Of Chokeholds and Pepper Spray // Menace lurks on public transportation

Mere hours before Jordan Neely, a mentally-challenged 30-year-old homeless man, began shouting at passengers on an F train in Manhattan, a man shouted hatred and insults at me on the Staten Island ferry.

Mr. Neely was put in a chokehold by a fellow passenger and died as a result. My case ended on a happier note, at least for my harasser.

Earlier that day, May 1, I was seated on the boat, looking down into a gemara. Though there were many empty seats nearby, someone sat down directly opposite me. When I didn’t look up, I heard the fellow loudly announce to the world, “He likes his book so much he won’t look at me.” I looked up and smiled at the guy (a Black man in his 20s, dressed in high urban style) and said, “Sorry, do I know you?”

Then, his decibel level increasing, he launched into a venomous tirade. It would be inappropriate to quote him here but the gist of his speech was that he was a real man and I was something less.

I quietly asked him if he wanted to have a quiet conversation, but he didn’t seem interested. As he grew angrier and his insults more hateful, I took out the pepper spray I always carry and made sure he saw it. He derided that act and said, “You won’t use that on me because I’m not threatening you.”

He had a point. Insults, even lasting ten minutes, aren’t threats. And New York law, with which he was apparently familiar, only excuses the use of pepper spray as self-defense in the face of a perceived threat. His astuteness, if overwhelmed by his asininity, bespoke someone just odious, not mentally ill. 

By then, a sizable crowd of onlookers had gathered and one of them summoned the police. One officer escorted me to another part of the ferry while his partner dealt, I hope, with my harasser.

In Mr. Neely’s case, according to witnesses, the man who ended up dying acted erratically, giving an “aggressive speech,” in the words of one bystander, and began threatening other passengers on the subway car. The situation escalated and he was held in a chokehold for about 15 minutes by another passenger, a 24-year-old Marine from Queens.

When police arrived, Mr. Neely was found unconscious and taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Because the dead man was Black and the Marine was White, it became a racially charged issue. 

Protesters gathered outside the Manhattan District Attorney’s office with signs that said “Jordan Neely Deserved Better From New York,” “Justice for Jordan” and “Indict the Coward.”

New York Governor Kathy Hochul characterized the subduing of Mr. Neely as “very extreme” and said, “there have to be consequences, and so we’ll see how this unfolds, but his family deserves justice.”

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams assailed the “racism that continues to permeate throughout our society [and] allows for a level of dehumanization that denies Black people from being recognized as victims when subjected to acts of violence.”

The reasonable outlier on the political field, New York Mayor Eric Adams, cautioned people to not reach conclusions about Mr. Neely’s death until the district attorney’s investigation plays out. “There are many layers to this,” he said. “I’m gonna let the process follow its course.” 

Whether the Marine acted properly to subdue Mr. Neely likely depends on whether he purposely exerted too much pressure on the man’s neck. A chokehold can, after all, be a simple restraining tactic and the Marine may have only maintained it to keep Mr. Neely subdued until police arrived.

But I couldn’t help but imagine what would have happened had my ferry menace spoken or moved in a threatening way and I had used my pepper spray to keep him at bay. What if he were asthmatic and the spray caused him some permanent lung damage or his death? 

I intend to not think along those lines. My pepper spray will stay within reach. And, should I feel threatened by anyone of any color or creed, I’ll do my best to aim it well.

To read more, subscribe to Ami