NEW YORK (AP) — The choking death of a man at the hands of another New York subway rider was setting off powerful reactions Thursday, with some calling it a criminal, racist act even as authorities reserved judgment on the killing.
New York has become one of the nation’s safest large cities but the emotional responses recalled the metropolis of decades ago, when residents felt besieged by crime and fatal vigilantism made national headlines.
Manhattan prosecutors promised a “rigorous” investigation into whether to bring charges in the death of the Black man, who was tackled by fellow passengers and put in the chokehold by a white Marine veteran.
The medical examiner’s office ruled Wednesday night that Jordan Neely, 30, died in a homicide caused by compression of the neck but the office said that any determination about criminal culpability would be left to the legal system.
Regardless, many New Yorkers saw the choking as the latest in a long history of attacks on Black city residents.
“We’re like animals in white people’s backyards. They want to get rid of us,” said Diango Cici, a 53-year-old Manhattan resident.
Neely, who in the past had earned money imitating Michael Jackson, died Monday after an early-afternoon confrontation aboard a train beneath Manhattan. Neely, who had been homeless at points, according to people who knew him, had been shouting at fellow passengers when another rider wrapped his arm around his neck and pinned him on the floor. Two other passengers also helped restrain Neely.
Marine recruits are routinely taught about executing and defending against chokeholds, which can render someone unconscious in as few as eight seconds, according to a military manual revised in 2020.
The lethal risks of chokeholds led New York City to ban police officers from using them. An officer was fired for using a chokehold on Eric Garner, a Black New Yorker whose dying words “I can’t breathe” became a chant in protests against racial injustice.
A U.S. Department of Justice website called chokeholds “inherently dangerous” and said that they have “too often led to tragedy.”
No one has been arrested but the Manhattan district attorney’s office said late Wednesday it would review autopsy reports, as well as “assess all available video and photo footage, identify and interview as many witnesses as possible, and obtain additional medical records.”
Police questioned the 24-year-old who the video showed holding Neely in a headlock for at least 3 minutes — perhaps longer — but released him without charges. His name was not released by police, but his relationship with the Marines was disclosed by a law enforcement official who wasn’t authorized to make the information public and spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was not yet complete.
It was not clear why passengers had moved to restrain Neely. One witness, a freelance journalist who was on the train and recorded Neely becoming unconscious as he was restrained, said that while Neely was acting aggressively and threw his jacket, he hadn’t attacked anyone.
In the absence of video showing what might have precipitated the attack, many were reserving judgment.
During an appearance on CNN on Tuesday night, Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain, said there were still too many unknowns.
“We don’t know exactly what happened here,” Adams said, adding that “we cannot just blatantly say what a passenger should or should not do in a situation like that, and we should allow the investigation to take its course.”
A group of protesters gathered Wednesday afternoon in the station where Neely died to call for an arrest.
Kyle Ishmael, a 38-year-old Harlem resident, said the video of the incident left him feeling “disgusted.”
“I couldn’t believe this was happening on my subway in my city that I grew up in,” he said.
Street performers who knew him described Neely as a kind and gifted impressionist, who sank into a depression as a result of his mother’s death. According to news accounts at the time, Christie Neely was strangled in 2007. Neely, who was 14 when she died, testified against his mother’s boyfriend at his murder trial.
Tari Tudesco, a back-up dancer in the Michael Jackson tribute act “Michael’s Mirror,” said many in the community had grown worried about Neely’s absence in recent years, and had begun searching for him, unsuccessfully.
“We were in shock to find now that he was living homeless,” she said. “We feel terrible.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton demanded in a statement that Neely’s death be investigated as a potential case of manslaughter. Sharpton referenced the Bernhard Goetz case in 1984, in which a white gunman was convicted of a weapons offense after he shot four Black men on a subway train.
“We cannot end up back to a place where vigilantism is tolerable. It wasn’t acceptable then and it cannot be acceptable now,” Sharpton said.
Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York and reporter Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.