An unhoused 30-year-old Black man with schizophrenia named Jordan Neely was screaming erratically on a subway train and was put into a chokehold for 3 minutes by a 24-year-old white man named Daniel Penny. Neely died from being choked to death. I’m going to fast-forward through unimportant and/or obvious debates to get into the meat of the issue.
Q: Is the Marine a murderer?
There are no indicators so far that he intended to kill Neely so he will rightly get a manslaughter charge. But Penny was reckless and was told by a bystander to release his chokehold or he would be criminally liable. And he has been held criminally liable — Perry received a second-degree manslaughter charge. However, he should have been charged with first-degree manslaughter, which implies an intent to harm but not kill someone, rather than second-degree which is acting reckless in general.
You should not use chokeholds against people unless you are comfortable with an inflated chance of killing them. A guy from the Marine Corps definitely knows that. People online appear to think cutting off oxygen in a fragile part of the body can be done safely. It really can’t, hence why police generally aren’t allowed to do it, nor are fighters in sanctioned, professional brawls.
Q: What about Neely’s numerous citations and arrests including violent crime?
Doesn’t matter. Nobody knew his record, and it's irrelevant to Perry’s actions on the train.
Q: Didn’t Neely throw trash at people?
Doesn’t matter if he did. It’s also unclear if he was tossing trash generally or at people. But unless said trash was a heavy ballistic or toxic, such as fecal matter, urine etc., it wasn’t life threatening.
Q: Was the choke hold racially motivated?
This is the most uninteresting part of the story. People think any fight or attack by a white person towards a black person is inherently racist, and the right responds with poorly understood interracial crime statistics. Americans and our media are obsessed with the most simpleminded variant of racism: casual instances of bigotry and stranger prejudice.
The racism of importance is that Neely’s blackness is why he and people with his skin color are far more likely to be homeless and hungry than those like Penny with his skin color. And Penny’s whiteness is why so much benefit of the doubt was given to him, from media pundits to the mayor.
Most of the conversation has focused on Neely’s mental illness and appropriate ways to handle someone acting erratically in public spaces (more on this in Part 2). But I fear people don’t understand that mental illness is a lot more pervasive than commonly thought.
Psychosis and schizophrenia affects many people from the wealthy to the poor, but many housed and middle class people probably don’t realize how many of their friends and associates have varying degrees of mental illnesses. The primary difference between the mentally ill on the streets and the ones in housing is their family support.
Being mentally ill or having a severe disability absent parental support guarantees poverty in the United States. Being raised in poverty in the United States likely ensures you will be poor as an adult, too. Despite the American “work hard and become upwardly mobile” ethos, middle-class people’s economic outcomes are often predestined by their parents’ wealth, not their individual hard work. Yes, there are many exceptions, with college education being the biggest upwardly-mobile factor that enables children to earn more income than their parents. But the majority of poor Americans do not ascend to substantially higher economic brackets than the ones they were born into.
Neely grew up in a poor household where he was subjected to vicious fighting and domestic violence by his mother and her boyfriend every night. Neely’s mother was murdered and her dead body stuffed into a suitcase by her domestic partner. Neely was just 14 years old when he testified about her death in court. Fatal domestic violence exposure had undoubtedly tremendous psychological damage on him, and compounded with schizophrenia and no parental support, he dropped out of high school and his illness worsened.
Very few young people who endure that kind of upbringing come out of it as a well-adjusted adult without significant public intervention. According to Pew’s research on mobility averages, Neely had a 75% chance of being stuck in poverty. Factoring in his murdered mother, schizophrenia and dropping out of high school, the odds a Black man like Neely would even make it to 30 was small. Any conversation about mental health needs to recognize how many odds Neely beat with virtually no life advantages.
Neely spent much of his years in early adulthood alternating between a beloved subway performer and a person experiencing severe mental episodes on the subway. The New York Times reported that Neely was committed at a treatment center after he committed battery. In reaction to this, many expressed confusion at why he was back on the streets.
I’ve had many conversations with people who have been institutionalized, and they all refer to it as some of the worst experiences in their life. They’re treated like suspects and are stripped of all their clothes and possessions which could conceivably be used as an object of suicide. The volume of patients means staff’s capacity for individual empathy is diminished. The environments themselves are often depressing, and nobody wants to be involuntarily confined.
Prior to the 1970s, forcibly institutionalizing people deemed mentally ill was commonplace, but the rise of civil rights for the mentally impaired replaced criminalizing institutions with localized organizational approaches to mental illness. The replacement for institutions didn’t materialize because, contrary to ignorant Elon Musk-approved right-wing memes, president Ronald Reagan, not liberals, gutted funding for mentally ill community centers. As a result, hundreds of thousands of unwell people began roaming the street with minimal, if any, help.
Now, I’m not a mental health expert. I don’t know of a society who has perfected mental health treatment. I don’t know what the exact balance should be between committing people losing their grasp on reality and their right to freedom of movement without family, state or institutional influence. But it is obvious that Neely’s mental illness could’ve been treated much better by ensuring he was fed and that he was housed. Then he’d be like your schizophrenic neighbors you don’t even know have illnesses: well-medicated, largely non-violent episodes, safe inside rather than residing in a subway, and reachable for treatment during emergencies.
Despite our disproportionate focus on Neely’s mental health, it’s possible Daniel Penny has some mental issues too. Many veterans have severe mental health issues and are also often homeless. I wouldn’t be surprised if its revealed during trial that Penny suffers from some military-related PTSD. By no means if that’s revealed does it absolve him of his responsibility, however.
Cutting off a man’s oxygen for three minutes, during which several other bystanders have already tackled Neely, ignoring warnings by a bystander that he’d kill Neely if he didn’t let him go, and indifference to Neely’s defecating on himself is sociopathic behavior. I’ve seen choke holds used in street fights and I genuinely have seldom seen one deployed for more than a few seconds. Neely’s record of battery and outbursts pale in comparison to choking someone for three minutes — especially against someone who had not committed any violence.
Most homeless people on transit don’t even elicit a glance by regular urban transit riders and they shouldn’t. Homeless folks have places to go. Even people screaming erratically on New York subways are common and usually a car of New Yorkers couldn’t be bothered. But for two other random riders to tackle Neely and evidently no one in the car of any race or background to protest it, probably indicates that riders were genuinely frightened by his alleged screaming that he would “hurt anyone.” Some people online are rightly opposing Perry’s attack but then, as usual, get absurd and claim that nobody should be bothered by Neely’s screaming about causing harm and indifference to going to jail over it. No way. Both unhoused and housed transit riders would be greatly worried hearing anyone scream that. Obviously intervention was needed, but it should’ve been administered first by mental health experts. Unfortunately, there isn’t a well-known way to summon one. (More on this issue in Part 2.)
The answer to Neely’s problems are painfully clear. There’s a general consensus building among Americans and foreign visitors alike that American public transit is increasingly populated with people suffering from homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction. Online I see people parading the superiority, cleanliness, ultra-modern and mass-appeal of European and Asian transit systems in contrast to the USA’s and New York City. But those cities didn’t arrest their way to being largely unhoused and drug-free — they just have significantly less unsheltered homelessness than the United States.
Here, our supply of short term rentals and homeless shelters is extremely small thanks to both federal inaction and local government failures. There’s a direct link to the amount of unhoused on transit and shelter availability, too. That’s why Los Angeles Metro is significantly more populated with homelessness than New York City’s subway because NYC has 60,000 shelter beds compares to LA’s 12,000. Moreover, our commercial culture is so extremely anti-homeless and anti-loitering that there are few other places for unhoused people to go that are warm and sheltered besides transit systems.
So if the federal government erected hundreds of thousands of public housing units for the homeless, the visible homelessness we see in Manhattan would reach zero within a year or two. If food stamps were converted into a general income debit card, had their value increased and was handed out without complicated background checks and means testing, homeless people wouldn’t be screaming for hunger.
Those two things alone would’ve solved much of Neely’s material issues that he was ranting about on the subway. Then people wouldn’t be stealing from their local Walgreens and living on public transit as the similarly slained Banko Brown of San Francisco had to do. It’s not even socialism; this is basic European-style social democracy that we used to employ before Nixon and Reagan put an end to it by defunding American cities as part of an urban vs. rural culture war.
Congress is populated with anti-urban conservatives that want to see our cities fail and take glee in running endless stories about homelessness run amok on the coasts. Despite the fact that our nation primarily depends on Democratic areas for tax revenue and GDP growth yet return significantly less of it in public services. In every Republican-run state legislature, they defund urban centers as part of their anti-Black and anti-liberal culture war and give disproportionate subsidies to private interests in their sparsely populated areas. And weak Democrats fail to call appropriate attention to this problem.
I don’t like that public transit in America operates as a defacto homeless shelter. But we don’t have the clean subways people gawk at all over the world in part because Congress refuses to house the people who cannot pay any rent. States most effected by homelessness like California pay significant amounts of federal taxes yet get signficantly less in federal aid.
As a result, if Congress doesn’t fund housing then those without homes will sleep on what Congress does fund: highway overpasses and public transit. The primary action that could house the growing homeless population in a short period of time is repealing the Faircloth amendment that limited public housing construction, building hundreds of thousands of new public housing units and re-shaping the heavily restricted EBT into a general income card. Civilized countries with half our GDP per-capita do this. America would’ve done this in the mid-20th century before austerity won out.
This is not a coastal problem or a city problem — this is increasingly a national problem. Funding the aforementioned material needs is far more cost efficient than throwing millions at police departments to solve quality of life issues they cannot solve. I personally know dozens of mentally ill and drug addicted middle class people. Schizophrenia and drug addiction are much easier to live with when you’re not living on the subways with an empty stomach.
In Part 2 coming soon I’ll discuss the so-called bystander effect, what a lot of progressives get wrong about it, and the arising apathy towards homeless people. Included will be some mitigations about feeling unsafe on transit.
Excellent analysis. One more thing I would add is that lack of staffing on trains and in stations means that passengers themselves must respond to anti-social behavior. Bus drivers are trained and able to be the authority who is able to intervene when a passenger's behavior is inappropriate or out of control. Train passengers rarely have skills or know acceptable procedures for intervention, nor should they! Hiring staff for trains and stations would also create good public sector jobs for people who otherwise risk homelessness. It is not just unhoused people who behave badly on transit. I'm a 70 year old woman who uses LA Metro. I've never been offered a seat by a healthy young person, and I've experienced many inappropriate behaviors including loud boom boxes that should have been interrupted by a staff member. Staffing up our transit vehicles and stations would solve multiple policy issues, including lifting the new staff members out of poverty.
Anyways - I guess my question on the proposed solutions is why can't blue cities and states do these things themselves? States like California and New York have enormous tax bases as you point out. And also very Blue governments. And both the wealth and blue votes are concentrated in the same places (the cities). If their desirability drives the homeless problem, through prices, if also offers the potential fiscal solution, through potential tax revenue.