May 8, 2023

Jordan Neely's death.

His killing has unleashed a debate about homelessness, mental health, and policing.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

We're covering the death of Jordan Neely and the debate it has unleashed about policing, mental health, and race. 

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Quick hits.

  1. Eight victims were killed and seven have been hospitalized after a gunman opened fire inside a mall in Allen, Texas (The shooting). Separately, eight people were killed in Brownsville, Texas, when a Range Rover slammed into a crowd at a bus stop outside a migrant shelter. Police have not determined if it was intentional. (The crash)
  2. A new Washington Post/ABC News poll found President Biden trailing Donald Trump by seven points in a head-to-head poll, as Biden's approval ratings have hit new all-time lows. (The numbers)
  3. The World Health Organization declared an end to the Covid-19 global health emergency, and the U.S. is ending its official Covid-19 emergency on Thursday. (The announcements)
  4. The U.S. economy added 253,000 jobs in April and unemployment fell to 3.4%, down from 3.5% in March. (The report)
  5. North Carolina lawmakers passed a 12-week abortion ban that Gov. Roy Cooper (D) is expected to veto. (The bill)

Today's topic.

Jordan Neely's death. On Monday afternoon, Neely was aboard a subway train in New York City when he began shouting at other passengers and "acting erratically," according to witnesses. Another passenger on the train, identified as 24-year-old Marine veteran Daniel Penny, came up behind Neely and put him in a chokehold, while two other passengers helped Penny restrain Neely.

After several minutes of holding Neely on the ground, he stopped moving, at which point medics arrived and failed to revive him. New York City's medical examiner determined he had died from compression of the neck.

Neely, who was homeless, was known by some New York city residents as a Michael Jackson impersonator who often performed around Times Square and on the subway. In the moments leading up to the altercation, witnesses said he shouted that he was hungry, thirsty, and ready to die or go to jail, before reportedly throwing his jacket on the ground. That's when Penny came up behind Neely and restrained him. Juan Alberto Vázquez, an independent journalist, filmed Penny holding Neely in a chokehold for several minutes in a video that generated national attention.

In the video, Neely is being held in a headlock position while he tries and fails to break free. A second passenger pins Neely's arms down while a third person holds his shoulder down. After several minutes, one bystander tells Penny to let Neely go, saying Neely defecated himself and that Penny was going to kill him.

As the video spread online, some described it as a deadly overreaction to a person with mental illness while others defended Penny for stepping in when Neely was threatening passengers. Some pointed to the racial dynamics of the interaction, noting that Neely was black and Penny was white, and that Penny may have viewed him as more threatening because of his race.

Neely's father told the New York Daily News that he had not seen or spoken to his son in four years. He also told the paper that Neely's mother had died violently in 2007, the victim of a strangulation, and that Neely had to testify against her boyfriend during a murder trial when he was 14 years old. CNN reported that Neely was on a list run by New York City's Department of Homeless Services as someone with acute needs.

Penny, a resident of Queens, New York, has not been charged with any crime, though the medical examiner's office ruled Neely's death a homicide and protesters are calling on the city to charge him with murder. Neely had been arrested 42 times in New York City, including on three charges of unprovoked assaults on women on the subway between 2019 and 2021, petty larceny, theft, and jumping subway turnstiles. One woman claimed online that he had pushed her toward the tracks on Sunday night near the same station where he was killed.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams asked residents not to rush to judgment about what happened until the investigation was complete.

“There are many layers to this,” Mr. Adams said. “I have faith in the criminal justice system and I’m going to let the process take its place.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who represents parts of Queens and the Bronx, said the video showed a murder.

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

The death of Neely has set off a fiery national debate about policing, intervention, mental health, and race. Many compared the incident to the 1984 subway shooting when Bernhard Goetz, a white man, shot four black teenagers on the subway. Goetz avoided assault and murder convictions by claiming self-defense, saying he feared he was going to be mugged.

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions from the left and right, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left blame Neely’s death on our underfunded social safety nets, saying Neely was failed by a system that neglects the homeless and mentally ill.
  • Some argue that Penny is another example of Americans using excessive violence when they shouldn't.
  • Others say Neely was already "dead to society" before he was killed by Penny.

In Defector, Albert Burneko said Jordan Neely "just needed some help."

Neely was "possibly in the midst of a mental health crisis" before a "white man came over and put him in a chokehold and held him in that chokehold for 15 minutes, by the end of which Neely was dead." That's "straightforwardly murder" by "any reasonable moral standard." Nobody should be surprised that someone with "no place to stay, who was hungry and thirsty and tired," might also be upset about that.

"Imagine some God's-eye view" of what happened, Burneko said. "There is a place full of people. Into this place comes a person who has nowhere to live; who is hungry and thirsty and tired and in obvious distress; who very probably, like a huge number of Americans, including many without permanent residences, suffers from mental illness... Who is vulnerable here?" The "easiest thing in the world" would have been for someone to spare water or food for Neely, or "[try] to pry off the guy literally strangling him to death."

Jordan Neely was "already dead" before he got on the train, Errol Louis wrote in New York Magazine.

"Modern America, including New York, designates some categories of people as socially dead — part of an underclass that is subject to exclusion, indifference, or even outright hatred and violence," Louis wrote. "To be Black, destitute, homeless, and mentally ill in our city is to be one of those outsiders, existing in a kind of internal exile from society’s circle of care and concern." Witnesses said Neely didn't seem like he wanted to hurt anyone, " but the doomed man’s words were sadly accurate about the choices he believed New York offered: prison or death."

It seems Neely had "encountered many of the clinics, hospitals, and social-service organizations we collectively (and optimistically) call a social safety net, including the Bowery Residents’ Committee and Bellevue Hospital," Louis wrote. "Employees from the Citywide Mobile Crisis Outreach Team brought him to a hospital or shelter five times in 2020." Yet this system is "ludicrously underfunded" and "badly lacking in quantity and coordination." This is what happens "when the sight of the distressed becomes so common that it is both fearsome and exhausting."

In The New York Times, Roxane Gay warned about "supposedly good, upstanding citizens" who are "fatally enforcing" new norms for how we conduct ourselves.

In Kansas City, Mo., a 16-year-old was killed after ringing the wrong doorbell. In upstate New York, a 20-year-old woman was shot for pulling into the wrong driveway. Two cheerleaders in Texas were shot after one got into the wrong car. In Cleveland, Texas, a man killed five people after his neighbor asked him to stop shooting his gun. One pregnant woman in Nashville was shot at for suspected shoplifting. "And sometimes there is no gun," she wrote. Was Neely "making people uncomfortable? I'm sure he was. But his were the words of a man in pain.

"He did not physically harm anyone," Gay wrote. "And the consequence for causing discomfort isn’t death unless, of course, it is... News reports keep saying Mr. Neely died, which is a passive thing. We die of old age. We die in a car accident. We die from disease. When someone holds us in a chokehold for several minutes, something far worse has occurred." No one appeared to help Neely, though two passengers helped the former Marine. "The people in that subway car prioritized their own discomfort and anxiety over Mr. Neely’s distress. All of the people in that subway car on Monday will have to live with their apparent inaction and indifference."

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right say the city of New York failed Neely by not putting him in an institution or imprisoning him after he committed so many crimes.
  • Some argue there is faux compassion from the left who would be arguing for different policy solutions if they really wanted to help Neely.
  • Others say this is the result of a lack of policing, and what happens when citizens think they have to take things into their own hands.

The New York Post editorial board said New York failed Jordan Neely.

It's too easy "to pin all the blame" on the man who restrained him. "The real villains who made their two lives collide with such tragic consequences are the city’s broken mental health system and antiquated mental health laws," the board said. "Neely had dozens of arrests and multiple Emotionally Disturbed Person reports to his name; his family had tried to get him into treatment. A warrant was out for his arrest (for assaulting a 67-year-old woman) at the time of his death."

In truth, Neely’s death is "on the hands of progressives who want to defund the NYPD yet offer no realistic or practical plan to get the dangerously mentally ill into care. The hard left (with indifferent support from most liberals) utterly opposes [Mayor Eric] Adams’ and Gov. Kathy Hochul’s mild efforts to enforce involuntary treatment of people that clearly need help." Innocent New Yorkers shouldn't fear "random attacks" like "getting shoved onto subway tracks or being trapped in a car with a madman." The elected officials should focus on the "other failures" that culminated in Neely's death.

In National Review, Rich Lowry scorned the "faux compassion" around Neely, and the "use and abuse" of his death.

"At the end of the day, no one really cared about Neely, not enough to get him the help he needed — indeed, to insist on it," Lowry said. "Imagine if we emptied out the nursing homes so people with dementia could wander the streets eating out of trash cans and sleeping on grates while office workers stepped around them on the way to work. It’d be unthinkable, right? But for some reason we allow a class of other mentally impaired people, schizophrenics, to do the same thing." This is the "hangover" from the 1960s, de-institutionalization, and a host of other policy mistakes.

"We’ll learn more about the particulars of the confrontation and how justified Daniel Penny was putting Neely in the chokehold for as long as he did," Lowry said. "Yet we do know that, in the largest sense, it never should have happened. After all the years when his mental incapacity and bizarre and threatening behavior had been well-established, Jordan Neely never should have been on that subway car out of his mind. All sorts of people will now claim to speak in his name and honor his memory. But not enough people honored him when he was alive — when he was allowed, like so many others, to moulder in his illness, an ongoing personal tragedy even before the terrible end."

In The Daily Signal, Ben Shapiro said "when you don't police crime, civilians will."

The media has found "its latest iteration of its favorite narrative: white man harms black man," Shapiro said. Neely "wasn’t just shouting threats at passengers—he had been arrested more than 40 times in the past. Those arrests ranged from drugs to disorderly conduct to fare beating. When he died, he carried an outstanding warrant for assaulting a 67-year-old woman. A bevy of people apparently report that he had attempted to shove people onto subway tracks more than once." So why was he out on the streets?

"The answer is that the city of New York has decided no longer to prosecute crime," because doing so might create "the unpalatable spectacle of racial disparity in crime statistics." The consequences of this “idiocy are dire, for both the general public and for people like Neely. How long can the authorities in New York expect everyday citizens to experience hostile and violent encounters before taking action?" This would be "perfectly obvious were Neely white and the Marine black," in which case "the media and political class would declare the Marine a hero for protecting others on the subway car."

My take.

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  • There is an all-of-the-above failure here.
  • Penny's actions seem obviously excessive to me, based on the details we have now.
  • Neely should be alive, but he should have never been left on the streets.

First and foremost is just stating how awful this entire thing is. In an era where every horror of the world gets filmed on a smartphone and uploaded to the internet, we can become desensitized to watching someone getting the life choked out of them in front of dozens of bystanders. But we cannot allow this to become normal or expected or routine. While they disagree on the particulars, I'm heartened to see that most commentators — right and left — seem to acknowledge a system that failed Neely, and that he was not a man who "deserved" to die.

I lived in New York for nearly a decade, and like most New Yorkers I have run into someone like Jordan Neely more times than I can count. When this story first broke, my immediate assumption was that Penny was not from New York. I was actually surprised to learn he was a Queens resident, given that most New Yorkers who navigate the city's public transportation do so without violently engaging the homeless or mentally ill who often co-mingle with the suits on their way to work. I could see how a tourist or new resident may have perceived Neely as a grave, lethal threat in a space where they were unfamiliar, so learning that Penny was a New Yorker surprised me.

Also like most New Yorkers — and, frankly, most urban citizens everywhere — I can't say I've ever taken active measures to get someone like Neely lasting help. I've given out food or socks or a twenty dollar bill; twice I called 911 thinking I was witnessing an overdose. I always try to make eye contact and acknowledge someone. But I've never taken real action, never interrupted my morning to try to get someone housing or mental health care or even a shower. And perhaps we all share a tiny bit of culpability in the death of someone like Neely. I know, as someone with all the things I need in life, I felt some pang of guilt for not doing more in the past while watching that video.

As is typical, I found some of the commentary on both sides about this issue irresponsible and dangerous. Elected officials calling Penny a murderer before a trial or investigation is not at all helpful. We do not have any video (yet) of anything that occurred before Neely was put into a chokehold, and we don't even have a full accounting of witness testimony. Given that he had already assaulted several people in a two-year span and a few residents claim he had attempted to shove people onto the tracks in recent weeks, it’s plausible that he could have been threatening enough for someone to reasonably take action.

I also think playing up the race angle is irresponsible. This isn't Bernie Goetz 2.0. Penny didn't wake up one day with the intent to get violent revenge on a black person, and there is no evidence he harbors ill will toward any race. One of the men who helped Penny restrain Neely was black. The journalist filming the episode was a Mexican immigrant. Like most New York subway cars, this one was full of people from all races and walks of life who either helped restrain Neely or did nothing to stop what was happening. Sure, it's possible that Penny viewed Neely as a greater threat because of his skin color, but framing it as a white vs. black crime in headlines and commentary feels like intentionally and unnecessarily inflaming racial tensions.

Similarly, many on the right positing that everyone on the left only views Neely as a political tool are way out of bounds. You can disagree with someone's view of this death, or disagree with their policy solution, without blithely suggesting they don't care about someone being choked to death in broad daylight. I'm guilty of not doing more than I could to help the homeless. I also felt a great deal of compassion, sadness, and horror when I watched those videos. Those two things can co-exist, and it's a cheap talking point to pretend they can't.

I also don't think a lack of police presence gives anyone the right to act the way Penny did. Again: I'll wait for more details for any final judgment; but if the details we have stay consistent, Penny clearly overreacted. Even if he was right to restrain Neely, which may very well be true, the group of men outnumbered him three-to-one and bystanders were warning Penny that he was going to kill the man who had just defecated himself while being choked. At some point, long before Neely died, Penny should have let up.

Ultimately, I think both sides make strong arguments that aren’t contradictory. This is what happens when we put people back on the street without proper care. This is what happens when our social safety net is badly underfunded. This is what happens when police are not present and active and responsive in certain areas, and people feel the need to act on their own. This is what happens when we allow violent people with mental illnesses to live on our streets. This is what happens when those same people make contact with our jails, shelters, and mental health facilities and are then released in short order without getting extensive care. This is what happens when we have a citizenry drunk on fear and entitlement, who view themselves as vigilante heroes with the right to take a life if they feel threatened.

But I think at the root of the issue, this is what happens when housing costs are completely out of control. We spend a lot of time talking about why people are homeless — drug use, mental illness, criminal records, etc — but the most obvious reason for homelessness, especially in cities like New York, is that housing is too expensive and too sparse.

Neely should be alive. Not just because being institutionalized or imprisoned would have been a more appropriate solution for him than being left on the street, but because someone making mere verbal threats and throwing their jacket on the ground should not be choked to death. It's always possible the contours of this story change, but for now it's just another tragic bullet point in a societal breakdown plaguing cities across our country — one of homelessness, mental illness, vigilante justice, broken policing and failing safety nets.


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Your questions, answered.

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Under the radar.

When President Biden ran for office, he promised to restore America's commitment to welcoming people fleeing persecution and reversing Donald Trump's policies. Now, The Wall Street Journal reports, he is "instead doing the opposite." Biden is "crafting a new system designed to limit the waves of asylum seekers pressuring the southern border." After three years of Title 42, the pandemic-era measure that made it possible to turn away asylum seekers at the southern border, lawmakers are becoming more comfortable with a future in which it is no longer sacrosanct for people to cross America's borders to seek refuge. Biden is now planning to replace Title 42 with new measures that mimic it. You can read the story here (Paywall).


  • 67,880. The estimated number of homeless children and adults living in shelters managed by New York City's Department of Homeless Services.
  • 3,439. The estimated number of homeless people in New York City residing in public spaces.
  • $1 billion. The estimated cost of New York Gov. Kathy Hochul's plans to overhaul mental health care in the state.
  • 22%. The increase in "major crimes" like burglary and robbery in New York last year, despite a drop in shootings and murders.
  • 1 in 5. The number of New Yorkers who had symptoms of a mental health disorder last year.

The extras.

Have a nice day.

Doctors in Boston say they've successfully performed brain surgery on a fetus. The now seven-week-old baby is one of the first people ever to have undergone an experimental brain surgery while in the womb — one that may have saved her life. The little girl had developed a dangerous condition that caused blood to pool in a pocket inside her brain, and the condition could have resulted in brain damage, heart problems, and breathing difficulties. But her parents got her into a trial for in-utero surgery, and it seems to have worked. Technology Review has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.