Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
On the day that he was killed, 30-year-old Jordan Neely was hungry; hungry, thirsty, and tired of having nothing. We know about his hunger, his thirst, his exhaustion, and his need because he told people. Now, he didn't tell a therapist or a social worker. He didn't tweet it out into an anonymous social media cloud. He didn't whisper it quietly to a loved one. That's what so many of us do.
Jordan Neely shouted it impolitely in public to strangers on a moving subway train in New York City. He cried out to those strangers on that train about his pain, his hopelessness, his hunger. In response, one of these strangers put Jordan Neely in a chokehold for nearly 15 minutes until he died. This is what one New York City subway commuter told CNN.
Subway commuter: There could have been somebody there who could help him, broke it up or anything, stop the whole situation, but it's like at the same time, he don't deserve to lose his life. This whole being on the train, I think he should still be alive today.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, protests have rocked the city's subways on behalf of this talented dancer known for his Michael Jackson impersonations, a man whose mental health deteriorated following the murder of his mother. Jordan did seek help from the New York City Department of Homeless Services, but that help, from the city or from his fellow passengers, did not arrive in time to save his life. Joining me now is Rashad Robinson, President of Color of Change. Rashad, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Rashad Robinson: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why has Jordan Neely's death ignited such a strong response?
Rashad Robinson: We saw it on the video and heard the initial callous reactions from some elected officials like the mayor of New York City. We, in an ongoing way, nearly three years after we watched the murder of George Floyd, of the air being pushed out of his body, we continue to see such visible lack of care, respect, and dignity for Black life. Those images, that video, the people standing around, all of that, I think push people to want to speak out, to make demands, and connecting that with what has become clear that so many in society are willing to tolerate this.
For those of us who are unwilling to accept it, the only thing is that we must raise our voices. We must speak out. We must push back, and we must demand the type of structural changes and accountability necessary because what we know is if we don't, this will continue and continue in ways where we don't have video and don't have access to the type of content that helps everyone understand what has transpired.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm so interested in this question of structural changes in this context. In the murder of George Floyd, we are talking about someone who works for the city, who works for the state, who is a police officer, who has a sworn duty to protect and to serve, and then of course, all of the other officers who stand and watch this. In this case, with Jordan Neely, it's a civilian 24-year-old, Daniel J. Penny. Mr. Penny had served as a Marine. How could we have structural change relative to a civilian taking action like this?
Rashad Robinson: Well, first of all, the structural changes start before Mr. Penny is choking and killing Mr. Neely. The structural changes happen in terms of where do we place our investments, where do we place our resources. Budgets are moral documents, and they say more about what we care about than any rhetorical words. The conversations around safety and justice that have prioritized policing over investments in mental health, investments in social work, investments in healthcare, have left so many folks vulnerable, targeted, attacked.
At Color of Change, we worked with [unintelligible 00:04:47] and the Brookings Institute to release a vision for public safety that goes beyond policing, but that does talk about the type of investments that we need in communities. If we make those investments, in the long run, we actually save more money, but more importantly, we save more lives. Structural changes start, first and foremost, about where we start before this incident actually happens and then what has been allowed from police, what society accepts from police trickles down to others who believe that they have authority and power in our society.
Melissa, some of the most visible moments of mobilization that have happened over the last decade-plus of Black Lives Matter haven't simply been about police officers. They have been about vigilantes. In 2012, the murder of Trayvon Martin, that was not a police officer. Since then, we have seen many other incidents. Lucy McBath is in Congress because her son Jordan was murdered by a vigilante. We do have a society that sends a message, sends a reward structure, sends a privileged structure to white people about the value of Black people and Black lives.
Even when we do sometimes get a prosecution or accountability that comes after someone has been harmed, hurt, or killed, that doesn't bring anyone back, and it certainly doesn't change the fact that every single day these messages continue to get sent, not just by the ways in which our laws operate, laws like Stand Your Ground and others, but also the ways in which our media depictions and the content that comes from Hollywood sends a very powerful message about the reward structure, about the pride that we take in vigilantes in this country.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're going to pause right here for just a moment, Rashad, but we'll be right back in just a moment. We've got more on the killing of Jordan Neely and the questions it opens for all of us. Stay with us. It's The Takeaway. You're with The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and I'm still in conversation with Rashad Robinson, President of Color of Change. We're talking about the killing of Jordan Neely, a young Black man, by a former Marine and a subway rider.
Rashad, I want to dig in one more point on this as you were talking about budgets being moral documents, about investments. On the one hand, we've heard from New York City Mayor Eric Adams, he told Business Insider, "This is what highlights what I've been saying throughout my administration. People who are dealing with mental health illness should get the help they need and not live on the train. I'm going to continue to push on that."
We also know that Jordan Neely was on a list known to outreach workers as the top 50 as being among the most at-risk un-homed people in the city, and yet it wasn't really clear whether the city had lost track of him. I guess I'm-- this difference between they should go get the help they need and what seems like Jordan Neely's attempts to get help.
Rashad Robinson: Well, it's such a passive way to talk about what needs to happen from a mayor that is oftentimes anything but passive in how he talks about responses to issues of safety and justice. To talk about Jordan should get help I think doesn't lean into the fact that there is broad-based social agreement about the need for investments in mental health services and including crisis response.
I think that society and people, when they talk about the need for that are talking about a more active engagement from our government and from our structures, knowing that simply leaving the next steps up to people who are facing deep mental challenges, facing all sorts of insecurities, whether it's housing or other types of insecurities that make the regular cadence of treatment challenging, that this is where a society leans in.
I hear people talk about compassion and empathy and these words a lot at the individual level, but when I talk about budgets and when I talk about investments, I'm talking about what does it mean for a society to be compassionate and empathetic? What does it mean for a justice system to be compassionate and empathetic? That means that we have to invest in a more active role and an active engagement if we want to do something.
The mayor's response about folks just needing to go do something doesn't actually walk us to anywhere closer to what we need to be doing. In fact, in some ways, it sets us up for more of these responses and incidents because it's almost like a washing of the hands of what one of the largest and richest cities in the world should be doing to deal with these crises. Given everything that we know that's happening in society since 2020, all of the ways in which we've had so much broken in terms of our ability to engage, connect, work together, be together, that those who were already suffering, we have to lean in a different way.
That is going to be about investments. It's going to be about leadership, and it's going to be about having a different vision for public safety beyond just thinking about policing and beyond thinking about violence as a solution to dealing with problems in society and people in society that we may not like.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's talk about moving beyond. So much of what Color of Change does is, not only organizing, digital organizing, on-the-ground organizing, moving people to various actions, but you are also really extraordinary storytellers helping us to reframe how we think about public events, how we think about what the possibilities are for the future. Tell me what kinds of stories we need to be telling or that we need to stop telling in this context, what Jordan Neely's killing tells us about the stories that are on a loop.
Rashad Robinson: I fundamentally believe that creative content, the stories that come out of Hollywood or enter our stages around the country, or show up on any of our screens have so much potential to unlock opportunities and not just obligations, have the ability to reach us in new ways. Right now, on a day-to-day basis, so much of the content normalizes this type of injustice. It's why we produced a report called Normalizing Injustice, where we looked at all the crime television shows across the season, and we have another one of those looks coming out in a couple of months.
That report really dug into all of the ways in which our television program, those crime procedural shows, those Law & Order and CSI type shows, show the "good guy", the law enforcement officer stepping outside of the rules, stepping outside of the set of obligations and responsibilities that they're sworn to and the law and then justifies the means, whether it's violence, whether it's surveillance, whether it's other things that are not actually the rules, doing those things and then be rewarded and us almost celebrating and curing that behavior because there's this idea that it's okay because it keeps us safe.
If those that have all of the tools of the state are incentivized on television programs to still violate the law in order to create some semblance of justice, that absolutely sends a message, but beyond that, Melissa, the idea of a vigilante, the idea of a lone wolf person taking justice into their own hands, stepping outside of the law, the rules, we are trained and we are taught to root for those folks, that they are our heroes in society.
Unless we begin to tell a different set of stories, build a new cannon of creative content that prioritizes what societies can look like when we have investments, how we can work together to solve problems, how we can create real accountability when these moments come up and how we manage and navigate conflict, I believe those can be very creative stories, but so much of our content now-- It's not just the television and movies, it's our content that comes out of gaming that in many ways creates an interaction for so many young men, in particular, to be the character that is saving the day through a whole set of actions.
Now, I love entertainment. I'm not saying that we shouldn't have entertaining content, but we have to be realistic about the kind of messages that we, in an ongoing way, send to society about the ends that justify the means and understanding the deep levels of racial discriminations, the way that our justice system doesn't work, all means that at the end of the day, Black people become, not just the ends, but the means.
At the same time, once again, almost three years after the remembrance of George Floyd's murder where Black people saw themselves in those images, saw a police officer so comfortable choking the life out of one of our own, that we see now a regular citizen being able to do the same thing and having those who are elected officials twist themselves in knots or very casually find ways to defend this type of behavior. We have the ability to change it.
I want to invite people in to join us in that effort, whether it is the fight to hold Hollywood accountable or whether it is the fight to create new laws and accountability, or whether it is the work to unlock resources that help us reimagine public safety and do the work that moves us forward.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Rashad Robinson is President of Color of Change. Thank you so much for taking the time with us.
Rashad Robinson: Thank you for having me.
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