Salvo 05.04.2023 5 minutes

All Tomorrow’s Riots

Columbus Circle – 59th Street Subway Station in New York City

A city that permits the seriously mentally ill to roam free is begging for tragic outcomes.

In an incident sadly familiar to many New Yorkers, a man living on the streets with a long history of mental illness started screaming, acting erratically, and threatening the people sharing his subway car earlier this week. “I don’t mind going to jail and getting life in prison,” screamed the 30-year-old Jordan Neely, who had 44 arrests under his belt and an outstanding warrant for felony assault, as he flailed around throwing items of his clothing. “I’m ready to die!”

In response, a 24-year-old Marine Corps veteran put Neely in a chokehold, incapacitating him and releasing him after he stopped struggling and passed out. A freelance reporter who took video of the incident, Juan Alberto Vazquez, told news outlets that no one on the train initially thought Neely was in any worse shape than being unconscious, but by the time the police who met the train at the station took him to a nearby hospital, Neely was pronounced dead.

Police questioned the young man, whose name they did not make public, but released him without charges pending an investigation. In the next 36 hours, the usual suspects began to gin up the outrage machine. Readers online lambasted The New York Times for not immediately declaring Neely a murder victim and characterized the incident as having racist implications; Neely is black, and the Marine is white. Governor Kathy Hochul declared the case “troubling.” AOC tweeted, “Jordan Neely was murdered” and declared that funding the police is “militarized” and “disgusting.” By the end of the week, it’s likely Jordan Neely will be on the front of every paper, forcing the country to consider whether erratic and threatening behavior from someone clearly out of his mind justifies the application of force in self-defense.

In a famous 1984 case that made headlines at the peak of New York’s last crime-ridden era, a jury was asked to consider whether pulling out a firearm and shooting four men in a subway car was a “reasonable” response to being panhandled for five dollars. The context: Was it fair for Bernie Goetz to assume he was about to be violently mugged?

One of the men shot confessed from his hospital bed that his three companions were, in point of fact, planning to rob Goetz, calling him “easy bait.” Two of them were carrying screwdrivers in their pockets. But because the would-be muggers were black, and Goetz was white, the case was painted by media figures and self-described radical lawyers like William Kunstler as the actions of a crazed and racist vigilante. Protestors stood outside the courtroom chanting “Bernhard Goetz, you can’t hide; we charge you with genocide.”

But during a record-breaking crime wave, the average American was sick of being told that his desire to go about his business without constant fear of violence and robbery was somehow illegitimate. A strong majority of Americans polled at the time supported Goetz’s actions, and fully two-thirds agreed he had acted in self-defense. Radio lines were inundated with calls pronouncing him a hero.

Goetz was acquitted of attempted murder by a jury that had been in that same subway car one too many times, a public fed up with having to accept muggings, stabbings, drug dealing, and general danger and disorder as an everyday consequence of living in the city. Six of twelve members of Goetz’s jury had themselves been the victims of street crime.

The breakdown of law and order, and the revolving door of progressive policies that put criminals, the insane, and the drug-addled back on the street, has cost New Yorkers their quiet confidence that they can go about their business in peace. Contra the chorus of scolding liberals online, many of whom turn out to be living in wealthy enclaves anyway, ordinary people are not content to be screamed at, threatened, spat on, and generally alarmed by often-criminal lunatics just one voice in their heads away from a stabbing spree. If the state refuses to maintain the law, and decent citizens have to accept fearing for their lives as the price of a commute, the steady flow of people and businesses away from states like New York aren’t the only consequence.

Jordan Neely never should have been in that subway car. He had more than 40 prior arrests and an active arrest warrant for felony assault. His death is not the fault of the brave young man who acted in his own defense and in the defense of everyone else around him, but on politicians and district attorneys who would rather chase plaudits from activist groups than maintain the most basic semblance of law and order. It is on those who give speeches about compassion but leave addicts and the insane on the streets to be a menace to themselves and others.

It is of course possible that Neely’s violent ravings could have resolved peacefully if everyone had sat there, terrified, trying to avoid eye contact until he wandered away. Or maybe not. A just society doesn’t ask law-abiding citizens to bet their lives on that dicey judgment call. And it makes sure that a man like Jordan Neely is in jail or in a facility that deals with his violent and insane behavior humanely. 

The country has two choices as this case hits the national headlines. We can barrel ahead into our next “Summer of Jordan,” paint murals of this unfortunate man’s face from coast to coast, and continue to create the atmosphere in which a thousand more Jordan Neelys will threaten a thousand more subway cars full of potential victims and victimizers alike. Or we can reestablish order, enforce the law, keep criminals in jail, and commit the clearly insane.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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