Jordan Neely, NYC subway rider choked to death, is mourned at Manhattan church

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Rev. Al Sharpton stands at a pulpit behind the casket of Jordan Neely, as he delivers the eulogy during a funeral service at Harlem's Mount Neboh Baptist Church, Friday May 19, 2023, in New York. Neely, a former Michael Jackson impersonator who had been struggling with mental illness and homelessness in recent years, died May 1 when a fellow subway rider pinned him to the floor of a subway car in a chokehold that lasted several minutes. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

NEW YORK – In the polarizing wake of Jordan Neely’s chokehold death at the hands of a fellow New York City subway rider, there has been a “distortion of values,” Rev. Al Sharpton said Friday in eulogizing the former subway performer at his funeral.

Neely, who had been struggling with mental illness and homelessness in recent years, “was screaming for help,” Sharpton told a crowd of relatives, friends and elected officials. They gathered at Harlem’s Mount Neboh Baptist Church to mourn the 30-year-old man, whose May 1 death set off a debate about vigilantism, homelessness and public safety.

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People having mental health problems “don’t need abuse,” he said, chastising people including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has spoken out in support of Daniel Penny, the man who put him in the chokehold. The potential Republican presidential candidate has called Penny a “good Samaritan” and shared a fund-raising link for Penny’s legal defense, which has raised more than $2 million.

Sharpton said the Biblical parable of the good Samaritan is about coming to the aid of someone in need.

“A good Samaritan helps those in trouble,” Sharpton said. “They don’t choke him out.”

Sharpton added, “What happened to Jordan was a crime and this family shouldn’t have to stand by themselves.”

Elected officials including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and New York Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado were among the mourners attending the funeral, held at the same church where Neely’s mother, Christie Neely, was eulogized after she was murdered when Neely was 14.

Neely’s last moments were recorded on video by an onlooker who said he had been yelling at other passengers as he begged for money, but hadn’t attacked anyone.

Daniel Penny was charged with manslaughter by the Manhattan district attorney last week. Penny’s lawyers say he was acting to protect himself and other passengers after Neely made threatening statements.

Neely’s death and Penny’s subsequent arrest divided New Yorkers and people beyond, with some saying Penny, who is white, was too quick to use deadly force on a Black man who posed no real threat, and others saying the 24-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran shouldn't be punished for trying to protect people on the train.

The criminal justice system has also come under criticism for Penny initially being released after Neely’s death. Sharpton said that if the races of the men had been reversed, with a white man dying at a Black man’s hands, authorities “would not have let that Black guy leave the precinct that night.”

While Neely had a history of disruptive behavior — he had been arrested many times and pleaded guilty this year to assaulting a stranger — friends and relatives said they don’t believe he would have harmed anyone had Penny just left him alone.

Sharpton, standing in front of a white casket with a flower arrangement on top, also condemned government policies and social service systems that he said had let Neely down and needed to be reformed.

“When they choked Jordan, they put their arms around all of us,” he said. “All of us have the right to live.”