Jordan Neely cried for help. Then he was murdered
People are comparing the killing of Jordan Neely to the murder of George Floyd, describing it to a lynching. And they are right to do so.
Neely, an unarmed Black homeless man, was held in a choke hold by a white Marine Daniel Penny, trained in lethal force, until he died. It all happened in a public space on a New York subway train, with onlookers watching.
Penny was questioned by police following the incident but was not arrested. The New York Medical Examiner has ruled Neely’s death a homicide.
It took around 4 days for Penny to be named in the media and 10 days for Penny to be charged with manslaughter. What didn’t take long, however, was for Jordan Neely’s background to be published across the media.
"Black victims of white violence in the US, whether at the hands of law enforcement, vigilantes or others, are always reported on differently than the perpetrators"
The dead Black man’s intimate family past, including his mother’s murder, was laid bare for the world to see shortly after his killing, a familiar tale in America when it comes to Black deaths at the hands of white perpetrators.
But there’s another twist; some suggested that media outlets were in fact aware of Daniel Penny’s name at least a day before publishing it but intentionally delayed revealing it.
American activist Tariq Nasheed, among the first to post Penny’s identity on social media hours before mainstream outlets followed suit, spoke about the potential implications.
“Law enforcement and the mainstream media made a collective effort to protect Penny, by not mentioning his name. The Daily Mail slipped up and posted his last name in a photo caption, but some of us in the grassroots media caught that before they removed it. And I posted Daniel Penny’s name online the night before the mainstream media reluctantly confirmed his identity.”
The horrific death of Lashawn Thompson, a black man left to die in an insect infested cell in Atlanta's Fulton County Jail should be raising an alarm over the gross human rights violations committed in the US prison system, argues Richard Sudan https://t.co/88VTbxRpaX— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) May 8, 2023
Black victims of white violence in the US, whether at the hands of law enforcement, vigilantes or others, are always reported on differently than the perpetrators. We’ve seen this racist pantomime play out in the media many times.
The cases of Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and George Floyd are a few examples. In each instance, the victims were blamed by sections of the press for their own deaths.
Regardless, and aside from mainstream media games and bias, the reality is that Penny was not your average guy on the street. As a trained Marine, he was a lethal weapon as he put his hands on Jordan Neely. The training undergone by Marines like Penny is itself a source of controversy, with questions raised over racism and brutality.
The notion therefore that Penny was not aware he was strangling the life from Neely is, to me and many others, absurd. Penny, put simply, was an expert in the use of lethal force. At least one witness present at the incident warned that Neely might be dying.
There’s no doubt that Jordan Neely’s personal circumstances compounded his fate. He was a soft target for the likes of Daniel Penny. Neely had entered a train car literally begging for food, saying he was tired and hungry and ready to go to jail or even die – but that doesn’t justify a death sentence on the spot.
His desperate expressions of frustration at a system that had abandoned him somehow made him a ‘threat’ to other passengers. He may have been yelling, but people struggling with homelessness and poverty are almost never a threat. This is as true in London as it is in New York.
There’s an epidemic of homelessness in New York, for sure. According to the non-profit Coalition for the Homeless, as of December 2022, there were almost 70,000 homeless people in New York. Approximately 56% of heads of homeless households are black. Significant numbers of these people are mentally ill. Neely was in this category.
This trend is consistent across the country. In 2020 reports showed that despite black people making up 13% of the population they accounted for around 40% of all homelessness nationwide.
"Penny became the judge, jury and ultimately executioner of Neely – a Black homeless man who epitomised vulnerability and a system of injustice in America"
But while these factors contributed to Neely’s vulnerability, his fate was sealed because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, with Black skin, in America. Make no mistake about it.
If Neely had been white, hungry and homeless and behaving in the exact same way on the train, I think he’d still be alive. I’ll go one further. If Jordan Neely was white, Daniel Penny would not have even laid a finger on him. He would certainly not have viewed him as a threat.
Instead, Penny became the judge, jury and ultimately executioner of Neely – a Black homeless man who epitomised vulnerability and a system of injustice in America.
While it is possible that Jordan Neely may have eventually overcome homelessness and poverty, he could never have escaped the colour of his skin. Wealth and status in America does not transcend colour. Being Black in the United States is in itself enough to warrant a death sentence, regardless of social class.
While it’s important to talk about homelessness and poverty, and the fact that Black people disproportionately live these realities, such context must not detract from the clear evidence that anti-Black hate crimes and violence remain an ongoing scandal in America.
Deliberately stopping a person from breathing for 15 minutes is not eliminating a threat. It is the threat. This is common sense. And Neely paid a deadly price despite having hurt no one.
On Thursday, it was announced that Penny will be charged with manslaughter over Neely’s killing, carrying a potential sentence of 15 years in prison.
This is not a cause for celebration. It could be a stepping stone towards accountability. But the system in the US has failed Black people time and again. It’s not broken. That’s how it was designed, as a racial hierarchy.
"Deliberately stopping a person from breathing for 15 minutes is not eliminating a threat. It is the threat"
Kim Potter, who killed unarmed Daunte Wright in 2021, was convicted on manslaughter charges similar to those facing Penny. Like Daniel Penny, Potter faced up to 15 years in prison. She was released from prison after just 16 months of a 2 year sentence.
I predict that Penny will receive a similarly light sentence if convicted.
Personally, I, like countless others, feel that Penny should be facing a murder charge, with the potential for life in prison. The fact he is not already feels like an endorsement and bitter indictment of the current status quo and system of injustice.
Justice for Jordan Neely is a long way away. Safety for Black people in America is paramount but if President Biden’s first term is anything to go by, this need is simply not a White House priority.
Richard Sudan is a journalist and writer specialising in anti-racism and has reported on various human rights issues from around the world. His writing has been published by The Guardian, Independent, The Voice and many others.
Follow him on Twitter: @richardsudan
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.