Last week, Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old man who was Black and homeless, was ranting desperately to afternoon passengers on the F train in New York City. According to the police, witnesses described him as “hostile and erratic,” and some claimed he was throwing trash. “I don’t have food, I don’t have a drink, I’m fed up. I don’t mind going to jail and getting life in prison. I’m ready to die,” he reportedly shouted.
A 24-year-old white ex-Marine named Daniel Penny placed Neely in a chokehold that lasted a reported 15 minutes. Neely struggled during the hold and other passengers helped try to restrain him. He was released after he became unconscious. He was, in fact, dead, or would be soon. Penny was questioned by the police and then discharged.
Nothing Neely did remotely justified this fate. The fact that Penny, as of this writing, has not been arrested pending more information seems unconscionable regardless of legal niceties. Based on what is known, it seems obvious that cutting off someone’s oxygen supply for so long would risk killing him — especially following the notorious choking deaths of Eric Garner and, more recently, George Floyd.
At the same time, the conversation among political leaders in the news and on social media has largely ignored the experience of legions of subway-riding New Yorkers. It implies that Neely was merely a desperate human being who should not have been detained in any way short of the intervention of a trained professional — an opportunity vanishingly unavailable in a subway car at any given moment.
This perspective is rooted in an enlightened quest to sympathize with the plight of the mentally ill in a society grievously unprepared to help them. But in addition to minimizing the experiences of the other passengers on the train, it fails to put enough attention on the genuine public policy solutions needed by people like Neely.
We must be able to keep in our minds two things. One is that Neely was unjustifiably killed. The other is that the episode, in all of its horror, highlights what New York City subway riders are being asked to endure daily — and that this, too, is not just.
I have been riding the New York City subways almost daily for over 20 years now, other than for about a year during the pandemic. And I can testify that these days, about once every week one can expect to be in a car with a person, almost always male, who is actively menacing other passengers. I know these men can’t help it. Many are without homes and not in full control of their faculties. I suspect that they are often lonely and part of what they are doing is seeking some kind of human connection — to be mentally ill can be to find even negative attention a kind of solace compared to no attention at all.
But the problem is that in seeking this negative attention, these men are often not plangent but furious. They walk up and down the subway car yelling into individual faces. They stomp. They ball their fists. They curse. These are not just troubled supplicants who occasionally get a little pushy. They are men who make you genuinely afraid that you are about to be assaulted. And in my experience these men are most likely to be directly confrontational with women. It’s worth noting that while the majority of Neely’s more than 40 arrests by the N.Y.P.D. were for minor infractions, three were for assaulting women in the subway system.
Men in a state of potentially violent agitation are now so common on the subway that I am wary of having my daughters, ages 8 and 11, ride with me, especially after an incident when one such man singled us out and I had to quietly instruct my girls to keep their eyes down and not move.
Another thing that worries me about having such unstable and potentially dangerous men on the subway is that in my experience they are disproportionately Black, like Neely was. I do not see this as evidence of something pathological about Black men; I am very well aware that this racial breakdown can be traced to inequities both historical and current. But one can know this and yet worry that one’s kids, too young to understand what is called societal racism, will start making simplistic generalizations. And not only one’s children: I fear that the current situation on the subways may foster racial bigotry more broadly.
As to the pairs of cops now so common in the subways, I have never seen them do a thing about these men. This includes an instance when I explicitly asked a couple of police officers to intervene when a man was trawling the cars threatening to beat up one person after another, each potential victim looking up helplessly, wondering whether he meant it. It was especially hard to watch when he got to a Latina mother with two small kids.
It bears mentioning that the people who have to suffer from these men’s behavior are disproportionately working class. Let’s face it: My income bracket means that I can leaven how much I have to deal with the uncertainty and fright by Ubering, using my car and working from home. But it’s not fair that low-income commuters need to endure such harassment because of the failures of America’s mental health and law enforcement systems.
How we grapple with what to do in response to people like Neely also requires hard conversations and frank language. I’ve heard this past week that we should tolerate the reality that these men make us “uncomfortable” on the subway. But this word vastly understates how one feels in such circumstances. A more accurate word is “terrified.” Your guts clench, especially if you’re on a long stretch between stations or you’re with kids. New Yorkers these days have read stories of people being pushed onto the tracks or stabbed by troubled individuals in subway stations. To suggest in this context that subway riders should exert a kind of aggressive enlightenment and get used to being made “uncomfortable” because men like these are the product of an unjust system beyond their control is to expect far too much.
I am going to venture an idea that may be unpopular: Jordan Neely, in all of his innocence, did deserve restraint. Only that. He deserved neither injury nor any more discomfort than necessary, and certainly not death. Where precisely Penny’s actions and intentions fall on this spectrum is a question for the legal system to interrogate aggressively. But society has a problem on its hands when mentally ill people are terrifying innocent citizens trying to get to work or back to their homes. The system needs to help both the Jordan Neelys and the rest of us. And this means there should be an honest discussion about the role of cops and subway officers in confronting and even detaining the mentally ill more frequently. Our mental health system, too, needs to better ensure that people who present symptoms of the kind that Neely did are more rigorously restricted from menacing or threatening others.
We all wonder: Why was Neely on his own in that subway car, anyway? We are not only correct, but compassionate, to ask that question. Do we ask partly out of fear of encountering someone like him yelling into our faces, or worse? Yes, and we should make no apology for it. Finding ways to accommodate the needs of people as damaged as Jordan Neely serves both them and the broader public.
John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”
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