What should we think about—what should we do in response to—the death of Jordan Neely? The homeless man who died on May 1 while another subway passenger held him in a chokehold presents Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times with a clearcut case. “The Demonization of the Homeless Has Vile Consequences,” he titled his column.
For Bouie, those consequences include Neely’s death, but also the reaction to it: some people being more sympathetic to the man who put Neely in that chokehold than to Neely himself. The idea that the man who held Neely—later identified as Daniel Penny, a 24-year-old ex-Marine from Long Island—may have been justified in his actions is the result of “a vicious campaign of demonization and hostility toward the homeless,” writes Bouie. Fox News and other media use reports of attacks committed by homeless people to portray them as “inherently unstable, violent and dangerous.”
Had our minds not been poisoned by such propaganda, according to Bouie, then the people on Neely’s subway car, and those around the city and country making sense of the story, would not have overinterpreted and overreacted to the threat Neely posed. He was behaving in a “hostile and erratic manner,” Bouie allows. Other reports say that Neely was “screaming in an aggressive manner” before Penny (and at least one other passenger) tackled him, and that he was saying that he was tired, didn’t care if he went to jail, and was ready to die.
Such behavior, especially in a place as confined as a subway car, makes many people feel “anxious, uncomfortable and even afraid,” Bouie writes. But “fear is not a license to use force.” “There is nothing Neely did, as far as we know, that gave anyone in that car the right to restrain him.” Bouie later developed this point on Twitter. Based on video he saw and accounts he read, Bouie concedes that Neely was “acting erratic and hostile” but maintains that he was “not poised to attack anyone.” From that premise, he concludes that the prudent and decent course for passengers on Neely’s car was . . . to do nothing. In “an instance of discomfort and fear but in the absence of imminent danger,” we can “show restraint and forbearance.”
Rahnuma Tarannum, a 25-year-old data analyst who lives in Brooklyn, dissents. She told the Times that her feeling of vulnerability on the subway has led her to carry pepper spray when she travels. Quoted in a story about reactions to Neely’s death, Tarannum said, “Because police are not doing their job, that’s why the citizens of New York are taking the law into their own hands. Somebody has to do something.”
Though not responding to Bouie’s column, Tarannum was making two points that cut against his argument. First, she indicates that her apprehensions about traveling on the subway are based on experience and observation. She would, presumably, reject reassurances that things aren’t really that bad, that her concerns are the overwrought consequence of discourse about the homeless and subway violence that, instead of being serious, is “sensationalist, raving, [and] pornographic,” in the words of journalist John Ganz.
Are New York’s subways safer, its homeless population less dangerous, than is generally believed? Than Tarannum and, perhaps, Daniel Penny seemed to think? The Times pointed out in February that the rate of violent felonies on the subway system was twice as high in 2022 as it had been in 2019. The system saw ten people murdered in 2022, compared with an average of two per year from 2015 through 2019. On the other hand, the Times pointed out that even after this increase, there were 1.2 violent crimes for every 1 million subway rides, which works out to about the likelihood of being injured during a two-mile automobile trip. Readers deliberating how much reassurance to derive from such statistics may reflect on the Times’s utter lack of such restraint and sobriety following the death of George Floyd in 2020, when the paper made no attempt to caution against sweeping generalizations based on the anomalous death of an unarmed black man in police custody.
As for the danger posed by the homeless, Bouie says that although “homeless people have committed acts of violence,” they are “far more likely” to be its victims rather than its perpetrators. This formulation is consistent with a subset of the homeless population committing violent acts against other homeless people. In one 2019 tragedy, for example, one homeless man beat four others to death as they slept on the streets of Chinatown. One of the reasons many homeless people decline to stay in shelters in favor of living on the streets is to avoid exposure to violence committed by some of the other people who end up in the shelters.
It’s crucial then, for homeless New Yorkers and New Yorkers in general to differentiate homeless people who pose a danger from ones who do not. Given the difficulty of making this assessment correctly, and the grave dangers that can result from getting it wrong, Bouie’s assurances—after the fact and removed from the scene—that Jordan Neely was “not poised to attack anyone” and therefore constituted no “imminent danger,” come off as epistemologically arrogant. In a world where homeless people on the subway who act erratic and hostile while screaming about how they are ready to die were always scrupulous about giving clear, ample warning before they commit a violent act, Bouie’s conclusions might deserve respect.
But the New York subway system has no tracks or stations in that world. It operates, rather, in a world where last year a homeless man named Martial Simon shoved a 40-year-old consultant, Michelle Go, off a Times Square subway platform into the path of an oncoming train, killing her instantly. There was no motive; the assailant and victim did not know each other. It would be hard to say, based on witness accounts, that Simon was poised to attack anyone or represented an imminent danger. One woman said that she had drawn away from Simon, fearful that he might push her. But apparently, she neither screamed nor called for the police. We can surmise that even if Simon’s demeanor struck some people on that subway platform as “off” or threatening, they responded as Bouie would have approved, with restraint and forbearance.
This brings up a second point raised by Rahnuma Tarannum, about how the authorities not doing their job puts civilians in a position where they either do it themselves or suffer the consequences of no one doing it. It is true, as Bouie says, that citizens have “no individual right to act as judge, jury and executioner” when they find themselves in a situation that is unsettling but not unambiguously dangerous. But it is also true that we cannot fairly expect civilians to act as their own police force, or to make accurate, instant psychological evaluations that gauge how much of a threat a particular homeless person on a subway car or platform really does pose.
It is true, as Bouie says, that no one on Jordan Neely’s subway car had any way to know that he had been arrested 42 times, including at least four times for punching people, two of which occurred in the subway system. Nor could they have known that Neely was on “the ‘Top 50’ list,” which, the Times explained, is a “roster maintained by the city of . . . people living on the street whom officials consider most urgently in need of assistance and treatment.” Lacking such knowledge, Bouie contends, Neely’s fellow passengers were obligated to give him the benefit of the doubt.
It is also true, however, that the people sharing that midtown subway platform with Martial Simon had no way of knowing that he had served two prison terms for robbing taxi drivers at gunpoint. Or that a drug possession case against him had been dismissed in 2019 due to his mental state. Or that he had been homeless for nearly 20 years before he killed Michelle Go. Or that he had been hospitalized at least 20 times. Or that he had told a psychiatrist in 2017 that it was “just a matter of time” before he pushed a woman onto some train tracks. Lacking such knowledge, the people on that subway platform were equally obligated to give Simon the benefit of the doubt.
At this point, though, no New Yorker is required to give the benefit of the doubt to the ramshackle, slovenly system that let Neely and Simon fend for themselves, and which leaves people who are not homeless to their own devices when they encounter people who are. The ultimate culprit, argues Bouie, is “our thin and threadbare safety net.” These adjectives are not the ones that will come to most minds after examining New York’s governmental and nonprofit social welfare outlays. A likelier explanation is that the large sums already expended are propping up a system badly designed and administered. A psychiatrist with “long experience in New York’s psychiatric emergency rooms” told the Times that “a fundamental problem with the mental health care system now is that no single entity seems to be responsible for the well-being of someone like [Martial] Simon.”
Until that entity is established and proves capable of meeting New York’s crisis, the government’s message to subway passengers is: You’re on your own; there’s just not that much the city will do to keep you out of situations involving homeless people. These situations will sometimes feel dangerous and occasionally be dangerous, but another part of being on your own is that you’ll have to figure out for yourself which situations do and do not pose a genuine threat. To make the challenge even more stimulating, be advised that the world’s most influential newspaper is prepared to denounce you if it believes your response to a particular situation was disproportionate to its true dangers.
“There is nothing [Jordan Neely] did” on that subway car “to deserve death,” Bouie declares. But denunciation is not the only risk of assessing and choosing incorrectly. Michelle Go did nothing on that subway platform to deserve death, either.
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