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Justice for Jordan Neely: Friend Remembers Dancer as “Gentleman” as Calls Grow for Killer’s Arrest

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Eleven people were arrested at a protest in New York on Monday demanding justice for Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old unhoused Black man who was choked to death on a subway car last week by another passenger. Neely was well known as a dancer and Michael Jackson impersonator. He was crying out that he was hungry, when he was fatally attacked on the train by a 24-year-old former marine named Daniel Penny, who was questioned by police but released without charges. The city medical examiner has ruled Neely’s death a homicide. The subway killing comes as New York is facing a growing population of unhoused people who lack the support they need, with many facing a mental health crisis. “What we need to see is not a mobilization of violence, but a mobilization of care,” says Jawanza Williams, director of organizing at the community group VOCAL-New York. We also speak with musician Lorenzo Laroc, who knew Neely for decades as a fellow busker in the New York subway system. “He gave freely to the city of New York and brought nothing but joy to this town for decades,” says Laroc, calling Neely a “gentleman” and a “consummate professional.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I am Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org.

Here in New York, 11 people were arrested at a protest Monday night demanding justice for Jordan Neely, 30-year-old unhoused Black man choked to death on a subway car last week by another passenger. Jordan Neely was crying out that he was hungry and thirsty, when he was fatally attacked on the train by a 24-year-old former marine named Daniel Penny. Penny was interviewed by police detectives but was released; he has not been arrested. Monday night’s protest follows a similar demonstration Saturday, when police arrested 13 people at a protest where they went onto the subway tracks and demanded Penny face charges.

This is Juan Alberto Vasquez, an independent journalist who was in the subway car and filmed the fatal chokehold. He’s speaking to NBC News.

JUAN ALBERTO VASQUEZ: [translated] The man got on the subway car and began to say a somewhat aggressive speech, saying that he was hungry, he was thirsty, and he didn’t care about anything. He didn’t care about going to jail, that he didn’t care that he gets a big life sentence, and it doesn’t matter if he died. … If there was fear, the people who were bluish or were there, where he separated everything, moved from their place. I stayed sitting in my place, because it was a little further away. But obviously, those moments, well, one thinks fear. One thinks he may be armed.

AMY GOODMAN: The law firm representing Daniel Penny released a statement Friday expressing, quote, “condolences to those close to Mr. Neely,” and adding, quote, “Mr. Neely had a documented history of violent and erratic behavior, the apparent result of ongoing and untreated mental illness. When Mr. Neely began aggressively threatening Daniel Penny and the other passengers, Daniel, with the help of others, acted to protect themselves, until help arrived. Daniel never intended to harm Mr. Neely and could not have foreseen his untimely death,” the law firm said.

Representatives for Jordan Neely’s family responded Monday, calling the statement, quote, “not an apology nor an expression of regret. It is a character assassination.” They continued, quote, “The truth is he knew nothing about Jordan’s history when he intentionally wrapped his arms around Jordan’s neck, and squeezed and kept squeezing. He never attempted to help him at all. In short, his actions on the train, and now his words, show why he needs to be in prison,” the family of Jordan Neely said.

The killing of Jordan Neely comes as New York is facing a growing population of unhoused people who lack support they need, with many facing mental health crises. Officials say Jordan Neely had been arrested more than 40 times, including for multiple assaults, was on a list of unhoused people identified by aid workers as having dire needs. Before he fell on hard times, Jordan was well known to New Yorkers and tourists as a talented Michael Jackson impersonator who made a living in Times Square and on New York subways.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Jawanza Williams is director of organizing at VOCAL-New York, and Lorenzo Laroc, who knew Jordan Neely for 20 years when they were both buskers in the New York City subway system. This is him playing his custom-made five-string plexiglass electric violin/viola.

LORENZO LAROC: [playing violin/viola]

AMY GOODMAN: We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Lorenzo, I want to begin with you. That was you playing the violin. You knew Jordan for 20 years as a fellow busker. Talk about him, as many New Yorkers and tourists knew him for years, this Michael Jackson impersonator, a member of the community of artists that we so often see in the subways.

LORENZO LAROC: Well, I worked with Jordan over a period of — I played down in the subways for 30 years. I worked with Jordan for about 20. And what we did was, he would do the noon-to-3:00 shift; I’d get there around 2:00 for my 3:00-to-6:00 shift. And I could — you know, I spent years watching this man, who was definitely a professional artist. He had a mastery of how he could work a crowd. If you could stop traffic in New York City with your talents, you’re doing something positive. He was the most passive, beautifully a gentleman. And, you know, this is consistently. I’ve never seen him aggressive. I’ve never seen him have a problem with the public.

And what Jordan did, he gave freely to the city of New York and brought nothing but joy to this town for decades. And, you know, a misconception of street performers, we’re out there giving it away. It’s free. If you want to donate, that’s fine. But, you know, we’re doing our civic duty out there, keeping the peace. Just we keep the peace better than cops, in the sense that in the 20 years that I’ve been out there and Jordan doing his thing, there was never any problem. Music calms the savage beast. Well, it also calms down New York City commuters. You know, Jordan was — God, how can I put it? Not only the consummate professional, but he was an — he was Michael Jackson. You know, people can’t see Michael in Times Square. He’s an iconic figure. But Jordan embodied that persona.

AMY GOODMAN: Lorenzo, when you saw the video, which went viral, of Daniel [Penny] choking him to death, there were also two other passengers who were holding him down. And when people tried to help, they pushed them away. Your response?

LORENZO LAROC: I was witnessing a murder. That’s what I said. It was painful and crushing. You know, here was a great artist being murdered in front of my eyes. And the fact that this gentleman is just walking the streets, it’s a tragedy.

AMY GOODMAN: Jawanza Williams, there have been many people arrested in the last few days demanding the arrest of Penny, the ex-marine who put him in a chokehold until he died. He hasn’t been arrested; many others have. Can you respond to the video, what you understand happened, and what you’re calling for now?

JAWANZA WILLIAMS: Yeah. Thanks again for having me, Amy. I deeply appreciate it.

And as Lorenzo was saying, you know, I’m thinking a lot about the humanity of Black people and what we’re experiencing across these racist, violent United States. And I think that what happened is a catastrophe. And I think that we should honor the demands of the Neely family and have this person arrested. But really I want to talk about, you know, one, for Black people to avoid continue watching the kinds of videos that create psychic harm for all of us, because these things affect our bodies and our mentalities. So I’ve avoided watching that video, because I don’t need to see another Black person lynched again in this country. And so I avoided that video, and I don’t want to watch that, so I can’t speak to it specifically.

But what I can say is that what has happened to Jordan Neely is very — reminds us that it’s not, unfortunately, that his story is that unique. The fact is that over the — since 2022, over 815 people experiencing homelessness in New York have died in public spaces. This is a structural phenomenon. And I have to say that we have to hold also not just the murderer accountable; we have to hold Mayor Eric Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul for their continued right-wing, hyperconservative, fearmongering politics and politicking about our lives, like the fact that they flooded our subways with police to respond to people experiencing homelessness in the subway, and yet these same police officers were nowhere to be found when it was time to protect Jordan Neely from the violence of a white man, former marine, strangling him to death. So, what we need to see is not a mobilization of violence, but a mobilization of care in our subways. And our Homelessness Union at VOCAL-New York has calling for that for multiple years.

And so, for me, I think that the state needs to do what it needs to do, what it always does, and, you know, use its carceral system to bring some kind of justice to this family. But I don’t believe in the carceral system, so I have to say we want to build a loving and caring infrastructure in our city, so that means that Mayor Eric Adams, right now in the middle of his budget negotiation, needs to put our billions of dollars where they need to be, in support of housing, in wraparound services, safe haven beds. We need to see people rapidly rehoused out of shelters into secure housing, and sometimes that means housing vouchers, etc. And there are so many different things that need to happen.

And I think that, you know, Governor Hochul just passed a state budget that didn’t pass Daniel’s Law, that would have automatically created mental health teams throughout the state so that they could actually respond to people who are actually in mental health crisis. And I’m not saying that Jordan Neely was, because everyone has deputized themselves to be like police in public, but they have also deputized themselves as psychologists. They are not psychologists. They are other commuters, and they do not have the right to diagnose anybody in the subway. Leave that to the professionals. And those professionals are not police officers.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us and ask you to stay with us, because we’re going to do a post-show interview, and we’re going to post it online at democracynow.org. Jawanza Williams, director of organizing at VOCAL-New York, and Lorenzo Laroc, who knew Jordan Neely for 20 years, as they are both street performers on the street and in the New York City subway system. You can go to democracynow.org for that Part 2, as well as the Part 2 of the conversation with the anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, talking about the case of Richard Glossip and so much more.

Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Sonyi Lopez. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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