Rev Al Sharpton delivers powerful eulogy at Jordan Neely’s funeral: ‘They put their arms around all of us’

‘Jordan was screaming for help. We keep criminalising people with mental illness,’ Rev Sharpton said

Andrea Blanco,Alex Woodward
Friday 19 May 2023 21:52 BST
Al Sharpton delivers the eulogy for Jordan Neely at funeral

More than two weeks after Jordan Neely was choked to death inside a New York City subway car, grieving relatives and friends laid him to rest at an emotional service on Friday.

The killing of Neely on 1 May has sparked a polarising debate about the city’s public health failures, citizen vigilantism and racial bias after reports emerged that his alleged killer, 24-year-old Daniel Penny, held him in a fatal chokehold on the floor of a Manhattan F train for several minutes.

Neely, a former Michael Jackson impersonator who was experiencing homelessness, had walked into the train car loudly complaining of hunger and thirst and saying that he was not afraid to go to jail or die when Mr Penny grabbed him from behind and wrestled him to the ground, according to witnesses and prosecutors.

He was reportedly on a so-called “Top 50” list of people with extensive mental health concerns compiled by homeless-outreach workers, according to The New York Times. But whatever help Neely had received ultimately did not prevent his tragic fate, the Reverend Al Sharpton said during his eulogy at Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem on Friday.

“Jordan was screaming for help. We keep criminalising people with mental illness,” Rev Sharpton. “They don’t need abuse, they need help.”

Addressing the congregation at the funeral — which New York Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and public advocate Jumanee Williams also attended – Mr Sharpton described Neely’s killing as a crime, and decried Mr Penny’s release after his arraignment on a charge of second-degree manslaughter last week.

Andre Zachery, father of Jordan Neely, embraces the Reverend Al Sharpton at the conclusion of his son's public viewing and funeral service at Mount Neboh Baptist Church on May 19, 2023 in New York City (Getty Images)

“Because when they choked Jordan, they put their arms around all of us ... All of us have the right to live,” Mr Sharpton said during the service.

“We can’t live in a city where you can choke me to death with no provocation, no weapon, no threat, and you go home and sleep in your bed while my family got to put me in a cemetery.”

Mr Sharpton also criticised Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ assertion that Mr Penny was a “good Samaritan.”

“A good Samaritan helps those in trouble,” Mr Sharpton said. “They don’t choke him out ... What happened to Jordan was a crime and this family shouldn’t have to stand by themselves.”

Neely’s funeral was held at the same church where his mother’s service took place more than 15 years ago.

The Rev. Al Sharpton speaks during the public viewing and funeral service of Jordan Neely (Getty Images)

Her boyfriend was convicted of murdering Neely’s mother when he was 14 years old. He testified during the trial several years later.

Mr Penny surrendered to the New York City Police Department on 12 May after he was charged with second-degree manslaughter. He did not enter a plea. He was released after posting $100,000 bail.

Neely’s death was recorded on a cell phone and shared widely. The investigation from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has involved several witness interviews, a review of photo and video evidence, and a review of the incident from the city’s medical examiner, which determined Neely’s cause of death was a homicide.

Witnesses have said that Neely did not physically attack anyone on the train that day.

Lawmakers and advocacy groups have pointed to Neely’s killing, and prevailing attitudes endorsing vigilante violence, as a tragic consequence of an epidemic of failed policy and institutional neglect towards the city’s most vulnerable populations.

The program at Jordan Neely’s funeral service on Friday which included a picture of him performing as a Michael Jackson impersonator (AFP via Getty Images)

Mr Penny has been hailed as a hero by right-wing personalities in claims echoed across social media. An online fundraising campaign for Mr Penny’s legal defence was launched on the Christian crowdfunding platform, GiveSendGo, a website created in response to GoFundMe removing far-right campaigns that violated its terms of service. The fundraiser has collected nearly $2.6million as of Friday.

Neely’s family and the legal team supporting them have repeatedly characterised Mr Penny as the sole aggressor who escalated Neely’s distress to lethal violence.

“Daniel Penny is getting a chance to rewrite his story as time goes by,” Lennon Edwards said during a news conference in Manhattan on 12 May. “He cannot rewrite how the story ends. The story ends with his arms wrapped around Jordan’s neck and choking him to death.”

Attorney Donte Mills asserted that “there was no attack” against subway passengers before Mr Penny grabbed Neely by his neck and pinned him to the floor of the train.

“Mr Neely did not attack anyone. He did not touch anyone. He did not hit anyone. But he was choked to death,” Mr Mills said.

Mr Penny “acted with indifference,” Mr Mills said.

“He didn’t care about Jordan, he cared about himself. And we can’t let that stand,” he added. “What did he think would happen?”

Neely, who performed a precise Michael Jackson impersonation on the street and in the subway, was well-known among homeless outreach workers and emergency responders. He had been arrested numerous times, mostly for minor crimes, and for at least two instances of assault on the subway.

Attorneys for Mr Penny said in a statement shared with The Independent that they are “confident” he will be “fully absolved of any wrongdoing” when all the “facts and circumstances” emerge.

“When Mr Penny, a decorated Marine veteran, stepped in to protect himself and his fellow New Yorkers, his well-being was not assured. He risked his own life and safety, for the good of his fellow passengers,” according to the statement from the firm Raiser and Kenniff.

“The unfortunate result was the unintended and unforeseen death of Mr Neely,” they wrote.

Mr Penny is scheduled to appear in court for his next hearing on 17 July.

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