Jordan Neely Wasn’t Just Killed — He Was Failed By Bystanders Around Him

Photo: Barry Williams/NY Daily News/Getty Images.
Jordan Neely was killed on the F train on Monday. Neely was a 30-year-old Black man who was experiencing homelessness and had performed and panhandled on the subway to get by. According to the New York Times, he was riding the subway when he allegedly yelled that he was hungry and at one point said he was ready to die. Subway riders allege that Neely was nonviolent, but a 24-year-old white male approached him and put him in a chokehold for 15 minutes until he lost consciousness. Neely was pronounced dead at a hospital. A video of the deadly assault is circulating the internet. In it, bystanders watch him die.
Although there are many issues to focus on in this tragedy — how we ignore America’s mental health crisis, how people experiencing homelessness are mistreated, how the former Marine who killed Neely still hasn’t been charged as of May 5, how those who are most vulnerable are often met with violence, especially people of color, who represent a disproportionate amount of people experiencing homelessness — there’s this question: How did a subway car full of people stand by and watch an innocent man be killed?

What is the bystander effect? 

The bystander effect is a psychological theory that states people are less likely to provide help in an emergency when others are present, according to Brittany Morris, MSW, LCSW, psychotherapist and executive clinic director at Thriveworks, a national mental health care company. It’s “people standing and watching something happen without stepping in, recording someone and not offering help, and leaving the situation altogether,” Morris says. And thanks to technology, the bystander effect has devolved over time. While video evidence is good to have in the wake of a crisis to hold people accountable, Morris says smartphones create a false sense of help, and bystanders who record often don’t actually step in to stop the bad thing from happening.
“If people can get to a point where they are also verbally intervening, asking someone to stop, asking people if they are okay while filming, that would make things much more safer for people,” adds Justin Dodson, PhD, LPC, a psychotherapist based in Memphis, TN. “We can't just do one or the other anymore.”
In this devastating act of public violence, the bystander effect may have been exacerbated due to the fact that our society often deems people experiencing homelessness as less than human even when over half a million people in the U.S. are without shelter. Black people are more easily pushed into houselessness due to long-standing systemic racism and inequalities that persist in America.

If Mr. Neely had seemed more sympathetic to the bystanders, more like themselves — in a word, if they had perceived Jordan Neely as more ‘human’ — would they have allowed Mr. Neely to be killed to ‘protect’ them?

Christopher Fee, PhD
“If Mr. Neely had seemed more sympathetic to the bystanders, more like themselves — in a word, if they had perceived Jordan Neely as more ‘human’ — would they have allowed Mr. Neely to be killed to ‘protect’ them?” says Christopher Fee, PhD, an English professor at Gettysburg College who teaches a course on homelessness in literature. “This tragic and horrifying event speaks to the dehumanization in our society of people perceived as poor, unhoused, mentally ill, or addicted. The notion that Mr. Neely might have been perceived as an imminent threat rising to the level of a response of deadly force, and the fact that the attacker clearly seems to have perceived his actions as warranted, speaks volumes to how twisted our view of our most vulnerable citizens has become.”
Morris, the psychotherapist from Thriveworks, says that individuals often believe someone else will step in and help, which leads to no one actually helping. In Neely’s case, bystanders did step in — but to assist his attacker in the assault instead. “There are many reasons why people might hesitate to help, but in my experience, it comes down to someone's fear of being negatively impacted, fear of incompetence or making things worse, and safety of self,” she says. “In high-stress or emergency situations, our fight, flight, or freeze responses kick in as well, and depending on someone's stress response this could also impact their willingness to respond in these situations.”
She adds: “We are biologically programmed to protect ourselves, and most of us are not used to or trained to run toward dangerous situations.” Of course, it’s hard to step in when you’re unprepared, and it’s important to remember that you do not have to sacrifice your own safety in a dangerous situation.

How to effectively intervene as a bystander

If you’re a bystander in a crisis, Dr. Dodson recommends following the four Ds: direct, distract, delegate, delay. “Direct is giving someone else the information on what is happening,” he says, for example, speaking to the people around you and acknowledging that something wrong is happening. Morris agrees, and says to “encourage others around you to help by making eye contact and personalizing your interactions by asking their name.” People, according to Morris, are more likely to help if they are given a task and feel seen.
If we can get other people involved we can bring more attention to it, so the person who is at risk is less likely to be harmed,” Dr. Dodson continues. “And the more people involved, the less likely there is for something bad to happen because you have more eyes and attention.”
Then, do your best to distract the people in the situation. You can do this by asking the victim if they’re okay, or using your voice to bring attention to the altercation. Then, delegate — this can be done by asking for help, or calling a local crisis hotline number or 911 if appropriate. In situations involving nonviolent houseless individuals experiencing a mental health crisis, 911 is likely not the best course of action as police interactions with houseless people often end with unnecessary arrests, fines, and violence, and cause more harm than good. Check out your local mental health resources, including the Don’t Call The Police directory, before resorting to the police; 988, a mental health crisis hotline, can also be called when applicable.
Finally, the final D is delay. “I always tell people to keep their eyes on the issue as long as they can, as long as they remain safe,” Dr. Dodson continues, adding that the responsibility of a bystander is to recognize the details of the situation, including the race and gender identities of the people involved, so they can describe what's happening and who's involved if they were questioned.
While the bystander effect undoubtedly played a role in the killing of Jordan Neely, we can’t place the blame entirely on the people in that subway car. Systemic racism, and how all layers of government have failed to help citizens in need and continue to dehumanize those who are unhoused and experiencing mental health crises, most notably Black people, all comes into play. Politicians and civilians have denounced this act of violence, and on Wednesday protesters gathered in the Broadway-Lafayette subway station, where Neely was killed, to call for justice.
In New York City, where Neely’s death took place, mayor Eric Adams has continued to push fear-mongering messaging, and expanded the power of the police to forcibly institutionalize people who are experiencing homelessness who are a “threat” to others, although it’s widely known that police and other emergency responders aren’t properly equipped to make that call. Adams issued a statement after Neely’s killing, saying. “There must be accountability for his killing, and a thorough investigation by the Manhattan district attorney that accounts for the facts and these realities is critical. Everyone in our city and nation should be reflecting on what this incident represents and says about us.”
Jordan Neely deserved more. Unsheltered people deserve more. We have a responsibility to our friends, our neighbors, our communities, to step up when they need us and to prevent further injustice. If he had been given proper support from society and those around him, he would still be alive today.
Jordan Neely did not have to die. He was just asking for help.

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