We’re weaponizing fear into violence. Jordan Neely paid the price | Opinion

Jordan Neely was a human being in crisis, and deserved to be treated as one

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MAY 05: Protesters gather for a “Justice for Jordan Neely” rally in Washington Square Park on May 05, 2023 in New York City. According to police and a witness account, Neely, who was 30 years old and residing in a shelter, died after being placed in a chokehold by a 24-year-old man on a subway train in New York City on Monday. Increasingly, activists are calling for the man who used the chokehold on Neely to be apprehended. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

By Christopher Fee

Jordan Neely was killed on the F Train in New York City on Monday, May 1.

A 30-year-old African American man who was known to local riders as a sometimes subway performer and panhandler, Mr. Neely seems to have reached a crisis the day of his murder. His demeanor grew more volatile as a result, seemingly at the end of his rope, and—because this is America—he thus became perceived as a dangerous threat.

He died because of this perception.

The horrifying video that has been widely circulated makes it clear that Mr. Neely was completely overpowered by his attacker, who seems much stronger and was according to media accounts trained in hand-to-hand combat. As Mr. Neely’s flailing and spindly limbs make clear, he never stood a chance, and yet the attacker didn’t loosen his hold until far too late.

It now appears that he will be charged with manslaughter. His best defense will be to claim that he feared for his life, which  already seems to be his lawyers’ strategy. And a jury may acquit Mr. Neely’s killer because of this claim of fear.

The murder of Mr. Neely speaks powerfully to all-too-familiar issues of race in America, to be sure: A Black man died at the hands of a White man because the Black man was perceived as threatening. 

More broadly, however, the brutal vigilante mentality that allowed yet another Black man to die slowly while onlookers watched also underscores the critical lack of available services in New York City specifically, and America more generally, for those in poverty, those experiencing homelessness, and most especially those perceived as suffering from mental illness. 

I realize that the victim involved, Mr. Neely, was behaving erratically and that those in the car with him may well have felt threatened. I think most of us have experienced something of that sort. For decades, I have taken young college students into service environments where there is always a risk of encountering individuals manifesting erratic behavior, and it is common to feel threatened in such situations.

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My personal reaction, however, never has been to respond with any kind of violence, and certainly not with deadly force. I always attempt to de-escalate such situations. The reports say that the Mr. Neely was shouting and behaving erratically, but that he attacked no one physically. The attacker here chose to escalate the situation, and seems to have been physically able to do so, with deadly results.

Unfortunately, when people feel threatened in our society, a growing number feel empowered to use deadly force, in an employment of the so-called “stand your ground” philosophy. Others, meanwhile, either feel validated in standing by, or else do not feel empowered to speak or act against a vicious execution.

This has deadly consequences, especially to those on the margins of our society, who may often be perceived as threatening.

Fear has become weaponized into violence in our society, fear which is rationalized by the fallacy that those perceived as poor, the marginalized, the seemingly mentally ill, the apparently addicted, and the unhoused are somehow less than human. The resultant violent reaction is motivated by the false narrative that the attacker may therefore subdue the victim for some perceived threat by any means necessary.

It’s a horrifying commentary on contemporary American values.

Jordan Neely was a human being in crisis, and deserved to be treated as such. If we attempt to see ourselves or those that we love in dire straits such as those in which Mr. Neely found himself, if we try to show empathy to those we fear, it becomes much more difficult to kill them or to allow them to be killed.

Moreover, the current New York City Mayor’s policies in this regard hearken back to victim-blaming and criminalizing homelessness in general and mental illness in particular. Mayor Adams is a proponent of clearing homeless encampments and of involuntary commitment, two policies that have been tried and have failed over and over again. 

If Americans want to end this epidemic of extreme poverty, hunger, and mental illness on the streets, don’t lash out at the victims of systematic marginalization. Instead, push your elected representatives to provide a much higher level of services to those in need.

Mr. Neely was said to be shouting; what was he shouting? According to media reports, Mr. Neely was shouting that he was “fed up and hungry” and “tired of having nothing,” and that he didn’t care if he died or went to jail.

He was shouting out his frustration with a broken system that had failed him so badly that it had pushed him to his very wit’s end. He was protesting being forgotten by a society that should have better served him.

 And he died for that protest.

Christopher Fee is the Graeff Professor of English at Gettysburg College, where he has taught service-based courses on homelessness for twenty years. Fee is also a member of the Eisenhower Institute Campus Advisory Council.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.