This story originally appeared in Prism on May. 4, 2022.
CW: mentions of lynching, enslavement, and anti-Black violence.
A white man lynched Jordan Neely on the floor of a subway in New York City on Monday.
He placed Neely in a chokehold for several minutes. Other people held down Neely’s arms and legs as he tried to free himself. But then he stopped moving. A freelance journalist, Juan Alberto Vazquez, filmed the execution and shared the video on his Facebook page.
“‘I don’t have food, I don’t have a drink, I’m fed up,’” Neely had yelled in the train, Vazquez reported to The New York Times. “‘I don’t mind going to jail and getting life in prison. I’m ready to die.’”
Vazquez also shared that the 30-year-old did not assault or threaten anyone on the train before the man who choked him to death grabbed him from behind. The police released Neely’s killer after questioning, and they didn’t bring any charges. The coroner has ruled the death a homicide.
City officials, wielding morsels of information like a sword to quell dissent, have shared little to no information about the man who lynched Neely beyond the fact that he is a 24-year-old man. But the police have given the media almost full access to Neely’s medical and so-called “criminal” history.
The most common refrain since Monday has been about Neely’s perceived “mental health issues,” his houselessness, and how he used to busk as Michael Jackson and perform for people to make ends meet. We’ve heard about his mother, Christie Neely’s gruesome murder at the hands of a boyfriend, and how then-18-year-old Neely had to testify at the trial. These pieces of information—his state-sanctioned, government-fueled, racial capitalist-borne poverty, questions about his mental state, his traumatic past, witnesses sharing about their fear at his “erratic” behavior—are shared almost as if to justify the lynching. But is the state letting you die of hunger, thirst, and lack of shelter not worth yelling about?
Make no mistake; a white man lynched Neely because of his Blackness. White supremacy allows white people to function as extensions of settler-colonial state power. Neely was Black, so that was enough reason to lynch him rather than help him. It was enough for some bystanders to watch without intervention. It was enough for others to hold down his limbs as someone choked the life out of him—the same way white people and their allies have done to thousands of Black people across the country, not with a chokehold and in a subway, but with nooses and trees.
As both prosecutors and the police continue their investigation, the case to arrest the person who lynched Neely rests on the ability to prove that Neely wasn’t a threat to his killer or the witnesses on the train. According to New York state laws, a person can use physical force against another person if they have a “reasonable belief” that it is necessary to defend themselves or others. But in a country that always perceives Blackness as an inherent threat, that perceives Black men as taller, stronger, and more threatening than they are thanks to the psyche and construct of whiteness itself, that reasonable belief then hinges on a system that, for centuries, defined whiteness as humanity and Blackness as sub-human. Lynching, shooting at, and locking up Black people and systematically letting Black people die through state inaction (and action) within the construct of white supremacy will almost always be acceptable within the U.S.
Since Monday, attempts by right-wing and centrist media outlets to frame Neely’s last moments as deserving of lynching are rooted in a long history of demonizing Black anger as dangerous and a sign of madness. As Mon M. and Stefanie Lyn Kaufman Mthimkhulu wrote in their op-ed for Prism, the criminalization of “errant behavior, madness, and neurodivergence” is embedded within U.S. settler-colonial history. They wrote: “This history includes the racialization of mental illness in ways that benefited slavers and settlers, including ‘drapetomania,’ which characterized the desire for enslaved people to run away as mental illness, and made-up census data from 1840, which exaggerated mental illness among free Black people.”
What does it say that Neely’s anger at his starvation and thirst was perceived as threatening to his executioner? What does it say of the conditions imposed on a Black, unsheltered, starving person that prison and the conditions of carcerality are preferable to a slow death on the street? Black rage at this country’s injustices, oppressions, and despicable conditions is killed, quelled, and watered down by the state and agents most aligned with its settler-colonial missions. When runaway, rebellious enslaved people protested their conditions, they were tortured and lynched. Neely was protesting the conditions of his existence, and a man lynched him for it.
It is our duty not to impose medical diagnoses and judgments on Neely. Our responsibility, as movement journalists, as people combatting anti-Blackness, state and state-sanctioned murders, lynchings, and violence, is to fight for liberation. We must fight against white supremacist narratives that immediately work overtime to blame the victim of a lynching for his murder. Neely deserved to be saved, he deserved money, and he deserved food and water. Neely deserved warmth, community, and tenderness. Neely deserved to live.
Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.