The Killing of Jordan Neely In The Shadow of The Rent Guidelines Board
Homelessness can happen to anyone in this economy, and anyone means you and me. Don't live in New York if you're afraid of New Yorkers.
Edited and with a coda written by Sam Thielman
AS I TOOK MY OLDEST DAUGHTER to school this morning, she asked: is there anything I don't like about living in New York?
My mind filled up with aspects of this city that irritate me. They crowded into my mouth to get out, jockeying for position like they were rushing for the doors of an overcrowded train pulling into the station. One stayed inside, because I didn't want to burden her with it as she started her day: vigilante homicide on the subway.
A 30-year old New Yorker named Jordan Neely had fallen into homelessness. Social media posts showed he would busk in the subways—an aspect of city culture that turns grimness into vibrancy—by pretending to be Michael Jackson. Neely wasn't doing that this time. This time, on an uptown-bound Monday afternoon F train heading into the Broadway-Lafayette station in Manhattan, he began a rant about desperation that alarmed the other riders. "The man got on the subway car and began to say a somewhat aggressive speech, saying he was hungry, he was thirsty, that he didn't care about anything, he didn't care about going to jail, he didn't care that he gets a big life sentence," NBC 4 quoted a fellow rider, journalist Juan Alberto Vasquez.
My whole life I've ridden the subway. As I read Vasquez's account, I thought of all the times my guard has involuntarily gone up when someone starts out an Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen panhandling pitch with more than the typical exasperation in their voice. I have witnessed violence on the subway, though thankfully I have not been its target. But not once in my 42 years have I ever heard that pitch before an attack by a homeless person.
This time, someone the press has identified only as a retired Marine put Neely into a chokehold and grappled him onto the floor of the car. We cannot assume that what we've seen reported is the full story. But no account I've yet seen says that Neely initiated the violence. The NYPD has a tendency to lie in justification of violence against acceptable (nonwhite, impoverished) targets, but the furthest they've gone in that direction was to say Neely was throwing garbage at people. A widely-circulated two-minute video records the end of Neely's life. He struggles to break the hold while two other riders help the Marine hold down Neely's arms. Neely swings his feet out, without strength in them—he is no danger to any of the men restraining him—until he can't anymore.
The police briefly took the Marine into custody before releasing him without charge. The first wave of media coverage valorized him so uncritically that even the Murdoch-owned New York Post has now backpedaled into acknowledging Neely's humanity. The city medical examiner's office has officially ruled Neely's death a homicide.
Brad Lander, the city comptroller, tweeted that New York is not Gotham City, where a "vigilante" can act "without consequence… or where the killer is justified & cheered." Bernie Kerik, the corrupt felon who used to be Rudy Giuliani's police commissioner, tore into Lander, saying Lander would prefer New Yorkers "be terrified, assaulted and murdered at the hands of lunatics and thugs!"
Mayor Eric Adams, the ex-cop who won the mayoralty by shaking a fear stick labeled CRIME!, said Lander's statement was irresponsible. New York Governor Kathy Hochul said there were “consequences for behavior,” seemingly in reference to Neely’s behavior, not his killer’s. Apparently it's more responsible to destroy the makeshift shelters that homeless people construct as the city has grown less and less affordable. That doesn't count as violence.
I THINK IT'S CRASS to try to stuff this story into my typical FOREVER WARS/REIGN OF TERROR critique, and I won't. I'm writing this not because it's my beat – nothing about the 9/11 era has anything to do with Neely's killing – but because I live here. I note only that the identification of the chokeholder, who is white, as a "Marine," inevitably carries the subtext of hero.
Knowing a bit about the tendencies of certain white New Yorkers, the sort that Kerik is playing to and the sort that Lander is reacting against, shorthanding him as a Marine speaks to fantasies about righteously killing homeless people, particularly black people like Neely, who make them feel afraid, or even just uncomfortable. "Of course you’re gonna have individuals deputizing themselves, thinking that this is the response" to messages about ever-present crime and unacceptable homelessness from Adams and Hochul, VOCAL-NY activist Adolfo Abreu told Akela Lacy of The Intercept.
On Wednesday, a protest on behalf of Neely went down into the Broadway-Lafayette station where he was killed—a station I was in, as I have been so often throughout my life, about an hour before Neely's killing. One of the signs from Wednesday’s protest, which I saw on the Instagram account @vanishingny, included the line: "Don't move here if you're scared of your neighbors."
I have no idea where the Marine grew up, just like I have no idea where the two men who assisted him in choking Neely to death grew up. Dehumanization of the homeless is definitely not a characteristic exclusive to transplants: Bernie Goetz is from Queens. Nor do we know what the Marine or those who aided him were attempting to do, and I don’t mean to invoke Goetz as a way to imply that I do. But you'd have to be blind not to notice the way that certain people who move here from the suburbs tend to want a New York that's free of New Yorkers. Maybe a better way to say it would be: Don't live here if you're scared of your neighbors; and if you do live here, get to know your neighbors. We are, in fact, in this together, no matter how crazed, depraved and psychotic this city can make all of us, natives and transplants alike. "
In the quote Lacy used for her kicker, Abreu continued: "Everyone is one income shock away from homelessness.” That reality really ought to be the basis for the kind of solidarity that constructs affordable housing for people, thereby solving homelessness, and wealth redistribution in one of the wealthiest cities of the world, thereby mitigating if not solving poverty.
Right now, we New Yorkers live under the frightening prospect of what will happen on June 21. That's when the city's Rent Guidelines Board is expected to recommend a rent increase that could be as high as seven percent. Meanwhile, the state budget that Albany finalized this week will raise the city minimum wage to $17 over the next three years, which is simply not enough to live on here. Rents rising faster than wages will mean more homelessness. More homelessness will mean more Jordan Neelys. In my lifetime, New York's middle class, which I am from, has only shrunk. Capital has only ascended, remaking the city into something less and less affordable, especially over the past 30 years.
The politics that Kerik, Adams and Hochul practice uses race-inflected fear as a battering ram against class-based solidarity, which is the only path to restoring a dignified, prosperous life for New Yorkers. That's what I should have told my daughter I don't like about New York. But she and her sister will be hearing that lesson from me enough as they grow up as New Yorkers.
HI, IT’S SAM, chiming in briefly. I have a lot to say about homelessness in general but today I’d like to restrict myself to a single point and observe how carefully Eric Adams has sought to portray homeless people not just as criminals, but as “lunatics” (see quote above). The Adams administration changed rules in November to allow the police to forcibly commit people who are “a danger to themselves due to an inability to meet their basic needs,” such as shelter.
Writing in his New York Times newsletter, Nicholas Fandos declared that the forced commitment “program” was “designed to help a small segment of the overall homeless population: a group of at least hundreds of people known to have untreated mental illness so severe that it prevents them from meeting their basic needs.” That is not what it is designed to do, at all. It is designed to use already overcrowded psychiatric wards as prisons, to empower cops to make judgements that should be accorded only to qualified physicians, and to define the psychic pain of being without food or shelter as a pathognomonic sign of undefined “mental illness.” It is not designed to “help” anyone, except perhaps the interests of capital and the politicians who promote those interests; it is designed to maximally harm people who live on the street by usurping the role of medical science to define them bureaucratically as mentally ill and treat them as subhuman.
New York City has an awful problem with homelessness because of rich landlords artificially keeping housing prices high; and because of draconian and corrupt zoning rules; and because of the forced shutdown of shelters during COVID, many of which did not reopen. The treatment for homelessness is homes. To say otherwise is, pardon me, fucking crazy.
YES, WE ARE LIGHT on "national security" coverage for this edition. There are some recent surveillance figures that I want dig into, but haven't yet had the time, and I'd prefer not to dash something off hackishly for the sake of not being late to the news.
As well, don't miss that leaders of the Proud Boys were convicted on Thursday for seditious conspiracy in regard to January 6. Additionally, this week, the FBI veteran—a New Yawk FBI veteran—Jared Wise was arrested and charged with a role in the coup attempt. From FBI counterterrorism to Erik Prince, Project Veritas and January 6: someone should write a book about how sensible this trajectory actually is, don't you think?
The reality is that May is a busy month for me, owing to a project that I can't announce yet despite badly wanting to. I've also got not one but two Nation deadlines this month; as well as the finalization of WALLER VS. WILDSTORM #2, which apparently is in stores June 13. So we may see a slowdown in FOREVER WARS production. But I felt like I would be irresponsible as a New Yorker to be silent in the wake of Jordan Neely's death. In the interim, you can find me on Bluesky as (of course) @attackerman—and Sam is there as @thielman.