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I’m Fucking Agitated, Are You Going to Murder Me?

Real estate greed, the glutted police budget, ceaseless gentrification, racist journalists, Eric Adams, Kathy Hochul, white people—we cycled through the injustices, against them, resuscitating despair into focused rage.

At the vigil

Photo of graffiti on subway tiles
Photo by Arielle Isack

At first, the only indication that there was anything out of the ordinary was a large piece of cardboard that read RIP JORDAN NEELY. A BLACK MAN WAS KILLED BY A WHITE MAN HERE. NYPD HAS NOT ARRESTED THE MURDERER. WE WANT JUSTICE. NYC, LOVE AND PROTECT YOUR FELLOW MAN. DON’T MOVE HERE IF YOU’RE SCARED OF YOUR NEIGHBORS. The block letters bobbed over the heads of two dozen people gathered on the uptown Broadway-Lafayette platform to mourn Neely, a homeless man who had been murdered on the F train by a white civilian, at that point still unnamed, two days earlier. More details as I approached: who killed Jordan neely? scrawled in sharpie against the dirty white tile of a support beam, a group of reporters, slightly more cops than usual, and, on the ground, a bouquet of purple flowers and a few of those tall white candles encased in glass cylinders, unlit. People and cameras gathered around the person holding the sign, who took advantage of lulls in the ambient MTA din to address the crowd: They want to clear this city of people who actually live here and are from here for rich gentrifiers who call the fucking cops on their neighbors for playing music too loud. Don’t call the fucking cops on your neighbors, she pleaded. If you see someone who needs help on the subway, fucking help them. Help them. Shouts and nods and hums of support.

It was Wednesday afternoon. Jordan Neely was murdered around 2:30 PM on Monday. Like everyone else, I had found out about the murder through a forty-one-second-long video of Neely being choked and restrained by three men that was circulating on Twitter. I saw the thumbnail, but didn’t watch it, didn’t need to—I knew the video would only show me that same static scene stretched out obscenely over time; I knew that the ex-Marine’s arm would not move from Neely’s neck, that the two other men would not let Neely move, and that nobody was going to interrupt the lynching that was occurring in front of them, in the middle of their commute. On Friday we would learn the name of the murderer—Daniel Penny—but on Wednesday there was still no name, just a killer, two accomplices, a carful of witnesses, and a man who was killed for being homeless.

The vigil took place at the end of the platform, between the station wall and a white support beam. Police had gathered behind and around the beam, keeping us penned into an area no more than thirty feet long. Commuters stepping out of F trains maneuvered expertly through our incipient crowd, eager not to be slowed down by what must have seemed like extraneous subway chaos. As more people arrived, the crowd shifted itself a few feet at a time to make room for whoever or whatever commanded the moment. There were no megaphones, no mics. Fifteen minutes in, the crowd had swollen almost to capacity, and in order to move around at all I found myself treading the beveled yellow platform edge, a part of the city my commitment to not being hate-crimed had prohibited me from approaching since January 2022. More and more officers were gathering behind the white beam—I counted at least twelve cops equipped with guns, handcuffs, and eyes that remained vacant except to focus every once in a while to produce sneers of superiority. The crowd registered the sudden escalation of police presence, and a young white man with stringy brown hair, shaking with vitriol, turned around to face a portly, middle-aged black cop standing near the flowers: THE MURDERER IS STILL FUCKING OUT THERE AND YOU’RE STANDING HERE FOR A VIGIL? DO YOUR FUCKING JOB! DO YOUR FUCKING JOB! His whole body strained with the effort of communicating this. Not a ripple across the cop’s face. He continued staring ahead, as if there wasn’t a human face contorted in pain, inches away from his, desperate, speaking to him. A different man dropped to his knees in front of the officer and raised a sign directly to his eye level: SAY HIS NAME. He remained like that, arms up with the sign, for several minutes. Mourners craned over his half-prostrate body to get in the cop’s face. SAY HIS NAME.

More cops gathered, and the crowd cycled through remembered chants: no cops, no KKK, no fascist USA! BLACK LIVES MATTER and HOMELESS LIVES MATTER were punctuated by insults lobbed at the police. Like a sea of minnows, we all turned to face the same thing at the same time, one another, or the cops, who at this point had set up a barricade between us and a secondary group that was forming, and screaming, at another strip of subway platform a few feet away. Again and again we were jostled by the gigantic black TV cameras moving clumsily through the crowd, desperate to follow the action, to get as close as possible to whoever was speaking or chanting the loudest. All the noise, chaos, and pain stitched together into a makeshift fluency: several were nominated—wordlessly—as group leaders, owing to the sheer persuasiveness of their rage and frustration, the way it rang clear through the screech of metal on metal. We pressed our bodies to be close to them; their words were something to move our rage and grief through. They turned despair into a group feeling: a rage borne by the hope, or the proof, that people could take shape against evil, against an insanity that was indistinct from the overpoliced and underfunded environment of the MTA itself. I smelled something chemical: someone had graffitied JORDAN NEELY WAS MURDERED HERE on the ground in black, but the words held up only briefly before they were smeared underfoot, beyond legibility. As F trains slid in and out of the station, protesters on the peripheries of the platform leaned into cars, stalling them to inform commuters of the situation: A BLACK MAN WAS MURDERED BY A WHITE MAN INSIDE AN F TRAIN CAR ON MONDAY. THE COPS DID NOTHING FOR FIFTEEN MINUTES. A chant of FIFTEEN MINUTES! FIFTEEN MINUTES! erupted in the general direction of the officers. IF YOU SEE SOMEONE ON THE TRAIN WHO NEEDS HELP, HELP THEM, they begged the people inside the trains. Most passengers did nothing, shifting uncomfortably or pulling out their iPhones to record us. The moment anyone’s body leaned into the open cars, two cops would intervene, yelling GET THE FUCK BACK and pulling the offending bodies back onto the platform. People on the opposite platform weren’t spared: a white woman saw people yelling across the tracks, plucked her earbuds out, and upon hearing the words MURDERED HERE, immediately clapped her hand over her mouth in cartoonish but genuine horror.

Real estate greed, the glutted police budget, ceaseless gentrification, racist journalists, Eric Adams, Kathy Hochul, white people—we cycled through the injustices, against them, resuscitating despair into focused rage. A doorway is an emptiness that has a shape. The crowd’s mourning needed someplace to go beyond the area that the cops, maybe twenty of them now, had choked it into. It needed to go past the beam that bore the question and the bouquet of purple flowers. HOUSING NOT COPS, HOUSING NOT COPS, CARE NOT COPS, CARE NOT COPS, we roared. SCHOOLS NOT COPS, SCHOOLS NOT COPS. A man in a faded Saints cap and glasses that magnified his eyes into giant watery lakes wailed 450,000 EMPTY APARTMENTS IN NEW YORK CITY! a figure that arced over the commotion and landed in the very center of our rage. I heard that number again and again throughout the afternoon; it focused everything into a dizzying lucidity we were thankful for, and furious about. As a group of us formed around him, the man became gripped with grief: I’m no hero. We were on the same train for only one stop. We didn’t do anything to stop it. To be honest with you, we’re guilty of that. We didn’t know what the fuck to do like fucking idiots. We should’ve pulled that son of a bitch off him, man. They fucking killed him man, they choked him until he was unconscious and they kept choking him. A new chant began: PROTECT YOUR NEIGHBOR, PROTECT YOUR NEIGHBOR! I tried to pour water on his head, I tried to turn him on his side so he wouldn’t choke on vomit. The dude who killed him stopped me from doing that. His voice broke as he recalled this. I’m no fucking hero, man.

Then a sudden flash of agitation on the far side of the crowd: a right-wing provocateur apparently known for his disruption of abortion rallies had showed up in a dark baseball cap and a gray fleece with the American flag stitched on the breast—Olympics merch—his iPhone in front of his face, filming. GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE, THIS IS A VIGIL. YOUR PRESENCE IS DISRESPECTFUL TO THE DEAD, a man thundered at him. A man in a mask, sunglasses, and black fatigues produced a swath of fabric from his backpack and blocked the livestreamer’s camera, which immediately brought a large handful of cops to his defense. A few people tried to deescalate: a short man in a faded purple shirt with a long ponytail wielding a selfie stick in the name of “public journalism” tried to beseech people to “respect him, respect his presence” and stood alongside the other livestreamer, at which point the rage dilated to include them both and we screamed at them to get the fuck out of here. Theyre going to try to kettle us, someone yelled about the cops, who took the verbal skirmish as an opportunity to somehow spawn in even greater numbers. A truly very tall man in a pink bucket hat seemed to materialize in the center of the crowd. They’re going to kill all of us n——s, they’re going to kill all of us n——s! And you’re here with your signs and chants, how many fucking times does this need to happen? Suck my fucking dick, they’re going to kill all of us, fuck your signs—his impassioned panic, and dissatisfaction with our reaction to said panic, found a natural home in our leaderless, megaphone-less group. When he suggested we take to the streets, we began to march.

Shoppers gaped, mid-browse, at the group of thirty or forty people that emerged aboveground. The light of day and the open space of Lafayette Street atomized our underground organism into distinct individuals: we were mostly young, mostly not white, all agitated, all “erratic”—a word that was continually, pathologically invoked to describe Jordan Neely’s behavior prior to his death, to justify his murder. (As Blair McClendon pointed out on Wednesday, Alfred Olango, Tashii Brown, George Floyd, and Freddie Gray had all been described as erratic, too.) The same could plausibly be said of the cops: they had followed us out of the station, zip-ties swinging menacingly, ready to mass-arrest, daring anyone’s grief to cross a line. I’M FUCKING AGITATED, I’M FUCKING DISTRESSED! ARE YOU GOING TO MURDER ME? a man in a bandana asked. Certainly walking in the middle of a street in lower Manhattan could be defined as erratic, disruptive to people’s commutes, a capital offense. The man in the black mask and fatigues began to drag garbage bins off the sidewalk and into the street. Several others joined him. Whose streets? Our streets. We marched past stores with flags bearing brand names, their glittering interiors not barricaded behind plywood and steel this time around. NYPD Strategic Response Group’s strategic response was to creep behind us in increasing numbers with vans, blaring pre-recorded threats at us through their megaphones. We had hardly been walking for fifteen minutes when they began to arrest people, cordoning off individuals from the rest of the group, twenty or so officers mobilizing on the sidewalk to isolate and restrain two or three unarmed people attending a vigil. We screamed LET HIM GO as they enclosed a young man with black hair and zip-tied his wrists behind him. He was cross-legged on the ground behind the cops, and people tried to speak to him: What’s your name? Your date of birth? Officers shoved anyone who stepped onto the sidewalk, forcing us into the street, where we could also be arrested. I’M RECORDING YOU, SON OF A BITCH. THIS IS OFFICER HOWLEY, HE IS KNOWN TO HARASS TRANS PEOPLE. I’M GOING TO SHOVE A CCRB COMPLAINT SO FAR UP YOUR ASS THEY’LL PULL IT OUT OF YOUR MOUTH. Innumerable hair-gelled heads bursting out of navy-and-white uniforms steeled one another to “hold the line,” the thin blue line between order and disorder, normal and erratic, life and death.

At this point, several people broke off from the group to go to the seventh precinct and aid in the release of those who had been arrested. A smaller group continued south toward Chinatown, still trailed by the Strategic Response Unit. On the corner of Canal and Broadway, a reporter with bad highlights and chunky Doc Martens typed furiously into her iPhone while asking a bystanding Irish couple about their feelings witnessing this “civil disruption.” They fidgeted with their Zara bags to contemplate the question, and the heavy burden of being quoted in the New York Post. ARE YOU GOING TO FUCKING DOX US? LEAK OUR ADDRESS? we asked her. Several more of us gathered around her, screaming insults, attempting to impede the so-called journalism she was no doubt attempting to conduct. A quick Google search revealed her predilection for the term “gangbangers.” YOU WILL NEVER BE FAMOUS, BITCH! FUCK THE NEW YORK POST! She looked up from her iPhone to deny that she was interested in Neely’s criminal record, even though she was. The Irish couple became increasingly uncomfortable. A West African man selling counterfeit sunglasses and handbags was listening in, his interest piqued by our scene. He asked if he could say something, so we handed him the proverbial mic: the white man will always see us as animals, as something he can control and abuse, he said. When will we fight back?

“I don’t have food, I don’t have a drink, I’m fed up.” This is what Jordan Neely said on May 3 before throwing his jacket on the floor, a direct expression of his life’s impossibility under the present circumstances. Face to face with a poor person expressing distress, ex-Marine Daniel Penny put Jordan Neely in a headlock, and, with the help of two other people in the car, obstructed his breathing until he died. Despite their permanent presence in practically every subway station in the entire city, the NYPD did not arrive on the scene for fifteen minutes. In the aftermath of Neely’s murder, Democratic public officials have been extremely hesitant to condemn the vigilante murder of a homeless person. Conservatives and left-of-center pundits have resorted to the broken rhetoric of “mental illness” to cast Jordan Neely’s experience—his straightforward frustration with not having food or shelter—as beyond the scope of human understanding, in order to depict his murder as an understandable reaction, if not a justified one.

Eric Adams and Kathy Hochul can’t call murdering someone on the subway an erratic behavior because what Daniel Penny did was squarely in line with the fear-mongering, police-state regime they have ushered in as a response to the devastations that Covid-19 wrought upon the city’s poor and unhoused. What Penny did was beat the cops to the chase—in so many ways, this was state-sanctioned murder, against an individual who made visible the consequences of a government that detests and ostracizes those most vulnerable to its failures. Those who find it difficult to say that killing someone on the train for being poor is bad, is murder, are finding it difficult because to say those words would require them to give up so much: they would have to walk back entire aesthetic, cultural, and political dispositions that rest upon stripping value from the human lives of people like Jordan Neely. Penny, on the other hand, behaved in an erratic manner so seamlessly integrated with this country’s values that he took someone’s life in front of a crowd, and nobody stopped him.

The threat of arrest had thinned our group out considerably. Some more people left for the seventh precinct to help with jail support. Feed yourselves, drink some water, urged the guy with the pink bucket hat. Take care of your neighbors. As I made my way back to the F train, I noticed a group of people congregating outside Brandy Melville, spectating six cops who were inside the store, surrounding someone. I paused to watch a little bit, wondering if the cops from the vigil had been dispatched to bring a strategic response to shoplifting teens. A couple minutes later, two teen girls walked out, crumpling empty Truly cans in their hands, chucking them, insolently, down the street in the direction of the store. One girl wondered if she’d left her vape inside the Brandy Melville, while the other rummaged through a backpack. I got them, I got them, she said, clutching a handful of neon plastic tubes. Take care of your neighbors. It was around 6 PM and the F train was packed, everyone jammed together on the way back to their individual lives. We were underground in a city renowned for picking winners and losers, those who could murder with impunity and those whose lives were extinguishable for any disruption, any chafing against their circumstances. In the past few days, protesters have shut down subway lines—those vast underground arteries of collective New York experience—and have taken to streets and parks to demand justice for Jordan Neely. They have jumped onto the tracks, using their bodies to impede the city’s normal circulatory functions. The suffering and pain that led Neely to a point where he felt “ready to die”—as he said in those final moments before his murder—is not a phantasm locked inside an illness-stricken mind. It is a living part of this city. It is present in every subway station, where cops, lurking on every corner, only take their eyes off Candy Crush to harass poor people hopping turnstiles, poor people just sitting there, or poor people experiencing distress. Jordan Neely is dead. But they can’t kill us all for being agitated.


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