INDIGNITY VOL. 3, NO. 70: Escalating violence.


INDIGNITY VOL. 3, NO. 70: Escalating violence.
Protestors gather at Barclays Center Arena and march to the 7th police precinct to protest the NYPD’s response to the killing of Jordan Neely in Brooklyn, New York on May 4, 2023. - New York prosecutors are investigating the death of Jordan Neely, a homeless man put in a chokehold by a fellow rider on the city’s subway, in an incident that has sparked outrage. (Photo by ALEX KENT/AFP via Getty Images)

Killing a Stranger on the Subway Is Disorderly

I'VE RIDDEN IN a subway car with a yelling, disturbed stranger. Everyone has. It's happened more times than I can count, till hardly any of the individual episodes even stick out. I do remember the one time I was riding with one of my kids, far between stops under the East River, three feet away from a twitching guy snarling about how he was the Messiah and the end was coming. That one sticks out.

It's even possible I'd ridden in a subway car where Jordan Neely was doing the yelling; at least, the description of Neely's particular tirade, about how he didn't care if he went to jail, fit with tirades I've been through before—genuinely bad tirades, alarming ones, tirades that make it sound like the person is going to break and do something dangerous.

I've never been in a subway car while somebody was killing somebody else, though.

This is a pretty big distinction, but the media and the public seem to be having trouble making it. The Associated Press tweeted that the killing—or, as the AP put it, the "choking death"—had "set off powerful reactions, with some calling the chokehold a homicide and others defending the passenger's action as a defense against disorder."

In fact, the chokehold had been called a homicide by the city's medical examiner, which would seem to put that question outside the AP's standard sphere of debate. Whatever the legal system may finally do about Neely's death, as a matter of journalistic fact, he was officially killed by the action of another person. He didn't coincidentally die of a heart attack or drug overdose or "excited delirium" while he was being choked; the other passenger choked him to death.

How was this "a defense against disorder"? If a person shouting on a train is disorderly, what is a person killing another person on a train? The New York Times, like the AP, tried to make the situation sound complicated:

For many New Yorkers, the choking of the 30-year-old homeless man, Jordan Neely, was a heinous act of public violence to be swiftly prosecuted, and represented a failure by the city to care for people with serious mental illness. Many others who lamented the killing nonetheless saw it as a reaction to fears about public safety in New York and the subway system in particular.

And some New Yorkers wrestled with conflicting feelings: their own worries about crime and aggression in the city and their conviction that the rider had gone too far and should be charged with a crime.

If you're really worried about crime and aggression in the city, there's nothing to feel conflicted about. Someone attacked and killed a stranger on the subway, in front of multiple witnesses. There was no fight between them, by any of the accounts so far; Neely was making a disturbance, but he was keeping his hands to himself. The killer chose to take an ordinary bad situation and make it worse.

This was not a normal response to a chaotic subway ride. What you want above all, when you find yourself in a subway car with a disturbed person, is for things not to escalate. You stay quiet and avoid directly looking at the commotion. You calculate where the next stop is, where the doors are, whether moving away might play as more of an insult or provocation than staying put. The entire goal is to leave room for the person to calm down or move on, for everybody to let everybody live.

Instead, the killer threw a chokehold on Neely, took him down to the floor of the car, and kept him there till he was dead. Another passenger appeared to help restrain Neely's hands. An ugly moment became something monstrous and irreversible.

And there's a blank space where the monstrosity happened. Neely's name and heartbreaking personal history have been everywhere, but the person who killed him remains a cipher—the press know his name well enough to get a no-comment from him, but not, somehow, well enough to report what that name is. People are left to imagine him as an Everyman, or even, perversely, as a "Good Samaritan," as if the Good Samaritan were famous for finding a stranger in distress and choking him to death, so that nobody else on the road would be disturbed. How could it have been a crime, if there's no criminal to be seen?


New York City, May 4, 2023

★ It was raining indifferently again. The radar was blotchy, the sky shifting among various levels of gray. "Now it's coming down," a woman said with unhappy satisfaction, stooped over a cart she was pushing uphill, as an unequivocal burst of rain came on. The rain jacket had been left behind for the warmer hoodie, as the chill stretched deeper and deeper into May. A mile uptown, up out of the subway, it was just lightly drizzling, so the rain hadn't even broken through the still-emergent canopies of the street trees. There weren't many showers left on the radar, but the one in real life had intensified enough that the walk through the park wasn't worth the risk. A gap of blue appeared in the north beyond the subway entrance, too little to trust and too late to help.


Indignity Morning Podcast No. 61: A crisis of confidence.

Tom Scocca • May 5, 2023

Listen now (5 min) | The Indignity Morning Podcast is also available via the Apple and Spotify platforms.

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The Indignity Morning Podcast is also available via the Apple and Spotify platforms.


WE PRESENT INSTRUCTIONS for the assembly of sandwiches from More Recipes for Fifty, by Frances Lowe Smith, published in 1921, found in the public domain and available at for the delectation of all.

12 hard-cooked eggs
1/4 cup minced green pepper
3/4 cup peanut butter
1 teaspoon paprika
3/4 teaspoon celery salt
Salt to taste

Mash eggs until quite smooth; add seasonings and peanut butter, and mix thoroughly. Add minced pepper, and water enough to make spread well. Spread thickly on slices of bread, and put together with lettuce. The bread may be buttered, but it is not necessary.

Spread one slice of bread with butter, and another one with peanut butter. Put together with thinly sliced Bermuda onion which has been marinated with French Dressing.

If you decide to prepare and attempt to enjoy a sandwich inspired by this offering, kindly send a picture to us at

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