomfortable and reportedly made threats to some riders. He was asking for food shortly before the 24-year-old strangled him to death.
Police took the subway rider into custody briefly for questioning then released him shortly afterward.
For advocates working on issues of poverty and police abuses, there was a simple reason why Neely’s killing happened the way it did and why, in the aftermath, nothing seemed out of the ordinary when the killer was set free: fearmongering rhetoric about homelessness and crime from Democratic New York leaders Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams.
“Of course you’re gonna have individuals deputizing themselves, thinking that this is the response.”
“Of course you’re gonna have individuals deputizing themselves, thinking that this is the response,” said Adolfo Abreu, housing campaigns director for Voices of Community Activists and Leaders New York, or VOCAL-NY, a grassroots member-led organization that advocates for justice in housing, policing, and public health for poor and low-income people. “Because our leaders are saying, ‘Hey, there’s so much rampant violence, and homeless folks are a nuisance’ — and having armed police be the first interaction is the appropriate response.”
The New York Police Department’s response to Neely’s killing sends a dangerous message that anyone can take vigilante justice into their own hands without consequences, Abreu said.
For others, the treatment of the 24-year-old man showed how police identified with the intervention against an unhoused person. Neely’s entire medical and criminal history were released to the public, but police won’t give out any information about the alleged assailant. “They’re acting as if this Marine was a member of the force,” said Beth Haroules, director of disability justice litigation at the New York Civil Liberties Union, who testified in February before the New York City Council against Adams’s plan to forcibly hospitalize mentally ill people and remove them from subways.
What Usually Happens
A spokesperson for the NYPD said the investigation is still ongoing and that even when a homicide is witnessed, arrests aren’t always made on the spot. “That’s not always how it works,” Sgt. Sanchez told The Intercept. (The police repeatedly declined to confirm the sergeant’s first name.) Sanchez said, “There’s many parts to the investigation. It’s not just eyewitnesses.”
Contrary to the NYPD statement, officers are often quick to make an arrest — or worse.
When a man allegedly stabbed a security guard in Queens last month, cops shot him on the spot. On the same day, when police responded to a man with a gun at a subway station in the Bronx, they shot him too. And in another incident on the same day, while responding to a report of a burglary, cops shot and killed a 78-year-old-man who answered his door while holding a gun.
In 2018, NYPD officers shot and killed Saheed Vassell because they said he was holding a metal pipe like it was a gun. The cops said between five and 10 seconds passed between the time they arrived on the scene and the time they shot Vassell.
In 2014, NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo strangled Eric Garner to death for selling cigarettes on the street. In 2013, NYPD officers shot and killed a 16-year-old kid who they said was acting suspiciously and had a gun. In 2008, in another incident that lasted only seconds, NYPD officers fired 50 bullets that killed Sean Bell on the day of his wedding after his car hit an unmarked police vehicle.
In 1999, four plainclothes officers fired at least 41 times and killed Amadou Diallo on the spot and said they mistook him for someone else.
In line with the media’s preoccupation with a purported crime wave and Adam’s demonization of the unhoused, coverage framed Neely’s killing as the result of a bystander doing something honorable.
“Man Who Threatened NYC Subway Riders Dies After One Put Him in Chokehold: Sources,” read one headline Wednesday from NBC’s local affiliate. “Man Dies on Subway After Another Rider Places Him in Chokehold,” the New York Times reported. “Man Harassing NoHo Subway Riders Dies After Fellow Passenger Tries to Subdue Him: Police,” ABC7 New York wrote.
Adams ordered the clearing of hundreds of homeless camps and sent an additional 1,000 police officers to patrol subways and remove homeless people from train cars and platforms. He also simultaneously cut $615 million from the city’s Department of Homeless Services.
The attack on Neely is just the most recent example of violence against people without housing in cities where similar anti-homeless rhetoric has taken hold. Last month in California, former San Francisco fire commissioner Don Carmignani claimed that he was attacked by a homeless person. Local media in San Francisco were quick to cover the incident as an example of a violent crime and homeless epidemic that had spun out of control. A week later, video footage surfaced showing Carmignani attacking the homeless person with bear spray prior to the incident.
Crime and homelessness, the narrative went, also contributed to the killing of tech executive Bob Lee earlier that month. “Attack on SF Businessman in Marina Reveals Growing Tensions Over Homelessness,” the San Francisco Standard wrote. Despite speculation in local coverage and on social media that Lee’s murder was linked to the same “tensions over homelessness,” it was later reported that Lee was killed by a colleague — a tech entrepreneur — over an apparent personal issue.
“This is a clarion call to determine exactly who we are as a society in New York City,” said Haroules, of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “You could draw a direct line connecting the dots here from the pattern of stigmatization and criminalization of people who are unhoused in New York City, people who have a mental illness.”
The NYPD itself is banned from using chokeholds. “This Marine used a chokehold against this person,” Haroules said. “You have [the] hypocrisy of a law enforcement response that is only ratcheted one way directed at people who are unhoused, people with mental illness, people of color who don’t deserve to be in a public setting engaging in a behavior some people find uncomfortable to be subjected to.”
The stoking of bias and dehumanizing language against people of color with mental illness will inevitably lead to situations like Neely’s murder, Haroules said. Nationwide, people struggling with economic issues or suffering from a disability are characterized as criminals who are disposable. “You will end up with situations like this.”
Abreu, of VOCAL-NY, noted that anyone could find themselves in similar circumstances. “Everyone is one income shock away from homelessness,” Abreu said. “Any one of us could have been there in that particular moment.”