On May 1, Daniel Penny, a White former Marine, choked Jordan Neely, a Black homeless man in mental distress, to death on a New York City subway car. Witnesses — including a freelance journalist who captured video of the fatal chokehold — said that Neely did not touch anyone, but was yelling that he was tired, hungry, unafraid of returning to jail, and ready to die. Penny, 24, claimed he was protecting himself and other passengers. During the minutes-long chokehold, two other men held down Neely’s arms. Within days, the city’s medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.
Neely’s killing — and the nearly two weeks it took for police to arrest Penny for manslaughter — sparked condemnation and protests from residents, activists and some Democratic politicians from New York. Some called the killing a case of racist vigilantism and an example of New York City’s systemic failure to protect people with mental illness and without homes. Citing Neely’s history of violence and drug use, right-wing commentators and politicians declared Penny a hero.
But there is another way to remember Jordan Neely. Before the 30-year-old became a symbol of urban crisis, he was a street performer who specialized in impersonating Michael Jackson. Here, his friend Moses Harper reflects on their first meeting, his painful life, and how he used dance to quiet his demons.
I first met Jordan in 2009, after Michael Jackson died. He was in Times Square performing with a couple of his friends, and I was coming out of a dance studio where I’d been teaching the “Thriller” dance moves. Jordan, who was 16 at the time, was surrounded by tourists, engaging with all different types of people.
Then he picked me out of the crowd.
“Come here, let’s do this! Don’t be scared,” he said, gesturing to me.
“No, I am watching. This is great,” I responded.
He walked over to me. “Let’s show these people,” he said.
Now, Jordan didn’t know that I am a Michael Jackson tribute artist and had performed at the Apollo Theater and Madison Square Garden. He didn’t know anything about me. But when I asked him for the hat he was wearing, I could see him slowly realize that he’d walked into a landmine. When he saw me dancing, he was astounded.
From that day on, he just wanted to develop his craft. “Whatever you want to learn,” I said, “I will teach you.”
Over the years, Jordan and I would meet up at different Michael Jackson events around the city. He would confide in me, and I would confide in him. I learned that he had faced a lot of trauma in his life. He was just 14 when his mother was murdered by her boyfriend, and her body was placed in a suitcase. That kind of hurt is indescribable.
I don’t know about all of the ways that Jordan was trying to escape his pain, but perhaps the biggest one was performing. When he was Michael, moving his body, he could forget about his life. He was beautiful to watch. He had a gift, and I really appreciated watching him make it safe for a crowd to engage and dance.
Being an artist, being a creator is how I decompress, too. I am a survivor of childhood physical and emotional abuse. And even though I have been through all these horrible things, I knew there had to be something else for my life.
That’s why whenever I met up with Jordan, I’d also encourage him to get his business in order. He didn’t have a high school diploma. I’d tell him that he needed to get an education. It is hard enough growing up as a Black man in the city. But with no education, and everything he had faced, he was particularly vulnerable.
I know how hard that path can be. For years, I have done outreach with vulnerable populations — homeless people, LGBTQ youth and young men charged with violent felonies at Rikers Island. I’ve also visited food pantries and homeless shelters.
In every borough, in every shelter I’ve been to, the feedback is the same: People don’t feel safe or cared for. They don’t feel seen. Because these are the unwanted — the homeless, the untouchables — no one will check to make sure that the people responsible for providing them resources are doing their jobs.
The most difficult experience I had was working in Rikers Island for several years. Inside, you are surrounded by trauma — people in cages yelling and fighting, aromas of bodily waste. It was hard to hear men cry in conversation because no one had ever spoken to them like they mattered.
And some of the young homeless men I met at Rikers told me about the advice they’d gotten from elders: When the weather gets cold, if you can’t get into a shelter or get a meal, commit a public disturbance or a low-level crime. Why? Because of various disorderly conduct and curfew laws, you can’t sleep on a park bench at night or on the train, even when it’s cold outside. But if you can get locked up, you can get a bed and a warm meal. If you express suicidal ideations, they’ll take you to a hospital, and you’ll have a place to stay. There are supposed to be resources in place so that people don’t have to resort to these desperate means. But the system is so broken.
When I would lose track of Jordan, it was scary. Our community of people who loved Michael Jackson would look for him online, scouring social media posts until he popped up.
“Did you hear from him?” we’d text each other.
“Yeah, I saw him. He’s good.”
One time I caught Jordan in the subway. It broke my heart to see how ashamed he was of his situation. He wouldn’t accept help from the people who loved him. There is too much pressure put on Black men to hold a certain type of posture and profile. For Jordan, I’d imagine he felt like, The last time you saw me, I was dressed up like the greatest entertainer in the world. Look at me now.
The last time I saw Jordan, he tried to walk past me, but I wouldn’t let him. I gave him a big hug. “No, you are coming with me,” I said. I bought him food and gave him money.
“When you are ready to get clean and clean up, I got you,” I told him.
“Don’t worry, I am going to do it,” he replied.
But the system failed Jordan.
He was traumatized. He didn’t have a diploma. He had to face the stress of being out on the street and being treated like he was invisible. On top of all of that, when he performed, he would get antagonized by people who hated Michael Jackson. They would call him a child molester. One of the things I tried to instill in Jordan is that you can’t react. But it’s hard to do that. You’re not supposed to defend yourself when some stranger who doesn’t know your heart or your struggles is trying to antagonize you?
When the news of his killing broke, I was in a school in the Bronx. I got the message from a friend in the M.J. community who lives in Florida.
“I want you to see this,” she texted. “Moses, I think you need to look at this.”
It took a matter of minutes for Daniel Penny to become Jordan’s arresting officer, judge, clerk, D.A., jury and executioner.
But I don’t care what my friend’s arrest record was. I don’t care if he was homeless. He wasn’t hurting anyone, and if you support Penny’s actions, you don’t support due process.
Daniel Penny probably figured that no one would even come looking for this homeless guy. That no one would care. But when I think of Jordan Neely, I think of a gifted, kind, young soul who was trying to find some joy and peace in this world. He was looking for a reason to celebrate and engage in something positive. And it is painful to think that somebody treated him like he wasn’t worth anything.
He was priceless.