The Tragedy of Jordan Neely’s Death and Our Collective Sanism
Earlier this week in New York, Jordan Neely, an unhoused individual with mental illness, was choked to death while experiencing a mental health crisis on the subway by another passenger. Video of this incidence was widely shared on social media and several news outlets have covered the story.
Witnesses told police Neely and another man were riding a northbound train Monday when the other man put Neely in a chokehold, causing him to lose consciousness, a law enforcement source said.
Neely had been “acting erratically” before the incident but had not attacked anyone on the train prior to being put in the chokehold, a witness who recorded the encounter told CNN.
Juan Alberto Vazquez said he was riding the subway when he saw a man, later identified as Neely, enter the car just as the doors were closing. Neely immediately launched into an aggressive rant about being “fed up and hungry” and “tired of having nothing,” Vazquez said.
Neely then took off his coat and threw it on the floor and said he was ready to go to jail and get a life sentence, Vazquez said.
Many passengers became visibly uncomfortable and moved to other parts of the train car, but Vazquez told CNN it didn’t seem like Neely was armed or looking to attack anyone.
Another rider then approached Neely from behind and put him in a chokehold, Vazquez said.
Two other passengers approached, with one seemingly trying to mediate, while the other seemed to be helping the man restrain Neely, Vazquez said, adding that he started recording the incident about three or four minutes after the chokehold began.
In the video, Neely and the other man are seen on the floor of a subway car with the man’s arm wrapped around Neely’s neck.
CNN has not been able to independently confirm what happened leading up to the incident and doesn’t know how long Neely was restrained or whether he was armed.
After a while, Vazquez noticed that Neely stopped talking and moving, he said.
NYPD officers responded to a subway station in downtown Manhattan just before 2:30 p.m., and found Neely unconscious. First aid was rendered and he was taken to a nearby hospital and pronounced dead later that afternoon, the law enforcement source and an NYPD spokesperson said.
From Daily News:
Neely was on an F train heading toward the Broadway-Lafayette stop in NoHo when he began acting erratically around 2:30 p.m. Monday, passengers told police. He yelled and threw garbage at commuters, prompting an argument with the 24-year-old ex-Marine, cops said.
The quarrel turned into a brawl as the train entered the station.
During the fight, the former Marine put the victim in a chokehold and tried to restrain him.
A video of the confrontation shows the ex-Marine, with his left arm around Neely’s neck as they struggle.
A second man helped restrain Neely, who turned on his side and continued kicking his legs until he finally stopped moving about two minutes into the video.
Neely fell unconscious on the train as the ex-Marine held him in the chokehold. A conductor called for police, the video shows. First responders took Neely to Lenox Hill Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
King, one of the self-described witnesses, told The News that the scene was “very disturbing to watch.”
“He wasn’t conscious, he wasn’t responsive, and the man still had him in the headlock,” he quietly said.
Mike Cole, who created a GoFundMe page for Neely’s family, described the victim as “a very good Michael Jackson impersonator.
“Over the years, multiple videos have been seen across the internet of him emulating the King of Pop garnishing thousands of views,” Cole said. “He was a natural raw talent who touched a lot of people’s lives. Jordan was a very loving and caring individual who did not deserve to have his life taken like this.”
The story by CBS News covers some of the reactions:
A group gathered in anger Wednesday inside the East Houston and Lafayette subway station, where 30-year-old Jordan Neely was choked to death on the subway two days prior.
“A life was senselessly taken away. Someone who was homeless, struggling with mental health. Right now a lot of folks are infuriated because our government is not prioritizing housing,” one person said.
“We're just outraged as a community that there has been no arrest or formal of charges against the man who has yet to be identified who killed Jordan Neely,” one person said.
“This is absolutely devastating. Should have never happened. We have been pleading with MTA and state to put in social workers, deploy them into the subway system,” Jack Nierenberg of Passengers United said.
Neely was a subway busker and Michael Jackson impersonator with more than 40 prior arrests and an active warrant out for his arrest from a felony assault.
Homeless advocates argue none of that justifies his death.
“It's horrible that something had to go to this extent, this tragic loss of life, to underscore that this approach of treating people as dangerous or as a threat just because they're in need has to stop,” said Corinne Low, director of the Open Hearts Initiative.
“Jordan Neely was choked to death by a stranger on a New York City subway while experiencing a mental health crisis. Countless broken systems failed Jordan and led to this moment, including community perceptions of mental illness. We must end the notion that erratic behavior is grounds for a death sentence,” State Sen. Samra Brouk said.
Neely’s death takes place at an intersection of multiple forms of systemic neglect and violence. There are obvious issues around homelessness, racism, vigilantism, etc. An important strand that I haven’t seen highlighted as much in discussions on social media is how this incident and responses to it are illustrative of sanism.
As described by Michael Perlin:
“Sanism,” an irrational prejudice against people with mental illness… Sanism is largely invisible and largely socially acceptable. It is based predominantly upon stereotype, myth, superstition, and deindividualization and is sustained and perpetuated by our use of alleged “ordinary common sense” (OCS) and heuristic reasoning in irrational responses to events in both everyday life and the legal process.
I have written extensively about the roots of the assumptions that are made by the legal system about persons with mental disabilities. These mistaken assumptions include: that people with mental illness are erratic, deviant, sexually uncontrollable, emotionally unstable, superstitious, lazy, and ignorant; that they demonstrate a primitive morality; they are invariably more dangerous than persons without mental illness, and such dangerousness is easily and accurately identified by experts; that for a person in treatment for mental illness to decline to take prescribed antipsychotic medication is an excellent predictor of (1) future dangerousness and (2) need for involuntary institutionalization; that people with mental illness should be segregated in large, distant institutions because their presence threatens the economic and social stability of residential communities; that they give in too easily to their basest instincts and do not exercise appropriate self-restraint.
A clearly sanist response to Neely’s death is to frame his death as a consequence that he brought upon himself.
This sort of prejudice is evident from the May 2 headline by New York Post, which described Neely as “unhinged”: “Shocking video shows NYC subway passenger putting unhinged man in deadly chokehold”
We can also detect this sort of prejudice in the assertion by Governor Kathy Hochul: “There are consequences for behavior.”
One element we haven’t talked about is the billion dollar investment in mental health services so we don't have people who are homeless in our subways, many of them in the throws of mental health episodes. And that's what I believe are some of the factors here,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said. “There are consequences for behavior. I will look at it more closely to find out whether the state has a role.” (Reported by CBS News)
This sanism is prominently visible in comments by the right-wing political commentator Matt Walsh, who tweeted:
“Innocent people are under no obligation to sit back and listen while a psychotic vagrant screams and threatens them.” They have every right to assume that the harasser means them harm. Neely had assaulted many people in the past, so the assumption was a good one in this case.”
According to this strand of sanism, Neely’s distress and agitation, and him screaming that he has no food and drink, that he is tired and fed-up, and throwing his jacket on the ground is enough to characterize him as unhinged and dangerous, and people have a right to assume that he means them harm, that he ought to be restrained (with death being an acceptable consequence of this reaction).
A second strand of sanism is paternalistic and sees this as a failure of social control. This is reflected in Mayor Eric Adams’s statement:
“Any loss of life is tragic. There's a lot we don't know about what happened here, so I'm going to refrain from commenting further. However, we do know that there were serious mental health issues in play here, which is why our administration has made record investments in providing care to those who need it and getting people off the streets and the subways, and out of dangerous situations. And I need all elected officials and advocacy groups to join us in prioritizing getting people the care they need and not just allowing them to languish.”
This is basically the sentiment that individuals with serious mental illness should be, by whatever means necessary and for their own good, confined and excluded from public life. Why are individuals with mental illnesses on the streets and the subways? They must be protected from all situations where they could become a danger or become endangered. Put them in facilities, put them in hospitals and group homes, keep them chemically subdued, whatever, everything will be ok if we can go back to pretending in our day-to-day lives that they don’t exist, and if we don’t have to deal with them.
A variety of this strand of sanism is more well-intentioned and expressed by many psychiatric colleagues. Some of the comments I heard were along the lines of: he should’ve been in outpatient commitment, he should’ve been on forced medication, and this would’ve been prevented. The truth is that we don’t know prior to this incident, what sort of commitment was warranted or whether that would’ve made a difference in this case. The mindset of coercive paternalism has become so pervasive that this is the first thought that occurs to many professionals in such circumstances, and I am certain that this incident will only energize political efforts to enhance commitment powers.
Someone can be on outpatient commitment and forced medication, and still have episodes where they behave erratically and agitatedly. In some instances, even medication side effects (such as akathisia) can cause them to be agitated. Someone can be in outpatient commitment and still experience tremendous distress at their impoverished social circumstances, can still feel tired, fed-up, and hopeless, and can act out on that frustration. Psychiatric medications are not a magic solution. A substantial proportion of individuals with serious mental illnesses do not respond to them. A substantial proportion of individuals with serious mental illnesses do not tolerate them well and would prefer to deal with the psychosis rather than experience how medications make them feel. We cannot keep people in facilities and neuroleptize them to oblivion. And these are just folks with existing serious mental illnesses. We will always have individuals experiencing first-episode psychosis, first-episode mania, or substance-induced altered states. I am not making any binary argument for/against involuntary care. I am saying that no matter what we do with psychiatric care, we will not eliminate cases where people behave erratically and agitatedly in the public. It is magical thinking to pretend otherwise.
The real dilemma we confront is that we have created societies that cannot tolerate and accommodate states of madness, especially madness that intersects with social disadvantages of race, class, and gender. We vacillate between neglect and coercion. We treat madness as dangerous, as undeserving of our compassion and understanding. We have no societal response to madness, no therapeutic program, no system of care that honors the fundamental humanity and dignity of the mad. We treat them as a social nuisance. We do not care about the horrors and traumas of their lives, about the dreams and aspirations they have, about what they are capable of if they are provided the right supports. All we care about is that they are out of dangerous situations, medicated, off the streets and the subways, and off our minds.
We treat madness as dangerous, as undeserving of our compassion and understanding. We have no societal response to madness, no therapeutic program, no system of care that honors the fundamental humanity and dignity of the mad. We treat them as a social nuisance. We do not care about the horrors and traumas of their lives, about the dreams and aspirations they have, about what they are capable of if they are provided the right supports. All we care about is that they are out of dangerous situations, medicated, off the streets and the subways, and off our minds.
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