@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood
Subway Death of Schizophrenic Fuels Political Madness
Updated: May 21
Jordan Neely is pictured before going to see Michael Jackson's This Is It at the Regal Cinemas in New York’s Times Square in 2009. (Photo by the New York Daily News)
While attending my schizophrenic brother’s funeral in New York, I witnessed the heating up of off-the-rail reactions to the tragic subway chokehold death of a mentally ill man.
The passing of Jordan Neely, 30, should not become a cause for racial justice or political pontification. It should be a call for structural change in the mental health system.
Neely was black, and Daniel Penny, 24, is white. Neely was having what some would describe as a psychotic episode, which is unpredictable, by whomever experiences it.
Neely had been shouting at passengers on a northbound F train in Manhattan on the afternoon of May 1, but there had been no indication that he physically attacked anyone, reported The New York Times (May 11).
“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 life sentence. That ‘it doesn’t even matter if I died.’,” freelance journalist Juan Alberto Vasquez, who videoed some of the incident, told NBC New York (May 2).
Vasquez said that he was scared.
Vasquez told the New York Post (May 2): “He started screaming all these things, took off his jacket, a black jacket that he had, and threw it on the ground.”
Then, Daniel Penny, a 24-year-old United States Marine veteran, walked up to Neely from behind and placed him in a chokehold on the ground. Two other men stood over them and helped to subdue the man.
Andre Zachary, the homeless man’s father, who had not seen Neely in four years, said that his son was asking for help. Why didn’t someone help him?
Schizophrenia, a debilitating mental illness, distorts a person’s sense of reality. Symptoms include hallucinations, delusions, confusion, cognitive and mood impairments and extremely disorganized thinking.
When my brother, who died of natural causes, started shouting the first time, my parents waited until he punched a hole in the wall to call the police. After that, they called as soon as he started screaming. Local police in Hempstead, Long Island, who knew him, would take him to a psychiatric hospital without incident.
Did a subway passenger call, or try to call, the emergency services number, 911?
Neely’s death should not be an opportunity for politicians, city leaders and homeless advocates to grandstand, saying things like it’s not all right to kill someone because he is black, homeless and mentally ill.
Of course not. Yet, these simplistic comments from the left along with partisan appeals from the right are fueling political madness.
High-profile conservatives are celebrating Penny as a Good Samaritan, reported Insider (May 13). Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a possible 2024 presidential contender, urged people on Twitter to donate to Penny’s fundraiser to “stop the Left’s pro-criminal agenda, and take back the streets for law-abiding citizens.”
Such inflammatory bald-faced lies are not honoring anyone.
This is Daniel Penny’s photo on his GiveSendGo page, which describes him as a “24-year-old college student and decorated Marine veteran, facing a criminal investigation stemming from him protecting individuals on a NYC subway train from an assailant who later died.”
CNN’s Anderson Cooper (May 15) asked Penny’s attorney, Thomas Kenniff, whether he had had contact with DeSantis.
“Absolutely not,” answered Kenniff, who added that the fundraising page had been set up very early on in the case with no promotion, hiring of a public relations firm, contact with influencers, or any input from his law firm.
The attorney said that 50,000 people, not from New York but from all over the country, had donated money. He described it as telling that the average donation was $45, and some donations were as low as a couple of dollars, 5, 10.
“Those are the ones who are gaining traction. It’s not the loudest voices in the room on both sides who are trying to politicize this. There is nothing political about this case. My client’s not a political person. This is not a political cause. This is about someone who was trying to do the right thing to protect himself and others in a very difficult confined environment who has, by all optical measures, much of the country rallying around him now.”
Kenniff said that Penny “took reasonable steps to restrain someone”.
Cooper asked whether Penny felt any regret.
“Only a sociopath would not feel regret at loss of a human life. It’s horrible, especially when you’re there and you witness someone dying in front of you. Of course, he feels horrible about that.”
The online fundraiser on GiveSendGo for Penny’s legal fees, run by his attorneys Steven Raiser and Thomas Kenniff, had reached $2,292,796 from 47,511 donors on May 15. “Any proceeds collected which exceed those necessary to cover Mr. Penny’s legal defense will be donated to a mental health advocacy program in New York City,” the fundraising page reads.
Meanwhile, a GoFundMe page set up by Neely's aunt, Carolyn Neely, to raise $75,000 for funeral and burial expenses had raised $132,320 from 4,100 donations on May 15.
The comments that I read on Neely's fundraising page were condolences, and those on Penny's page were praises for him coming forward to protect others. They did not resemble the ugly sentiments of some leaders.
Structural Change in Mental Health System
In this case, the terms “homeless” and “mentally ill” are being used interchangeably. They are not. Not all homeless are mentally ill, and not all mentally ill are homeless. Most people with mental disorders are living outside of institutions in their homes alone or with their families.
Neely’s death should galvanize action for structural change in New York State’s mental health system, which affects everyone, not just poor people.
As far as I look down the the 45-year tunnel of my brother’s mental illness, there was never a social worker, nurse or other health professional at my parents’ home. There was no one to check whether my brother had taken his medication; no one to see whether he was showering, changing his clothes, sleeping enough, and no one with whom he could have a cup of coffee and a laugh.
The monitoring, daily or weekly, would reduce the isolation of patients and their families. The social worker would be someone to whom they could address their concerns. The visits would keep some patients off the street.
In Portugal, Britain, the Netherlands and other European countries with socialized health care, this service is expected and normal. New York State would benefit from this cadre of worker. The state could make the mental health profession more attractive with an advertising campaign, college scholarships and cost-of-living allowances for expensive areas.
The one program that benefitted my brother was a private initiative approved by the state. A trucking company hired mentally ill workers to load and unload shipments. My brother did not miss a day on his job until he became more ill.
The trajectory of the mentally disabled is not a straight line. Neely, lived in and out of homelessness. His aunt, Carolyn Neely, 40, said that after the gory killing of her sister -- his mother – by his stepfather in 2007, when Jordan was 14, he manifested depression, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, reported the New York Post (May 3). He bounced among homes before ending up in the foster care system, according to The Guardian (May 12).
“After his mother was murdered, he moved in with his grandparents but acted out and cut school. ‘He will not listen to me or his grandfather,’ his grandmother told authorities in 2009. In 2010, Neely threatened to kill his grandfather, and ended up sleeping in the building’s hallway, neighbors said.”
Carolyn Neely said that she pleaded with judges and doctors to help get the proper care for her nephew, but to no avail. Her nephew was described as a subway busker who performed dance routines as a Michael Jackson impersonator, according to NBC News (May 11).
“The whole system just failed him. He fell through the cracks of the system,” she told The Post.
The system is failing many.
New York Mayor Eric Adams first called for more hospitalizations of the mentally ill without their consent in November of last year, reported Politico (November 29, 2022). Currently, hospitals are able to hold legally for a 72-hour evaluation period those who are a danger to themselves or others. Adams’ directive expands the policy to include people whose inability to care for themselves places them in more subtle forms of danger.
After Neely’s death, Adams reiterated his directive, according to Politico (May 10).
“His death is a tragedy that never should have happened,” said Mayor Eric Adams, reported Aljazeera (May 12).
Adams is focused on reducing homelessness, not improving services for the mentally ill. His solution is a short-term one.
Neely was well-known to New York City’s homeless service providers and appeared on an internal list of people who were most in need of intervention, reported Politico. He had more than 40 prior arrests and an active warrant for his arrest, stemming from a charge of felony assault, police told CBS News, according to the Independent (May 4).
Hospitalization would have kept Neely off the street for only a time. What would have happened after his release?
The need for hospital beds in New York State is great. From 2014 and 2022, the state lost 1,849 psychiatric beds, according to the New York State Office of Mental Health (March 23), dropping from 9,320 to 7,471 units.
Adams admitted that New York City needed more state-funded psychiatric beds. In fact, the city had only 50 empty beds at its disposal, according to Politico (November 29, 2022).
Many mental health conditions are fairly common in the general population. Although any of these conditions can limit severely daily normal activities, three disorders are labeled as serious mental illnesses: major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Major depressive disorder severely impairs a person’s ability to function, characterized by the presence of depressed mood, feelings of worthlessness, guilt, helplessness, reduced concentration, ability to think, sleep problems, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, and /or recurrent thoughts of suicide.
Bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme shifts in mood and energy levels. During manic episodes, a person has abnormally high energy and activity levels that lead to impairment in daily functioning or requires hospitalization to prevent harm to self or others. The person also may experience delusions or hallucinations. Manic episodes may be alternated with major depressive episodes.
More than 1.6 million adults in New York State experienced serious psychological distress in the past 12 months, according to The Cost of Mental Illness: New York Facts and Figures (January 2018), University of Southern California Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics.
The figures for 2015 were a total of 1,620,593: major depressive disorder, 934,957; bipolar disorder, 405,148, and schizophrenia, 171,409. Note that a patient can receive multiple diagnoses of a serious mental disorder.
New York State’s total population – of adults and children - was 19.66 million in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The New York State Office of Mental Health reported that 28,091 people are in adult housing, which includes congregate treatment, licensed apartments, single-room residences and supported housing.
The numbers make clear that care of the mentally ill has not been a priority.
Journalist Vasquez’s four-minute video shows Penny choking Neely and holding on for an additional 50 seconds after Neely stopped struggling, reported The New York Times (May 11). The police interviewed Penny but initially released him.
Neely was taken to Lenox Hill Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. On May 3, the city’s medical examiner ruled his death a homicide.
On May 12, Penny was arraigned on a charge of second-degree manslaughter at Manhattan Criminal Court. He did not enter a plea. Bail was set at $100,000. Penny put up $6,000 and his parents guaranteed the entire bond. He was freed pending trial, reported NBC News (May 12). His next court date is scheduled for July 17.
If found guilty, Penny could face up to 15 years in prison.
It is too late for Neely to receive compassion from New York State. Penny is alive, and he deserves mercy.