US subway death spurs outrage, calls for better social services

Prominent figures, including US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have called for accountability in the death.

Protests and calls for action are growing in the United States after video footage emerged this week showing a man on the New York City subway placing a homeless passenger in a chokehold, resulting in his death.

A New York City medical examiner said in a report late on Wednesday that the death of 30-year-old Jordan Neely, a local performer who often dances as Michael Jackson, was a homicide resulting from “compression of neck”.

“Just looking at that video, you know it’s wrong. No one has the right to take the right of another person,” New York Governor Kathy Hochul told reporters on Thursday, saying the video showed “three individuals holding [Neely] down until the last breath was snuffed out of him”.

That video has sparked outrage from elected officials, particularly left-wing progressives, who said Neely’s death was symptomatic of a lack of social services as well as ongoing violence against Black people in the US.

Many, including US Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, called for accountability in the case. “Black men deserve to grow old — not be lynched on a Subway because they were having a mental health crisis,” Pressley wrote on Twitter.

A police officer in a blue shirt stands in front of a white tiled wall, inscribed with the message: Who killed Jordan Neely?
A police officer monitors protests at New York City’s Broadway-Lafayette subway station on May 3 [Jake Offenhartz/AP Photo]

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another progressive Democrat, echoed Pressley’s sentiments and criticised the city of New York for raising rents and attempting to “militarize itself while many in power demonize the poor”.

“Neely’s last words were literally about how going to jail was easier than accessing the social safety net support to get back on his feet and lead a life,” Ocasio-Cortez, who represents a New York district, wrote on Twitter.

“For many vulnerable communities — especially the mentally ill — we make living in jail easier than living out of it. That’s what happen when we defund everything but the carceral state.”

Prominent civil rights lawyer Ben Crump likewise weighed in, writing, “There should be a thorough investigation into this encounter!”

However, Mayor Eric Adams, a former New York City Police Department captain who began his law enforcement career with the transit police, cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the incident.

“Any loss of life is tragic,” he said in a statement on Wednesday. “There’s a lot we don’t know about what happened here, so I’m going to refrain from commenting further.”

Adams acknowledged though that “serious mental health issues” were at play in the events leading up to Neely’s death, which occurred on Monday afternoon after an altercation on a Manhattan subway line.

Local media reported that Neely had been acting erratically when he boarded the northbound F train.

Fellow passenger Juan Alberto Vazquez told New York’s WNBC news station that “the man got on the subway car and began to say a somewhat aggressive speech, saying he was hungry, he was thirsty, that he didn’t care about anything, he didn’t care about going to jail, he didn’t care that he gets a big life sentence”.

That’s when another passenger, a white man identified in media reports as a 24-year-old Marine, put the 30-year-old performer into a chokehold, holding him on the floor of the subway car while two bystanders helped to subdue him.

“Where are the cops?” one passenger can be heard asking in the video.

A woman holds up a cardboard sign reading: "I don't have food. I don't have drink. I'm fed up."
A protester holds up words attributed to Neely, who died after being placed in a chokehold on a subway car [Jake Offenhartz/AP Photo]

Eventually, Neely’s legs stop moving. A voice can be heard off-screen expressing concern that the chokehold might be killing him and noting what appeared to be faeces on Neely’s pants. But one of the bystanders helping to hold Neely down responds, “He’s not squeezing no more.”

Neely was unconscious by the time law enforcement arrived, according to media reports. He was transported to Lenox Hill Hospital but was declared dead.

Police later questioned the marine but released him without charges. Authorities also told local media in the aftermath of the incident that Neely had more than 40 prior arrests.

‘Complete failure’

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has said it would review the autopsy reports, as well as witness statements, medical records and footage of the chokehold, as part of its “rigorous ongoing investigation”.

“This is a solemn and serious matter that ended in the tragic loss of Jordan Neely’s life,” a spokesperson said on Thursday. “This investigation is being handled by senior, experienced prosecutors and we will provide an update when there is additional public information to share.”

Protests in New York are expected to continue through Thursday and Friday, with many questioning Mayor Adams’s tough-on-crime approach and crackdown on homelessness.

Last year, he launched a subway safety plan that involved removing people sheltering or sleeping on transit cars.

And in November, he unveiled a policy that gave city officials “legal authority to provide care to New Yorkers when severe mental illness prevents them from meeting their own basic human needs”, a programme that critics noted could involve involuntary hospitalisation and treatment.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams attends a a news conference, Oct. 11, 2022, in New York
New York City Mayor Eric Adams has received criticism for his policies on homelessness in the wake of Neely’s death [File: Mary Altaffer/AP Photo]

A press release from the mayor’s office said the measure was intended to address the “ongoing crisis of individuals experiencing severe mental illnesses left untreated and unsheltered in New York City’s streets and subways”.

The New York-based Coalition for the Homeless issued a statement in the wake of Neely’s death, reiterating its ongoing criticism of Adams’s policies.

“This horrific incident is yet another reminder of Governor Hochul’s and Mayor Adams’ complete failure to provide critical mental health services desperately needed by so many people in our city,” Dave Giffen, the group’s executive director, said.

“What’s more, the fact that someone who took the life of a distressed, mentally-ill human being on a subway could be set free without facing any consequences is shocking, and evidences the City’s callous indifference to the lives of those who are homeless and psychiatrically unwell.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies