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Who Deserves to Live?
Jordan Neely should still be with us today, and we must fight for a better world
Short content warning. I don’t go into the details of what happened to Jordan in this piece, but the topic is still extremely difficult for many reasons. It was tough to write so I image some of it may be tough to read. I do try to pivot far away from the killing itself to the conditions that lead to tragedies like this, and what we can do. But heads up and I hope this piece is ultimately helpful to you and to the long push towards change.
I’ve been struggling with the Jordan Neely news, and the reaction to it, in half a dozen different ways, just like you probably have. The killing itself is horrific and I don’t think I’m capable of going into much detail about it here, or that reliving those moments collectively is how we should respond to these tragedies. Suffice it to say this sort of public killing, Daniel Penny’s belief that he had a right to subdue and harm and even kill another person because of Jordan’s race, homelessness, behavior, whatever was going through his head, is terrifying. And the act itself, the bystanders, the unbearably tragic result are just what sits on the surface. Below is a dangerous form of entitlement over the autonomy and life of others, and a wave of reaction across the country which confirms that Daniel Penny is, sadly, far from alone.
The purpose of this piece is simple. There is a massive amount of noise online, and in conventional media, that amounts to both distraction from, and, at times, an attempted justification of Jordan Neely’s killing. Like many of the conversations that take place after police murders this noise sits on the surface, dealing only with the immediate events of a particular incident, neatly dodging any discussion of what led to the tragedy at hand, what enables killing after killing in this country, and the conditions that lead to poverty or homelessness or the struggle with addiction for so many. Maliciously skating on the surface looks like justifying his killing with his arrest record, weaponizing his disruptive behavior, and picking apart every detail of the situation on that train without attention to everything that unfolded over many years which led up to that moment.
What led to the killing of Jordan Neely was an intentional, systemic withholding of care, the attendant capitalist villainization of the homeless and mentally ill, of drug users and of people down on their luck, and the thread of white supremacy running through it all. Eric Adams, the NY Post, New York conservatives, Governor Kathy Hochul, and a whole right-wing and moderate ecosystem has pummeled the idea that NYC is unsafe into discussions and across the airwaves and onto our computers and smartphones non-stop for quite some time now. Hand in hand with exaggerating the danger of the city, they have increased the criminalization of homelessness. Adams dramatically escalated the policing of unhoused New Yorkers immediately after getting into office, sending police into the subway systems, sending them out to do over 200 “sweeps” of tents and encampments in just two weeks, and doing little to provide the human beings he was displacing with housing, let alone care. These policy moves that harm thousands of people have gone hand in hand with rhetoric that dehumanizes, ostracizes, and stigmatizes those this society has failed to care for.
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I am struggling with this killing for so many reasons. The first is simply the horror of the violence and it’s public nature, but the second is how it’s hit close to home. I’m a New Yorker, I’ve seeing Jordan on the train multiple times, I do mutual aid work with other unhoused folks, and I do what little I can to try to change this city and the systems that ultimately perpetuate this violence. I’ve written about going to the root, I’ve written about what people deserve and the harms of individualism, and the murder of Jordan Neely has been staggering because it shows so clearly what happens when we internalize ideas that desecrate human life instead of providing our neighbors with what they need to survive and thrive. Housing should be a given. Healthcare should be a given. Counseling and therapy and the conditions that provide stability and peace should be a given. And what is so jarring, so shaking and terrifying is just how far so many of the people we share this country are from those beliefs. There are people who would rather see a sick and struggling man die than see him alive and well.
It's hard to keep typing after that. But one of the things, if not the only thing, that gives me hope are the millions of people arrayed on the other side. The growing numbers of people who want care rather than killing. People who want housing instead of jail cell or a death sentence for our unhoused neighbors. The people who want to see folks get healthcare instead of ridicule and demonization and violence. And I’m blessed to know these people, to organize with them and interact with them online and over the phone and in my neighborhood. More and more people are rejecting the ideas that hold up a system where violence in the solution to all of our problems. People are rejecting the hammer which sees every issue as a nail to be smashed or removed and taken out of society and thrown behind bars. Every day I get to see examples of folks realizing the answer is coming together, working together to build alternatives to violence, alternatives to the capitalist approach that wants us to believe our worth is not inherent but rather tied to the number in our bank account. I get to see people forming unions all day at work. I get to see people building community in my neighborhood. I get to see people changing the landscape and shifting the window away from the beliefs that dehumanize and denigrate and towards a world where each person is able to receive the care they need.
Just this past Friday I canvassed in my neighborhood with the folks I organize with. We’re helping a particular block revitalize their block association. Several of our members live on this block, and we’ve become friends with the people trying to bring back this space of communal power. So we sat and tabled, and walked and talked on the corner of the block. One member brought some fresh cookies. A young girl excitedly took one, or two, as her mother smiled and chatted about the upcoming block association meeting. An older man stopped to talk, several young folks stopped and in addition to the block association meeting we talked about policing, Jordan Neely, and what it would mean to prioritize care, not carceral systems. Dozens of people happily took those block association meeting fliers, and many came to the meeting last night. People spoke angrily about the killing of Jordan Neely, about the public nature of it and the way police protected Penny’s identity. And people sounded ready for change, more and more ready to house and educate and care for other New Yorkers instead of policing and locking up and discarding one another.
This piece could be a rant of anger that goes on, and on. But all I really hope to say is that there is a ton of noise. There are people with money and power who want you to think about anything except the fact that we have all the resources we need to care for one another, and the fact that society is set up to make them rich rather than to take care of you, and Jordan Neely. And there are others, people who have bought into a system that gives them little but the illusion of power and elevates them over other people not by raising them up but by forcing others down. But we outnumber them, their position is weakening as skyrocketing inequality strips away some of those small rewards they were given, and we can start to build a better world here and now with or without them. We must.
Just a few weeks ago I wrote about deserving. The message was simple. We can and should agree that we all deserve to have our needs met, and that we all deserve a world where we’re able to survive and thrive, but we get the world we fight for. Jordan Neely deserved a home, deserved systems of care around him holding him up and helping him live a beautiful life, deserved compassion from all of us. And we all deserve those things, too. But we don’t have that world yet. We don’t get the world we deserve, we get the world we organize and fight for, and it’s time to double down on our work towards a better world. For Jordan, for ourselves, and for everyone who comes after us.
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