Jordan Neely, the famous Michael Jackson “impersonator” who went around the NYC subway system dancing and entertaining passengers, was murdered by a white transit rider Monday
On May 1 in New York City, a white subway rider murdered Jordan Neely, a Black homeless man who was expressing his misery at going without food or water. In a train entering the Broadway-Lafayette station in lower Manhattan, Neely cried out to passengers, “I don’t have food, I don’t have a drink, I’m fed up,” according to a witness, continuing: “I don’t mind going to jail and getting life in prison. I’m ready to die.” The New York Police Department claims that Neely then proceeded to throw garbage at commuters, which prompted an argument and then a brawl with a 24-year-old white transit rider. The brawl ended in the rider, a US Marine veteran, putting Jordan Neely in a chokehold that lasted 15 minutes, ending in his death.
The police took the veteran in for questioning, only to release him shortly afterwards. The NYPD has thus far refused to release the killer’s name.
Freelance journalist Juan Alberto Vazquez witnessed the killing and took a four minute video of Neely’s final moments. While the unidentified white man has Neely in a chokehold, multiple passengers hold him down. Neely’s death has been ruled a homicide by a medical examiner.
The murder prompted outrage throughout New York City which quickly spread across the country. On Wednesday, 50 demonstrators packed onto the Uptown-bound F train platform at the Broadway-Lafayette to demand justice for Neely.
New Yorkers who watched Vazquez’s video were quick to recognize Neely was the famous Michael Jackson “impersonator” who went around the subway system dancing and entertaining passengers. “I use to see [Jordan Neely] everyday on my commute to JFK8 Amazon pre-Covid,” tweeted Chris Smalls, leader of the Amazon Labor Union. “I’ll never forget enjoying seeing him dance and sing MJ for the people.”
Meanwhile, right-wing pundits are smearing Neely’s character and arguing that the killer was justified based on the frequency of subway violence perpetrated by homeless people. This is despite the fact that according to the NYPD’s own metrics, so-called “transit crimes” are down 8% from last year.
The right-wing media has also repeatedly pointed to Neely’s 44 prior arrests as justification for his murder. However, homelessness itself is heavily policed and criminalized. Homeless people are detained repeatedly for crimes of poverty such as fare evasion and “disorderly conduct,” (both crimes which Neely was arrested for) an inevitable product of a life lived entirely in the public sphere.
Homelessness can be a product of a criminal record, as former prisoners are repeatedly denied employment and housing in the US. At the same time, homelessness can be a cause of a criminal record. Being unhoused is in itself illegal in many ways: loitering, camping out, or using the bathroom in public are all crimes a person can be arrested for. Homeless people are 11 times more likely to be arrested than those who are not homeless.
Still, violence perpetrated by homeless people in subways is not unheard of, and many New Yorkers have experienced this firsthand. Some of Neely’s arrests included four for assault. However, this reality must be combined with a sincere analysis of the ways that homelessness and poverty drive people towards violent outbursts. Mental illness is far more prevalent in the homeless versus the non-homeless. Homelessness itself has been shown to increase the likelihood of violent behavior.
When Neely was fourteen, his mother was murdered by her boyfriend while Neely slept only feet away. Christine Neely was 36 when she was killed, her body later discovered in a suitcase on the side of a highway in the Bronx in 2007. Neely testified at the murder trial.
“His moms died—she got killed too. And now him?! She got killed [by] her boyfriend. And now him? By somebody else?” Andre Zachery, Neely’s father, told New York Daily News. “I don’t know what to say.” Neely died six years younger than his mother, at age 30.
It is unclear if Neely was suffering from a mental health episode, and Vazquez claims he did not assault anyone. Either way, shouting at people does not carry the death penalty in the United States. Neither does being hungry and thirsty. And yet, by releasing Neely’s killer and protecting his identity, it seems as if the NYPD has condoned the deployment of lethal vigilante violence.
One of Neely’s father’s neighbors claimed that he used the Michael Jackson impression as a way to cope with his mental health troubles. “He wasn’t violent. He was more a don’t-look-at-me-type of person. Anxiety,” she told the New York Daily News. “I felt like that’s why he did the Michael Jackson thing—he had better confidence. It just became like that’s all he wanted to do. Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson.”
Demonstrators on the F train platform demanded to know the identity of Neely’s murderer. On the wall someone had scrawled “Who killed Jordan Neely?” On the ground of the platform, someone had spray-painted “Jordan Neely was murdered here.”
Demonstrators say that the system failed Neely. Adolfo Abreu of grassroots organization Vocal New York told Peoples Dispatch about what he believes led to Jordan Neely’s desperate cry for help. “It’s a lack of New York State and New York City government prioritizing housing first solutions and funding programs to make sure that people can get help,” he said. “Instead, we’re cutting budgets for vital social services.”
Demonstrators expressed vocal opposition to Eric Adams’ cuts to social services and deployment of the NYPD and others to sweep homeless encampments around the city. “Eric Adams cuts funding for public spaces, for spaces that are used by New Yorkers, all races, of all classes,” Isabelle Sturgis, a Brooklyn resident, told Peoples Dispatch. “They want this city to be a playground for the rich. They don’t want to have to see the homeless, they don’t want to have to deal with the homeless… [Homeless people] are New Yorkers. But they’re not seen as that. They’re not seen as New Yorkers.”