All the Ugly Layers: The Jordan Neely Story

All the Ugly Layers: The Jordan Neely Story
Jordan Neely performed Michael Jackson-inspired dance routines in New York. Photo credit: Mariela Lombard

The Beatles recorded the song, Eleanor Rigby, in 1966. The lyrics about an elderly woman who spent her time with little companionship posed the question: “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”

Nearly 60 years later, the news cycle is focused on protests over the death of 30-year-old Jordan Neely on a subway train in New York. Reports say Neely was speaking in a belligerent manner to passengers on a train about being hungry, thirsty, and not caring if he went to “jail for a long time.” Initial reports quote a witness as saying a man approached Neely from behind and put him in a chokehold as both men fell to the train floor. When the incident was over, Neely was taken to the hospital where he died. Neely’s actions prior to the chokehold suggest he was having a mental health crisis.

Neely’s tragic death is worthy of societal soul-searching beyond the current news cycle. Like the Beatles’ song, should we pose a new question: Is there more we can do for people living with mental illness?

What better time to reflect on this question than Mental Health Awareness Month, which has been observed every May since 1949. The tragic story of Jordan Neely during this month sparked predictable responses — from news commentators, local politicians, and social justice advocates. But one politician had a more analytical statement about the circumstances of Neely’s tragic death. The politician said, “there are many layers” to the incident that occurred this week on a New York subway. While only the politician knows what “layers” she was referring to in her statement, I believe some are obvious and worth exploring.

These layers are not pretty, no matter how you peel them back.

The first layer is race. Phone-recorded video of the incident shows Neely with his head in a chokehold on the subway train floor. The man with his arm around the Black man’s neck is of a lighter complexion. He may be categorized racially as White, although we don’t know for certain. But any incident of violence involving a Black person or groups of them in America — be they the victims or perpetrators — sparks a particular outrage.

The “particular” nature of the outrage is characterized by a history of brutality imposed on Black people by segments of society during a prolonged period in the United States that is a matter of record. Some Blacks say the brutality persists; some Whites say they are now the victims who need protection. The point is not to argue one way or the other, but to show why the outrage over racially related violence has a historical backdrop.

The second layer is that the man who choked Neely reportedly is a 24-year-old Marine Corps veteran. Military personnel are trained by our society to protect our country by killing others. The unidentified veteran reportedly was a passenger on the subway who was confronted by or overheard (we don’t know all the facts yet) Neely’s angry words about being hungry and thirsty and willing to “go to jail for a long time.” Did the young veteran seek to subdue Neely to avert a violent situation? Or did he feel threatened and his training in defensive tactics spurred him into action that had unintended consequences? That he was questioned by police and released shows law enforcement gave the veteran the benefit of the doubt when measured against the life of a Black man with a criminal record.

Finally, the layer of mental health policy in America is the most pernicious. Reports show Neely was a traumatized (from the brutal death of his mother’s boyfriend) victim of a failed mental health system as much as he was a victim of the unidentified veteran’s “vigilantism” as some are calling this tragedy.

The book Crazy, by Peter Earley, praised by so many esteemed publications when it was published in April 2006, is a sober analysis of the unholy alliance between contradictory mental illness law and the criminal justice system. Earley’s investigative journalism chronicles the decades-long inadequacy of our mental health policies and practices that plague the families of all races. And yet, mental health policy that is contradictory, discriminatory, and nonsensical persists.

A multi-racial and bipartisan rallying cry is the only answer to realize culturally competent mental health reform — the absence of which is the true menace to our society. Recently, an alliance of mental health advocates pledged to act on mental health reforms. The question is whether they can break through the “noise” created by the “many layers” that cloud incidents like Neely’s murder. If the alliance’s efforts fail, we all will be vulnerable in a free society where mental illness treatment and recovery take a backseat to our pursuit of happiness and social justice.