The Rev. Al Sharpton eulogized Mr. Neely, who was choked to death earlier this month on the subway, in a case that has led to protests throughout New York City.
Jordan Neely spent the last few weeks of his life riding the subways of New York, hungry, desperate and alone.
At his funeral on Friday at Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem, hundreds gathered to mourn him, including friends, family members, prominent Democratic politicians and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who eulogized him.
The May 1 killing of Mr. Neely, 30, who the police said had been acting in a “hostile and erratic manner” on an F train before another subway rider placed him in a chokehold for several minutes, quickly divided political leaders and led to protests around the city.
It has sparked debate around the country between those who believe the man who killed Mr. Neely, Daniel Penny, responded with violent vigilantism to a person who needed help, and those who believe he acted because he was trying to stop a threat. And it has raised questions about safety on the subway and the care provided to homeless and mentally ill people living in the city.
Mr. Penny, 24, has been charged with second-degree manslaughter. His lawyers have said he was trying to protect himself and others who were on the train when Mr. Neely boarded it and began yelling at passengers. An online fund-raiser for his legal defense amassed more than $2.6 million in donations after it was promoted by conservative politicians.
The chokehold was captured in a four-minute video, but many questions still remain about what took place before the video began. Witnesses told the police that Mr. Neely had shouted that he was hungry, thirsty and “ready to die.” There has been no indication that he physically attacked anyone.
Mr. Neely was known to New Yorkers and tourists as a Michael Jackson impersonator.Credit…Andrew Savulich/New York Daily News/Tribune News Service, via Getty Images
On Friday, Mr. Sharpton delivered an impassioned eulogy for Mr. Neely, with mourners responding vocally to his statements and clapping in agreement.
“Jordan was screaming for help. We keep criminalizing people with mental illness,” Mr. Sharpton said at the start of his eulogy. “They don’t need abuse, they need help.”
Mr. Neely was an example of how the city’s systems are “choking the homeless” and “choking the mentally ill,” he said. He described Mr. Neely’s killing as a “crime” and called for support for his family.
“Because when they choked Jordan, they put their arms around all of us,” he said. “All of us have the right to live.”
Throughout his remarks, Mr. Sharpton was unflinching in his criticism of Mr. Penny and of the police, who questioned and then released Mr. Penny, who is white, after he killed Mr. Neely, who was Black.
“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,” he said. “There must be equal justice under the law.”
In his teens and early 20s, Mr. Neely was a fixture in Times Square and on the subway, where he impersonated Michael Jackson, donning a red and black leather jacket and pants reminiscent of the singer’s Thriller era.
Mr. Sharpton argued that had Mr. Neely been a white Elvis Presley impersonator, and had it been a Black man who choked him, the police “would not have let that Black guy leave the precinct that night.”
Several Democratic politicians attended the funeral, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate; and Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado. Yusef Salaam, a member of the Exonerated Five and an activist who is running for City Council, delivered remarks.
Hundreds gathered at Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem for Mr. Neely’s funeral.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times
“We keep criminalizing people with mental illness,” Mr. Sharpton said. “They don’t need abuse, they need help.” Mourners responded vocally to his statements and clapped in agreement.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times
Outside the church, protesters held up signs saying “enough is enough.”Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times
Friends have recalled Mr. Neely as a talented dancer who adored performing in front of subway riders and mystified tourists.
But in recent years, his family said, he was struggling with mental illness and addiction, problems that were set off by the murder of his mother, Christie Neely, when he was 14.
He was living with his mother and her boyfriend in an apartment in Bayonne, N.J., when she disappeared in 2007. Her body was found stuffed in a suitcase in the Bronx. She had been strangled; her boyfriend was charged with murder and Mr. Neely was called to testify during his trial. He later dropped out of high school in Manhattan.
The Rev. Dr. Johnnie Green, who led Mr. Neely’s funeral on Friday, also presided over the funeral of his mother in 2007.
Mr. Neely became well known to the social work teams that reach out to homeless people on the subways, according to an employee of the Bowery Residents’ Committee, a nonprofit organization that does such outreach.
He was arrested dozens of times, mostly for transgressions like turnstile-jumping or trespassing. But at least four arrests were on charges of punching people, including in the subway system.
Mr. Neely was placed on what outreach workers refer to as the “Top 50” list — a roster maintained by the city of homeless people whom officials consider most urgently in need of assistance and treatment.