Several local groups and politicians have criticized the response of the New York Police Department and elected figures in the aftermath of the killing of Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old homeless Michael Jackson impersonator, who was choked to death last week by a 24-year-old former Marine on a Manhattan subway train.
The incident was captured on video on Monday, May 1 and posted online. It shows the 24-year-old veteran marine, later identified as Daniel Penny of West Islip, New York, holding Neely in a chokehold as two other passengers assist in holding him down.
Neely had apparently suffered a mental episode according to eyewitnesses. Freelance journalist Juan Alberto Vazquez, who recorded the incident, said Neely had thrown bits of garbage at passengers but “had not assaulted anyone.”
“He starts to make a speech,” Vazquez said to the New York Post. “He started screaming in an aggressive manner. He said he had no food, he had no drink, that he was tired and doesn’t care if he goes to jail. He started screaming all these things, took off his jacket, a black jacket that he had, and threw it on the ground.”
This apparently prompted Penny to come from behind, take Neely to the ground, and hold him in a chokehold for approximately 15 minutes, Vazquez told the Post.
Neely was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead, with his death later being ruled as a homicide by compression to the neck. Penny was questioned by the NYPD but was released on that day without being charged with a crime.
Following the killing, debates were sparked with some calling the then unidentified 24-year-old a vigilante with others calling him a hero.
Mayor Eric Adams, who last year created a plan to remove homeless people in subway systems, spoke about the incident at a press conference last Thursday.
“This is what highlights what I’ve been saying throughout my administration,” Adams said.
“People who are dealing with mental health illness should get the help they need and not live on the train. And I’m going to continue to push on that.”
“There are consequences for behavior,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said at a press conference last Wednesday regarding the Neely video. Although she later clarified, via a spokesperson, that “she was asked about someone not being charged for murder and said there should be consequences.”
Several politicians and activists spurned the governor and mayor’s comments, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and comptroller Brad Lander.
“We cannot become a city where it’s OK to choke someone to death for experiencing a mental health crisis,” Lander said in a statement. “And we cannot become a city where killing another human being is justified and cheered. NYC is not Gotham.”
State Sen. Gustavo Rivera said Neely needed care, not punishment, and begged his colleagues and the public to “stop justifying someone taking unmeasured, violent actions against another.”
Councilman Eric Dinowitz said people should not be blaming Neely for his murder and emphasized that someone’s mental health issues or someone else’s discomfort should not be a death sentence.
“The perceptions of Black people have long been interpreted through a distorted, racialized lens that aims to justify violence against us. The initial response by our legal system to this killing is disturbing and puts on display for the world the double standards that Black people and other people of color continue to face,” Council Speaker Adrienne Adams said in a statement.
New York Progressive Action Network echoed the words of Maurice Mitchell, director of the Working Families Party, in calling what happened “a modern-day public lynching.”
Joe Sackman, of New York Progressive Action Network, told The Riverdale Press about an overreporting of crimes from New York City media that creates a sense of fear for the public that affects how they react to each other.
He questioned the choice of authorities releasing Penny and said that “protecting and serving” is more of a motto than part of the job description. He thought that they would have at the very least taken him in for additional questioning before a judge given the constant complaints of bail reform and fears of releasing dangerous people back onto the street.
Sackman said people need to hold their electeds accountable for the policies and systems they uphold. They can’t just assume they’ll do the right thing because they’re elected, so citizens should work with them to get the best policies, he says.
Jennifer Scarlott, of Bronx Climate Justice North, called the NYPD a “burden on this city,” saying they prey on people who protest, the homeless, and people with mental health challenges.
Scarlott speculated the NYPD released Penny because he did “their job for them” and saw him as one of their own. She spoke of a friendship between police forces and the military, saying it doesn’t take much imagination to feel the NYPD felt justice was served.
“Neely lives in a society that literally criminalizes poverty, Black and brownness, criminalizes folks with mental health challenges, doesn’t just criminalize them, we have systematic structural policies that create poverty… Neely was one of these folks, and for him to respond with some anger and frustration, I see entirely sane and rational to an irrational inhumane barbaric system that is sought with racism and classism,” Scarlott said.
She implored others to imagine if the situation was reversed and a Black man had put a white man in a chokehold instead. The Black man would have never gotten away with the act, she said.
Tragically, in 2007, Neely’s mother, Christie suffered a similar fate when she was strangled to death by her boyfriend when Neely was just 14. Her remains were found a few days later in a suitcase on the Henry Hudson Parkway in Riverdale.
Neely’s aunt said to The Post that following his mother’s murder Neely developed depression, then diagnosed with schizophrenia and PTSD. She also said that he sought help at Bellevue Hospital but was unable to get the treatment he needed.
At the time of his death, Neely had a warrant issued for his arrest after he abandoned a treatment facility in the Bronx. To avoid prison time for assaulting a 67-year-old woman in 2021, Neely was supposed to stay at the facility and stay clean for 15 months.
The New York Times reported Neely was on a “Top 50” list for homeless that officials considered most urgently in need of assistance and treatment.
According to CBS News, the law firm representing Daniel Penny, Raiser and Kennif, PC., issued a statement saying “When Mr. Neely began aggressively threatening Daniel Penny and the other passengers, Daniel, with the help of others, acted to protect themselves, until help arrived.”
In response to Penny’s statement, Neely’s family released a statement saying, “The truth is, he knew nothing about Jordan’s history when he intentionally wrapped his arms around Jordan’s neck, and squeezed and kept squeezing… in short, his actions on the train, and now his words, show why he needs to be in prison.”
A grand jury may rule on whether to indict Penny on manslaughter charges this week.