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Jordan Neely’s chokehold death on NYC subway denounced by politicians as protesters demand justice

"No one should lose their life because they’re experiencing a mental health crisis. He deserved help, not a death sentence," state Sen. Jamaal T. Bailey said.
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Politicians and lawmakers are demanding accountability after a 24-year-old New York City subway rider was seen on video putting a homeless man in a fatal chokehold.

Jordan Neely, 30, was a subway busker who performed dance routines in costume as Michael Jackson. He was homeless when he was killed Monday after an altercation on a northbound F train, police said. 

Neely suffered from mental illness “which began at age 14 when he experienced the brutal murder of his mother,” a law firm hired by his family, Mills & Edwards LLP, said in a statement Thursday. 

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams said Neely "was a New Yorker, a son, and a performer, and he should still be alive," in a statement Wednesday.

Adams, a Democrat, said Neely's death is another reminder of how far Black people "remain from an equitable and just society."

State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, a Democrat, said that the incident should not have ended in Neely's death and that it highlights the struggle to combat mental illness and violence on city subways.

“Mr. Neely’s death reveals the shortcomings of our approach in both areas and should be a moment of great anguish for this city, not a time for equivocation or tacit approval of vigilantism,” he said in a statement Thursday. “I stand ready to work with my partners in government towards healing and solutions during this time of great pain for Mr. Neely’s family and everyday New Yorkers.”

Neely said he was hungry and thirsty

Officers responded to the Broadway and East Houston Street subway station around 2:27 p.m. Monday after they got a 911 call about a fight, a spokesperson said.

"Further investigation revealed the 30-year-old was involved in a verbal dispute with the 24-year-old male and it escalated into a physical altercation," the spokesperson said. "During the physical struggle between the two males, the 30-year-old male lost consciousness."

Cellphone video taken by passenger Juan Alberto Vazquez showed the 24-year-old man on the ground with his arm around Neely's neck. Two other subway riders appear to help restrain Neely, who was Black.

New York police officers respond to the scene where Jordan Neely died on a subway train, Monday, May 1, 2023, in New York.
New York police officers respond at the scene where Jordan Neely died on a subway train Monday, May 1, 2023, in New York.Paul Martinka via AP file

Vazquez told NBC New York that Neely got on the train 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."

Vazquez said Neely was held in the chokehold position for about 15 minutes.

Neely was unconscious when police arrived, and he was pronounced dead at a hospital. The manner of death was homicide, the city chief medical examiner's office said, and the cause was “compression of neck (chokehold).”

Attorney Lennon Edwards, who was retained by the Neely family, said Thursday that he took the case, “because 15 minutes is too long to go without help, intervention and without air. Passengers are not supposed to die on the floor of our subways.”

"We understand our current times have created a heightened sense of fear," the law firm's statement said. "However, there has to be a clear line of when lethal force can be used by anyone, including civilians."

Attorney Donte Mills, of the same firm, said he would be surprised if charges were not filed in the case in an interview that aired Friday morning on the “TODAY” show.

“It would be incredible to me if the outcome of this was no charge, because how can you say that it’s okay for someone to strangle someone,” he said.

'He deserved help, not a death sentence'

Adams said Neely's death and the responses to it have been "difficult to absorb."

"Racism that continues to permeate throughout our society allows for a level of dehumanization that denies Black people from being recognized as victims when subjected to acts of violence," she said in her statement."The perceptions of Black people have long been interpreted through a distorted, racialized lens that aims to justify violence against us."

State Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal, a Democrat, said that police were banned from using the chokehold and that therefore "there's no excuse for a civilian to use such a deadly maneuver, especially on someone experiencing a mental health crisis."

"While we don't know all the facts, we know this: Jordan Neely should still be alive," he said in a statement. "I trust the @ManhattanDA Bragg will use his best judgment in pursuing justice for Jordan and his family."

Sen. Jamaal T. Bailey, a Democrat, tweeted Thursday: "Jordan Neely was simply asking for food and water when his life was brutally taken. No one should lose their life because they’re experiencing a mental health crisis. He deserved help, not a death sentence."

No charges have been filed, but case remains under investigation

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul told reporters that the video was "horrific" and that the subway riders’ response to Neely was "very extreme," while Mayor Eric Adams said he will let the district attorney's investigation play out.

"There are many layers to this. I’m gonna let the process follow its course, and so I won’t get engaged with comparisons on where we are, where we aren’t. I’m not going to do that. I’m going to let the investigation run its course," he said.

The 24-year-old man, who has not been publicly identified, was taken into custody Monday, questioned by police and released. The Manhattan district attorney's office said it will review the medical examiner's report, review video and conduct interviews before it makes a decision.

Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa., said she believes he was released "because dehumanizing & hating poor folks has been normalized."

"There MUST be accountability," Lee tweeted Wednesday.

In a series of tweets, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat whose district is in the Bronx, said it was "disgusting" that charges have not been filed and questioned why officials have not condemned Neely's death.

"Killing is wrong. Killing the poor is wrong. Killing the mentally ill is wrong. Why is that so hard to say?" she tweeted Thursday.

She went on to discuss the challenges faced by many people who have been incarcerated or struggle with mental illness. There have been reports that Neely had an extensive criminal history.

"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 wrote.

"I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard from both COs and the incarcerated that there are people who commit petty crimes because their easiest way to get a bed and doctor. For many vulnerable communities — especially the mentally ill — we make living in jail easier than living out of it," she added.

Protesters gather at NYC subway station

Residents convened at the Broadway-Lafayette subway station Wednesday, holding signs and chanting "Black lives matter" and "the homeless matter," Gothamist reported.

Protesters march through the Broadway-Lafayette subway station  to protest the death of Jordan Neely, Wednesday afternoon, May 3, 2023 in New York. Four people were arrested, police said. Neely, a man who was suffering an apparent mental health episode aboard a New York City subway, died this week after being placed in a headlock by a fellow rider on Monday, May 1, according to police officials and video of the encounter.
Protesters march through the Broadway-Lafayette subway station, in New York, on May 3, 2023.Jake Offenhartz / AP

Harlem resident Kyle Ishmael, 38, told NBC New York that he felt "disgusted" after having watched the video.

“I couldn’t believe this was happening on my subway in my city that I grew up in,” he said.

More demonstrations were planned for Thursday and Friday across the city.