Our racially and economically stratified society is not in a slow descent into a dystopian hell. We have arrived. And hell here is not a lake of fire. For Jordan Neely, hell is being strangled to death in a subway car as onlookers watched in a detached resolve all because he had the gall to complain that he was hungry and thirsty. No one intervened to save him. In a car full of passengers, no one tried to stop his attacker. No one. Neely’s lifeless body on the floor of the subway car is the final signpost that we have reached a new nadir in this social abyss called America. For Black people here, the road to hell is paved by “well-intentioned” white and white-adjacent people who somehow believe in their biased minds that harming Black people is a public good.
The media would have us think Jordan was experiencing a mental crisis, and that it was this crisis that led to his violent death. Such has become the shorthand of a media that makes short shrift of Black life. Mental disorder is what the media turns to when they cannot claim that the Black victim was under the influence of drugs. Given the steady stream of deadly violence against Black people captured on some random cellphone, corporate media has failed to bring attention to the true crisis at stake here — the psychosis of white supremacy and how it continues to impact policy, policing, and the random, everyday encounters with white people that Black existence in America necessitates. Instead, the media treats these victims as one blur of Black bodies in a never-ending reel where the narrative remains the same: “Some insignificant Black person died after having a mental breakdown.” Leaving the public a convenient means to dismiss this as just another unfortunate case of a Black person whose emotions got the best of them. The Black victim is made the guilty party in his or her own homicide.
For Black people here, the road to hell is paved by “well-intentioned” white and white-adjacent people who somehow believe in their biased minds that harming Black people is a public good.
Any unconventional behavior of a Black person experiencing stress is now considered a mental case. Or worse, if a Black person has ever experienced depression, it will be dug up to explain away their death. Although there have been some legitimate cases where the person was having a diagnosable psychotic episode, that is definitely not the case in every situation. Whatever mental health issues Neely may have had, they were not the reason or the cause for his yelling on the subway that day. He cried out because he was hungry. His was a crisis of basic human need. He was not screaming because he had not taken his meds. He was screaming because he needed food and water.
What is troubling is that in his moment of need, not one person in that subway car offered him food or water. Instead, they sat there with their full bellies and watched him in the grip of hunger pangs hoping that he would just go away. When the white man attacked him, placed him in a chokehold, and commenced to strangle him, the only intervention was to help the white man subdue him. Even then, no one else spoke up or tried to stop that man from choking the life out of Neely. There is no excuse for this. Even those that watched expecting his attacker to release him evidence a naivete that cannot be justified by recent memory. To place trust in an attacker in any circumstance is suspect. Even more so, when that attacker has the victim in a deadly chokehold. Jordan was convulsing for his life under the man’s tightening grip. There is nothing in that moment that should ever give someone reason to pause and assume that it will end well. In fact, when have we ever witnessed or read about a white man choking a defenseless Black man that ends well? Exactly. We haven’t. The racial privilege of Neely’s attacker provided a zone of deference that enabled him to kill Neely right before everyone’s immobilized eyes. He never stopped or was made to stop for a second to reconsider his actions. The power of white privilege was played out right there in that subway car to deadly effect. No, it is not Neely’s mental health that contributed to his murder. This is not a crisis for Black people to own. We are dealing with a mental health crisis of a society that continues to be willful and deliberate in its disregard for Black life.
The people in that subway car, regardless of any differences they may have had among them, were in silent agreement as they watched Neely’s attacker brutally end his life there on the floor. It was an unsettling simile to the gathering of whites around a tree in a park in some random segregated community to gleefully watch a Black person tortured and executed in broad daylight. In a speech in 1900, the anti-lynching activist and historic journalist, Ida B. Wells stated, “Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people.” She could have said those words yesterday. What makes a lynching a lynching is not the action of one person. A lynching is a lynching because of the cool, calculated actions of those who stand by and watch and the cold deliberation of the system, its agents, and representatives, that consistently fail to seek justice for the victim and arrest the killers.
A society unmoved by the killing of Black people is a society that condones the killing of Black people. It is a society that has swallowed whole the fundamental premise of white supremacy — Black lives do not matter. And every act taken to protect, defend, justify, rationalize, or otherwise explain the violence meted upon Black people is an action that tells the rest of us not to care. This is psychosis in action. It makes the country indifferent to the criminal acts of white people and the police when meted upon the defenseless bodies of Black people.
There should be no mystery as to why Neely’s killer has yet to be arrested as of this writing. He was not arrested for the same reason Trayvon Martin’s killer was not arrested the same day he was murdered. For the same reason Amaud Aubery’s killer was not arrested the same day he was murdered. Each of them claimed to be acting in self-defense. And the police, like the passengers in the subway car, deferred to the power of their white privilege, agreed with their story, and let them go about their merry way. This is not the way the justice system is supposed to work. “Innocent until proven guilty” is meant to occur in a court of law. When victims’ families cannot rely on the police to arrest the killer and the prosecutor to bring charges, we are confronted with the fact that it is not the random white killer who is the racist of concern, but the agents of the system. What kind of justice can there be with laws that enable a white and white-adjacent killer to say that the Black person posed a threat even though that Black person never did as much as lift a finger to harm him or her? For an ex-solider to think that a scrawny starving man somehow posed a threat to him can only be understood as absurd. Yet, this is the world Black people are made to suffer through. It is a world that forces us to rationalize what should be deemed patently offensive and savagely inhumane.
In his book The Wretched of the Earth, the revolutionary psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon shares a story of one of his patients, a European police officer, who suffered from “fits of madness.” “Doctor, tell me why as soon as someone confronts me, I feel like hitting him,” he tells Fanon during one session. Fanon addresses this man’s condition in the context of what he called the “naked violence of colonialism.” For men whose professional skill is martial combat, every problem is viewed through a lens that always has the potential to end in violence. These “fits of madness” in our time are the deadly outcomes of a society that simultaneously valorizes state-sanctioned violence in the occupation of solider and police and despises Blackness. These white and white-adjacent men are acting with the expectation that society will honor them for their violence. The last thing they expect is to be arrested and prosecuted.
These men personify the violence of the system itself. Wearing their whiteness as a badge of honor, they wield it with conscious disdain for Black people. The fact that it takes people protesting in the streets to get the killer prosecuted is all the evidence needed to make the point. Neely’s killer is not the first white man to walk out of the police precinct un-arrested after killing a Black person. He is just the latest. And he will not be the last. This is the naked violence of the system itself waged against Black people scraping an existence on its margins, defenseless. Without any protection whatsoever.
To be consciously Black in America is to be in an unrelenting state of mourning. It is why so much attention has been given to the concept of Black joy because we know that such moments, as precious as they are, are fleeting and haphazard. The hazardous reality of racism brings with it a routine of expectation for the horror of the unexpected. Like walking home from the corner store. Going to pick up your younger brother. Watching television in your living room. Sleeping in your bed. What should be moments in the day that are taken for granted become moments of anxiety and suspicion. Because being Black in America at this hour is to be one random white person away from having your life brutally extinguished.