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On the murder of Jordan Neely
Jordan Neely was a 30 year old black man struggling with complex trauma, poverty, and homelessness, who was recently killed on a New York City subway. He was a human being with as much specificity, complexity, and inner world as you or I. His life was precious and irreplaceable, and his violent death is an atrocity and an irrevocable loss.
He was killed by being put in a chokehold by Daniel Penny, a 24 year old white man, while also being held down by other passengers. This assault was a reaction to Jordan acting in desperate and frightening ways, and saying that he had nothing to eat and nothing to drink and that he didn’t mind getting life in prison and was ready to die. Daniel insists that he was acting in self defence and defence of the other passengers who felt threatened by Jordan’s behaviour.
The racist dehumanization of black men as inherently dangerous and predatory, and the dehumanization of homeless and mentally ill people as undeserving of dignity or empathy, were part of the fear and lack of compassion that people on the train exhibited. It is also true that Jordan was very likely a real threat to people’s safety on that train. He had a history of violent behaviour, including unprovoked violent assaults on a 7 year old girl and a 67 year old woman. If Daniel had not intervened it is very possible that Jordan would have seriously hurt someone on that train. Daniel’s intervention should not have been and did not need to be deadly.
Jordan’s mother was murdered by her abusive partner when he was a child and he was called to testify in the trial. He was put in foster care. It is likely that he was physically abused by the man who killed his mother, and at the very least he witnessed violence against her and survived her murder. It is likely that he experienced neglect and abuse in foster care as so many children do. He spent his adult life trying to survive poverty, homelessness, racism, and severe trauma. Like so many other survivors of childhood trauma, his life was one violent experience after another. Now he has been murdered.
He also had a full personality and three dimensional lived experience that was more than just trauma and violence, that included love and joy and friendship. He was a talented dancer and used to do Michael Jackson impersonations. He fought hard to survive and his story had ups and downs. There are so many things about him that only people close to him know. There are those who will mourn Jordan, the human being. And while I am writing about his life and death to enter into a larger conversation about how we treat the many many other people with similar lived experiences, his life and death are not fodder for think pieces. He was a fucking person. He died a violent death. The tragedy and horror of that must be faced.
There are those who are responding to Jordan’s murder by emphasizing that he was a threat, by playing into racist stereotypes, by dehumanizing him, by encouraging us to continue responding with fear and violence to people like him, by denying him any empathy or compassion even in the face of his murder because he was threatening and scaring people. There are those who are responding to Jordan’s murder by framing his murderer, Daniel, as a racist, by acting as if the violent response to Jordan’s threatening behaviour was animated by racism alone, by downplaying the real threat that Jordan posed to people on the train, by emphasizing Jordan’s suffering, poverty, and experience of racism, and downplaying the simultaneous reality that he had a history of violent behaviour.
There are people who are ardent supporters of cancel culture and punitive ‘justice’ (as long as it is not carried out by the state), who believe that abusive people should be driven out of community, stripped of resources, stripped of their right to boundaries, dehumanized, and denied compassion. These same people are expressing outrage at Jordan’s murder, emphasizing the racist elements in his killing and downplaying the reality that he was one of the violent people who they so often condemn and dehumanize. These people who frequently write ‘kill your local abuser’ on their social media accounts are unwilling to face the reality that Daniel put their political views into action.
The truth is that someone like Jordan would never get a foot into these social ‘justice’ scenes in the first place, because he was poor and crazy and violent. How many homeless black men are part of your local lefty queer scene? How many black men? How many homeless people? How many people who have had the kind of life that Jordan had? If by some fluke someone like Jordan managed to get into a social ‘justice’ scene, he would definitely be driven out by people who believe that survivors like Jordan are not entitled to the empathy and support that we insist survivors deserve. He was not the ‘right’ kind of survivor, because he was caught in the cycle of poverty, chaos, mental illness, and violence, that so many survivors of severe complex trauma are caught up in.
Aloiso Wilmoth recently wrote on his instagram “while the popular liberal thought disowns the racist caricatures of Black men and boys as super predators, brutes etc. we simultaneously imagine them as voids, vacuous figures that we are fine not knowing. We don’t give a fuck about how they suffer during their lives but love performing outrage at their deaths.” The refusal to see all of Jordan, as both a survivor and an abuser, as both a severely traumatized person and a person with a full inner world that included joy and love, as both someone who was behaving in a threatening way and someone who deserved our compassion and concern, is part of the dehumanization that Aloiso is talking about.
Using the violent deaths of black men who we would never ever know in real life to bolster political and ideological arguments that at the end of the day do not have anything to do with these men or serve these men at all is fucked up. If you are outraged at Jordan’s murder but would be terrified to be around someone like Jordan, if you have never talked to anyone like Jordan or seriously asked yourself what people like Jordan need, then please don’t use outrage at his murder to justify your political arguments. If your political arguments have nothing to do with meeting the needs of homeless traumatized black men, then using his murder to bolster them is appropriation and wrong.
If you are outraged at Jordan’s murder (and you should be — that’s a normal human reaction to murder), you can use that outrage to increase your compassion and curiosity about people in his position, and use that compassion and curiosity to move you toward solidarity. Part of this work is facing the reality that people in Jordan’s position often do behave in violent ways and that should not exempt them from compassion or the recognition of their humanity.
I am regularly asked, if I don’t believe in cancel culture and I don’t believe in prisons and I don’t believe in killing or assaulting abusers, then what should we do about abuse? I am often accused of being an ‘abuse apologist’ because I don’t believe that punishment, exile, violence, or shame can effectively end abuse. The reality is that I know abuse. I know it deeply, thoroughly, and intimately. I have fully faced its devastating consequences and I hold no illusions about it at all. I would love for all of us to sincerely and seriously sit with the question “what should we do about abuse?” It is a question I have been sitting with for decades, and the answer I have found is unfortunately not a simple or easy one. When we deny ourselves the emotional catharsis of scapegoating and dehumanization, when we face the reality that violence and dehumanization always create more violence and dehumanization, then we are left to do the work of really facing the mess we are in, where so many people inflict so much suffering on each other.
What would have helped Jordan? What would have helped the people Jordan assaulted? What would have helped Jordan’s mother? What would have helped the man who killed Jordan’s mother? What would have helped Daniel? If none of these people are two dimensional monsters and all of them are complete, three dimensional human beings who are just as complex and human as you and I, if none of them are disposable and all of them matter, then what do we do?
Where do we direct our anger and our desire for revenge? How do we create as much safety as we can and prevent as much violence as we can? How do we intervene on violence without killing or traumatizing anyone? How do we collectively hold the responsibility for a world in which so many people are so deeply suffering? How do we increase the likelihood that people can take responsibility for their actions and the impact they have on others? How do we help survivors heal from what has happened to them? How do we interrupt the cycle of violence? How do we restore humanity to those who are systematically denied it? Why are people homeless? Why are people without food and drink? Why does trauma therapy cost money? Why are so many survivors of child abuse on the streets and in prison?
Dehumanization, scapegoating, punishment, and revenge are all distractions from the extensive work ahead of us. The real work is an absolute insistence on every person’s irrevocable humanity, and the massive collective responsibility that recognition implies. The real work is building solidarity, so that we can collectively demand what we are all inherently deserving of: housing, food, healthcare, trauma therapy, education, leisure time, a planet with a liveable future, the space and time we need to heal from what has happened to us, the space and time to build robust communities where we can take care of each other, and all the hoarded profits of our collective labour. The real work is in facing what it means to be human, in all its expressions, from the most awe inspiring to the most ugly, and being collectively willing to meet the unmet needs that produce so much suffering.
When I was 23 I fell in love, and for the first time in my traumatized life, I felt like I found someone who really understood and loved me. Like so many incest survivors, my life was a nightmare of alcoholism, poverty, and repeated trauma. I met another survivor who was caught up in that world and we fell deeply in love. My ex partner has a lot in common with Jordan. He is black. He is a survivor of severe childhood trauma. He was in foster care. He has spent his life caught in the cycle of homelessness, poverty, incarceration, trauma, and violence. He is also a beautiful person who deserves so much more than what life gave him. I loved him so much.
I bailed him out of jail early in our relationship. We tried so hard to make things work while both of us were utterly traumatized and chaotic. Like so many relationships between people in our positions, our relationship descended into domestic violence. He kicked me in the stomach while I lay on the floor. He called me a disgusting slut who no one would ever love. He pushed my body into a wall so hard that I went through the wall. He stalked me and threatened me and chased me down the street. Like so many relationships between people in our positions, it ended with police involvement. He spent time in jail based on what he did to me.
My life took a turn when I found free therapy for domestic violence survivors and then AA. I got sober and I got therapy and slowly my life transformed. He got jail and trauma, and his life stayed in that place. He was recently in the news because he sexually assaulted a random woman on the subway. He was put back in jail.
I regret cooperating with the police, and I also know that I had no better options at the time. Like so many other survivors, I survived however I could. Just like him. If it were possible and safe for me to do so, I would apologize to him. What he did to me was wrong and severely traumatized me, and I also know that him ending up back in jail was wrong and severely traumatized him. I deeply, deeply wish and hope that somehow he gets the help that he needs and deserves, that somehow he is able to get out of that cycle of trauma.
He is not a monster. He is a person. He is a survivor. And like Jordan and so many others, he has experienced profound trauma and dehumanization and what he needs is help. That doesn’t mean looking the other way or condoning his violence, far from it. It means taking violence very seriously. It means understanding where that violence comes from and giving him what he needs to be able to change it, while practicing non-traumatizing intervention and boundaries to protect other people. It means understanding that violence always creates more violence, and dehumanization always creates more dehumanization.
If that seems difficult, then welcome to the work. We need your help to change things.