Presented By

Jordan Neely’s death has been ruled a homicide, days after a white New York City subway rider held the 30-year-old Black man in a chokehold on a train on May 1. According to Juan Alberto Vazquez, a freelance journalist who shot a viral video of the encounter, Neely, a regular fixture on the subways as a Michael Jackson impersonator, had been screaming on the train, and may have been having some sort of mental breakdown.

For some, the footage felt sickeningly familiar. In a May 3 statement, civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton compared the incident to Bernhard Goetz, who shot four Black men on the subway on Dec. 22, 1984, saying he believed they were trying to rob him. “We cannot end up back to a place where vigilantism is tolerable,” Sharpton said. “It wasn’t acceptable then and it cannot be acceptable now.”

The Apr. 8, 1985, cover of TIME (TIME)
The Apr. 8, 1985, cover of TIME

Here’s how TIME recounted the 1984 subway shooting in the Apr. 8, 1985, issue of the magazine:

Back then, there were a lot of questions about what exactly led Goetz to shoot the teens, and mental health experts told TIME to look at his troubled background. His father was convicted on charges of molesting two teen boys. Goetz himself was divorced. In 1981, he bought a pistol after being jumped by Black youths in the subway, but escaped, and mental health experts told the magazine that he may have shot at the boys in the subway four years later as an act of revenge. Goetz became an overnight celebrity, and TIME wrote that “the 37-year-old electrical engineer became a tabula rasa on which Americans etched their uneasiness and projected their fantasies of retaliation.”

Read More: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: America’s Dark Obsession With Vigilante Justice

In 1987, Goetz was acquitted on attempted murder, fined $5,000, and sentenced to six months in prison for illegal weapons possession and community service. At the time, Sharpton said Goetz got off easy because he was white, arguing, “If Bernie Goetz had been Black, he would have gotten much more than six months.”

A vigil participant lights a candle in memory of Jordan Neely in the Broadway-Lafayette subway station in Manhattan, on May, 3, 2023. (Barry Williams—NY Daily News/Getty Images)
A vigil participant lights a candle in memory of Jordan Neely in the Broadway-Lafayette subway station in Manhattan, on May, 3, 2023.
Barry Williams—NY Daily News/Getty Images

Neely’s death also raises painful and complicated questions about crime and mental health. Some in rightwing circles have praised the subway rider who held Neely in a chokehold, believed to be a 24-year-old Marine veteran, and criticized crime rates in New York City. Others say the chokehold was an extreme reaction. Manhattan borough president Mark Levine tweeted, “Our broken mental health system failed him. He deserved help, not to die in a chokehold on the floor of the subway.”

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at

You May Also Like