Jordan Neely, a 30-year old unhoused Black man, was killed by another New York subway passenger last week. His family has reported that Neely was autistic and also experienced mental health disabilities. Neely was showing apparent distress when another passenger put him in a chokehold for 15 minutes, killing him.
We mourn the loss of Jordan Neely and send condolences to his family and loved ones. We are deeply concerned about the public response to this killing. We are disturbed to see the reiteration of stereotypes that people who are unhoused or disabled are violent or threatening in the wake of this killing. Violent responses to people experiencing mental health crises, “difficult behavior,” or other manifestations of disability are unacceptable. The victims of this violence are all too often Black or brown.
This incident is only the latest in a long history of violence against people of color, especially disabled people of color in the United States. Too often, murders of people of color are justified by the aggressor’s perception of a threat, so-called stand-your-ground laws, or by accusations that the victim committed a crime. None of these are moral justification for murder.
Disabled people without homes need housing and services, not the threat and use of physical violence. Jordan Neely was failed repeatedly by society. New York City and the state of New York are currently making cuts to social services programs such as the Homeless Services and Youth and Community Development departments. Similar cuts in funding to housing and other services for low-income or disabled Americans can be seen across the country, including Medicaid unwinding and proposed cuts to Medicaid. Simultaneously, the New York mayor, Eric Adams, ensures that the New York Police Department is well-funded to the detriment of important social programs, and argues for the involuntary commitment of people with mental health disabilities.
After deaths like Jordan’s, our community sees an increase in justifications for involuntary commitment, where people with disabilities are put in a psychiatric hospital against their will, or people discussing the need for increased beds in psychiatric hospitals. Institutions are not a solution to a society-wide failure to provide housing and services. These so-called “solutions” also put the blame on the victim for being killed. People with disabilities, including autistic people and people with mental health disabilities, are entitled to public spaces, just as people without disabilities are. We have fought and will continue to fight for the right to live in the community. We need community-based services, access to housing for unhoused people, and community-based mental health responses. We also need to send a clear message that even without these services, there is no excuse to kill someone for experiencing a mental health crisis, “difficult behavior,” autistic meltdown, or any other manifestations of disability.
Jordan Neely’s killer must be held accountable, but his arrest will not be enough to prevent further violence against disabled people of color. We call on the general public not to presume that people showing signs of distress or behaving unusually are a threat. Everyone is entitled to use public space, including people who are visibly upset. When someone is behaving erratically in public without harming anyone, bystanders should offer assistance or leave the distressed person alone. Observers’ discomfort does not justify a violent response.
Disability does not make us disposable, no matter what form our disabilities take. Jordan Neely was repeatedly failed by the systems around him and blamed for the ways lack of support worsened his mental health. Until we address the ways budget cuts and deprioritizing of social service programs disproportionately affect disabled people of color, individual people will pay the price of systemic failure. However, Neely was killed by a single person’s decision to use violence in a situation that did not warrant violence. The public response to this killing highlights the ways anti-Blackness and ableism create circumstances where people feel justified in fatal violence.
ASAN will continue to push for a world in which disabled people, especially disabled people of color, are not disposable the moment we cause discomfort. We will continue to stand up for the lives and safety of both disabled people and people of color. ASAN will work to create a world where people with disabilities have homes and the services we need, and also a world where disabled people can exist in public without being labeled as disruptive or a threat.
Rest in Power, Jordan Neely.