'Jordan deserved better': Critics demand accountability after NYC subway chokehold killing

More protests are scheduled across New York City on Thursday and Friday as calls mount for the district attorney to take action.

Left: Marchers in Manhattan protest the death of Jordan Neely. One holds a sign reading, I don't have food ... I don't have drink ... I'm fed up! Right: A passenger holds his arm around Neely's neck on a New York City subway train on Monday.
Left: Marchers in Manhattan on Wednesday protest the death of Jordan Neely. Right: Neely is restrained by a passenger on a subway train on Monday. (Jake Offenhartz/AP Photo, Juan Alberto Vazquez/Luces de Nueva York via Storyful)

Activists continue to demand answers after a New York City subway passenger was killed this week by another passenger’s chokehold after a brief confrontation.

City officials said Wednesday that 30-year-old Jordan Neely’s death on Monday afternoon was ruled a homicide from “compression of neck (chokehold)” after another commuter, later identified as a 24-year-old Marine veteran, clenched his arms around Neely’s neck long enough for Neely’s body to become limp.

Neely was homeless and a talented Michael Jackson impersonator who in recent years had performed in and around subway stations all over the city.

The veteran was taken into custody for questioning after the incident, but was later released after no charges were filed. The Manhattan district attorney's office said the killing remains under investigation.

Frustrated by what they see as a lack of accountability, dozens of protesters gathered on Wednesday evening at the Broadway-Lafayette station in Manhattan, where Neely’s lifeless body had been removed two days prior, chanting, “Abolition now!” and “Justice! Now!”

A protest against Neely's death in the Broadway-Lafayette subway station.
A protest against Neely's death at the Broadway-Lafayette subway station on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Jake Offenhartz)

Ravaris Moore, an assistant professor of sociology at New York University — whose research explores inequality at the intersection of race and ethnicity, education, and health — told Yahoo News he cannot make sense of how the encounter turned deadly.

“From an ethical standpoint, it is clear that nonviolent erratic behavior should not result in one’s death,” Moore said.

“From a legal standpoint, I do not know how much evidence a good attorney needs to successfully argue that passenger intervention was warranted. There is, however, a clear need to recognize and address this growing space where actions that are framed as arguably legal in the moment are yielding unnecessarily fatal outcomes.”

More protests are scheduled across the city on Thursday and Friday as calls mount for District Attorney Alvin Bragg to take action, according to NBC New York. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday called the fatal chokehold a “very extreme response” and welcomed the DA’s investigation.

“I'm really pleased that the district attorney is looking into this matter,” Hochul said in brief remarks at an unrelated event. “As I said, there have to be consequences, and so we'll see how this unfolds — but his family deserves justice.”

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., said that Neely had been lynched.

“Black men deserve to grow old — not be lynched on a Subway because they were having a mental health crisis,” Pressley tweeted on Wednesday. “Jordan deserved better.”

Here’s everything we know about the deadly encounter.

What happened?

According to the New York Daily News, the incident began around 2:30 p.m. on Monday. That’s when Neely boarded an uptown F train and began screaming and yelling at people and acting in a “hostile and erratic manner,” passengers told police.

“I don’t have food, I don’t have a drink, I’m fed up,” he screamed, eyewitness Juan Alberto Vázquez told the New York Times. “I don’t mind going to jail and getting life in prison. I’m ready to die.”

Neely then began to throw garbage at commuters, passengers said, which prompted an argument between him and the unidentified veteran. A brief confrontation ensued before the veteran came from behind Neely, according to Vázquez, and placed him in a chokehold that lasted 15 minutes.

Vázquez, a freelance journalist, recorded part of the incident and later uploaded it to his Facebook page, Luces de Nueva York. He told the paper that although Neely was behaving in a threatening manner, he did not assault anyone on the train.

New York police officers on Monday at the scene where a confrontation was reported on a subway train.
New York police officers on Monday at the scene where the confrontation occurred. (Paul Martinka via AP)

Vázquez’s video, which is just under four minutes in length, begins with Neely already in a chokehold. Two other men are seen standing around him and the veteran, assisting the veteran in holding down Neely at different times. The video shows Neely flailing while in the hold for at least two minutes before his body stops moving. The veteran continued to hold for at least 45 more seconds.

"I witnessed a murder on the Manhattan subway today," Vázquez wrote on Facebook.

When police arrived, Neely was unresponsive and first responders were unable to revive him. He was taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Vázquez told the Times that he is “not sure how to think about” what the veteran did. “He was trying to help,” Vázquez said.

Reactions to the killing

Shortly after video of Neely’s killing went viral on social media Wednesday morning, New York Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement that the death is evidence that his policy to remove the houseless and mentally ill from the subway is the right move.

“Any loss of life is tragic,” Adams’s statement read in part. “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.”

Later that evening, in an interview with CNN’s Abby Phillip, Adams refused to denounce the veteran for taking matters into his own hands.

“We have so many cases where passengers assist other riders. And we don't know exactly what happened here,” Adams said. “So we cannot just blatantly say what a passenger should or should not do in a situation like that, and we should allow the investigation to take its course.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., slammed the mayor’s comments as a “new low: not being able to clearly condemn a public murder because the victim was of a social status some would deem ‘too low’ to care about,” she said in a tweet on Wednesday.

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

Police officers watch as protesters gather in the Broadway-Lafayette station on Wednesday. On a wall are the words: Who killed Jordan Neely?
Police officers watch as protesters gather in the Broadway-Lafayette station on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Jake Offenhartz)

The New York Civil Liberties Union said Adams and Hochul were “vilifying” the homeless in an effort to gain votes at a time when crime in New York City is on the decline.

“For much of their tenures in office, Governor Hochul and Mayor Adams have relentlessly fear-mongered their constituents, vilifying the unhoused and mentally unwell as they advanced policies that do not make New York safer,” the organization said in a tweet, adding, “Jordan Neely deserved basic humans rights: a place to live, enough to eat, and access to mental healthcare. He deserved to be respected and supported. Instead he was killed.”

Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine echoed the sentiment that Neely should still be alive.

"Our broken mental health system failed him," Levine said. "He deserved help, not to die in a chokehold on the floor of the subway."

Next steps

The medical examiner’s office classified Neely’s death as a homicide, but said that any determination about criminal culpability would be left to the DA’s office.

“As part of our rigorous ongoing investigation, we will review the Medical Examiner’s report, assess all available video and photo footage, identify and interview as many witnesses as possible, and obtain additional medical records,” a statement from a spokesperson for the DA read.

Dave Giffen, the executive director of Coalition for the Homeless, told the Associated Press that city and state officials deserved some of the blame for Neely’s death and the subsequent release of the veteran.

“The fact that someone who took the life of a distressed, mentally ill human being on a subway could be set free without facing any consequences is shocking,” he said. “This is an absolute travesty.”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Jack Forbes; photos: family handouts