Discover more from Glenn Loury
The Jordan Neely Problem
with John McWhorter
Earlier this month, during a confrontation on the F train in New York City, a mentally ill passenger, Jordan Neely, was allegedly exhibiting confrontational behavior when ex-Marine Daniel Penny placed him in a chokehold. Neely died as a result, and the ensuing public outcry has highlighted the meeting of two extremes that illustrate just how bad the twin problems of mental illness and homelessness in many of our cities has gotten.
On the one hand, most people who live in big cities have witnessed frightening behavior on the part of people who are likely mentally ill and homeless. That behavior can range from aggressive panhandling to unprovoked outbursts to actual—and occasionally deadly—violence. Anyone in the vicinity of these events, if they’re being honest, will admit to feeling unsafe or threatened, and they have every reason to feel that way. We should not have to endure harassment—or worse—while running out to the grocery store or commuting to work.
On the other hand, the use of deadly force from ordinary citizens cannot be our solution to the problem. When people start deputizing themselves to deal with the aggressive behavior, it may “neutralize” the present threat, but it doesn’t do anything to solve the larger problem. It may, in fact, make the problem worse. A city of people who feel empowered to take the enforcement of public order into their own hands will only lead to more chaos and more unnecessary violence, without doing anything to address the sad, underlying issues of mental illness and homelessness.
And yet something must be done. As I say in this excerpt from this week’s conversation with John McWhorter, mentally ill people are not be responsible for their illness, but that does not mean we can shrug our shoulders, blame the problem on racism or poverty, and accept the situation. Both perpetrators and victims suffer here, and it may well be that some perpetrators are perpetrators because they are victims of inadequate healthcare or public policy. Compromised agency may explain the harrowing nature of Jordan Neely’s behavior, but, as a general rule, it must be reined in by an authority more legitimate and systematic than whoever happens to be standing around.
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JOHN MCWHORTER: Jordan Neely in the New York subway.
GLENN LOURY: You have a piece in your weekly column in the Times in which you address yourself to that thorny question.
Yeah, it's a tough one. What it comes down to is this: You're sitting on the train, somebody busts in, they're traveling between the cars—which you're not supposed to do. Somebody busts in. You know, just from the sound of how the door does it, what kind of person it's gonna be. There's a slam. And then there's this person who is out of their mind, through no fault of their own, and they're gonna walk up and down the car scaring people.
From what I see with a lot of these people, they're lonely. This is the closest thing they get to human contact. And if it's scaring people and making people turn away. You can get to a point where that kind of negative attention is better than none at all. I can even put myself in the head of somebody like that. It's what many kids do. So nevertheless, they're caught up in that.
And they're scaring people. They're yelling into people's faces. They say “fuck” and “motherfucker” all the time. “Fuck, the fuck, fuck, fuck.” Sometimes they ball up their fists. And they're scary. One of the hardest things is when you're doing this and you've got your kids with you—I have two girls, one's eight, one's eleven—and here comes this person ranting, through no fault of their own. But it's scary.
And then you have a story about Jordan Neely. And yes, he was a Michael Jackson impersonator. That's very sweet. But when he was off his meds, he was scary as fuck. He had punched an old woman in the face and broken the bone.
Excuse me for interrupting. How do you know how he was when he was off his meds?
Because it's reported that he did things such as punch a 67-year-old woman in the face and break the bones in her face. And I'm also extrapolating, maybe a little bit artistically. But I've seen that person. That person and what he was doing, the things he was yelling, any New Yorker read that, and thought, “Oh yeah, that person. He's scary.”
The good thinking on social media was often that no one should have restrained him. Now, what happened is that this ex-Marine, Daniel Penny, restrained him—worse, the chokehold, held it too long, and killed him. That is a tragedy. Jordan Neely did not deserve anything like that. He didn't deserve to be physically injured. But what gets me is the idea that nobody should have even restrained him. I think there are people who are thinking that, to be in a society with inequality and therefore naturally a highly faulty medical system for psychiatric care, to be a member of that society means that you deserve Jordan Neely in the subway, that we're all supposed to let him show his behind and scare half of the car half to death because we live in a society in which we tolerate this kind of inequality. It's our just deserts.
I read a well-known columnist who was writing that Neely shouldn't have been restrained. No. I know that that columnist doesn't live in New York City, and I highly suspect that that columnist doesn't have kids. No, we need to have a procedure where someone like him can be taken away. We cannot think of him as “mentally alternate” or something like that. I've stopped taking my girls on the subway any more than necessary. I'm taking Ubers, spending a lot of money doing it because I don't want them, one, to get hurt or, two, to watch this, which, frankly, an eight-year-old shouldn't have to watch that. And it's at the point where you can't avoid it.
Daniel Penny intervened, restrained Jordan Neely with a choke hold, and Neely later expired. Alvin Bragg, your Manhattan district attorney, has charged Penny. He was actually perp-walked in and cameras caught him and it's on YouTube and everything like that. There was a kind of citizens arrest quality to the intervention, and the intervention was kinetic. It wasn't just saying “stop.” It was restraining the man. I wasn't there. I'm not judging it. I'm not saying it was necessary. I'm not saying it was unnecessary. I don't know.
But I am saying a district attorney has decided to bring charges and it has become the case emblematic of a larger cultural tension around maintenance of order in cities and policing and law and and whatnot. And there is a racial dimension to it, because the guy Daniel Penny—who's been charged, who did the chokehold—was white, a veteran ex-Marine, and our hapless Michael Jackson imitator, Jordan Neely, is a black guy.
If Jordan Neely had been white, we wouldn't be talking about this. It would be considered this highly unpleasant episode if a white guy took down a white guy and accidentally killed him. Or even deliberately killed him. Likewise, if Daniel Penny had been a black Marine, probably it wouldn't have been the same.
Although I think much more so in your direction than in my direction.
That would be a whole different episode.
Then the black Marine would just be acting out white supremacy that he had been taught in the racist military.
Literally. That's literally what people would say. And also his background. It would be seen as understandable. You can imagine the people who would start writing about it that way right away.
And then also, is the person annoying or scary? And so for example, you're driving down 125th Street, which I often do because that's how you get from where I live to Columbia. You've got the guys who are begging. They're dirty, they are out of their mind—through no fault of their own—and they're begging you for money. Now, I don't think that that person needs to be restrained. They're annoying, but they can't help it, and it's society's fault. The issue is whether the guys are menacing, like, for example, the squeegee men, where that could be scary.
And also, it's not only white and black. Are you talking about somebody who is in a train car and who is scary? Now, there's a certain kind of person who imagines some white guy from Park Slope in Brooklyn who needs to just sit there and tolerate being screamed at by this black person because of the drama of it, because it kind of symbolizes how Black America is supposed to feel about white people. Okay, so let's say Josh Gravit is sitting there, and he's scary and he's scared, Josh Gravit. But what about if it's Dahlia McWhorter? What about if it's a little girl? Does she deserve to have her face screamed in? And let's say Dahlia is mixed. Now, nobody thinks Dahlia McWhorter deserves that, but how come Josh Gravit does?
If there's a possibility that Dahlia McWhorter has to put up with this, then frankly you have to restrain Jordan Neely for the sake of them or the Latina grandmother or the two Korean tourists. Do they deserve it? What people are mostly thinking about is Josh and Stephanie Gravit. Those two are supposed to sit and watch Jordan Neely show his behind and scare them.
A certain kind of person wants Josh and Stephanie Gravit to be scared. And a lot of the people who want Josh and Stephanie Gravit to be scared are other Josh and Stephanie Gravits. But the thing is, what about most other people? The black lady. Does she deserve it? And you're thinking, well, maybe she'll talk to him with some mother wit. No, no. Jordan Neely was far beyond that. He may have hit her. So I just think that we need a procedure where people like that are pulled away by the two cops who instead stand outside on the subway platform doing video games and chatting with their spouses and refusing to intervene in cases like this.
I saw a guy who really scared me and, and he really was deliberately trying to scare everybody in the car. He didn't happen to get to me.
The cop was standing by and did nothing?
He jumped out into another car to scare people, and I got out of the car and I said, “Gentlemen, there's a guy over here who is scaring everybody to death.” They barely looked up. I think they thought of me as a black Josh Gravit.
I got a bone to pick with you. You say “no fault of his own.” You say “society is at fault.” Really? I agree, a person with mental illness shouldn't be said to be at fault for their mental illness. I agree with that. But I don't want to grant a blanket exemption from personal responsibility for these acts. That's just too easy. You push somebody in front of a train? You punch somebody in the eye socket and mangle their face? You intentionally intimidate people in a public space because you're bored, because you don't have a sense of self-esteem, because you're looking for attention? And it's not your fault?
I get it. I get it, really, the idea that the person is not responsible for the fact that they're mentally ill. I'll just tell an anecdote, and then I'll stop. I was in San Francisco visiting my son Nehemiah, driving in the Tenderloin. It was a traffic jam and I'm in a rented vehicle picked up at the airport and I'm behind a convertible with the top down. And it's a bunch of white kids coming from the beach or whatever. I mean, they're obviously upper-middle-class. They got the music turned up. And there's a guy—I'm gonna call him a drunk, I don't know that he was drunk, seeming to be a vagrant, someone on the street, I don't know if he was homeless or not—who threw a beer bottle at the vehicle that these kids were riding in, and it went over their heads by that much. I was in the car behind this.
First of all, I thought, am I next?
It could have cracked somebody's skull.
Secondly, I thought, someone could have really been hurt by that. Then I thought, well, what's up with him? He's over there. His life is miserable. He's drunk out of his mind. Maybe. I don't know. He's angry, bitter. These kids are the quintessential illustration of American bounty. I mean, he looks at them and he says whatever he says, he thinks whatever he thinks, and then this bottle comes flying outta his hands.
Now, here's my point: Really, he had no choice? It's not his fault? Suppose he hit 'em in the head. It's not his fault? No, man. I'm sorry. I don't think that'll work. I think it's gotta be his fault, even if it's not his fault.
I know what you mean.