Homeless and Hypervisible
A Eulogy for Jordan Neely
Since last week, there’s been a debate about whether Jordan Neely, an unhoused man demanding that his homelessness be perceived and addressed - “I don’t have food, I don’t have a drink, I’m fed up. I don’t mind going to jail and getting life in prison. I’m ready to die.” - should have been choked to death in a New York City subway car by Daniel Penny, an ex-marine, with the help of two unidentified passengers, who were aggravated by his demand. This is a debate because, after killing Jordan, Daniel Penny was questioned by the NYPD and released without charge. On one side are those who see this as an extension of the city’s callous policies towards the unhoused and believe that Jordan was in need of social services instead of execution. On the other side are those who see themselves in Daniel Penny and his accomplices because they, too, have been made uncomfortable by unhoused people on the subway. No less a figure than NYC Mayor Eric Adams aligned himself with this sentiment in a statement to CNN - “We cannot just blatantly say what a passenger should or should not do in a situation like that.” Meanwhile, Juan Alberto Vasquez, the freelance journalist who recorded the murder and uploaded it to Facebook, confirmed that Jordan “didn’t seem like he wanted to hurt anyone.”
It’s common for unhoused rights advocates to frame homelessness as an ontology of invisibility. An existence of being seen and ignored. But this invisibility is manufactured to obscure a psychic investment in examples of dominated and dishonored people. This invisibility is a social policy implemented to facilitate the public policy of allowing certain people to languish in extreme circumstances as examples of why capitalism and antiblackness are public goods. Jordan subverted the expectation that he perform his own invisibility because it was a lie to begin with. The humiliation of homelessness is that it is, in fact, not about invisibility at all, but about hypervisibility. Perhaps this is why he chose to support himself as a Michael Jackson impersonator in earlier years. There is no real concealment. No real ability to hide from view. No escape from the degradation. In the absence of a series of constant attempts to clarify and explain how one fell on hard times and what one needs to survive, there is only a death sentence that the unhoused are expected to live out both in public and in silence as society tells cautionary tales and advances austerity politics. Jordan’s negation of his existence in this hypervisible space of death is what led to a tacit agreement among the other passengers that he could be disappeared.
The reason Jordan’s murder has been called a lynching is not only because of the optics of a white man killing a black man as a crowd looked on and provided assistance, but also because Jordan’s social transgression - exposing the lie of his invisibility by foregrounding his hypervisibility - was met with a collective blessing of the intervention of white police power, deployed to restore the break in the social order. Herein lies the kind of lethal (and, apparently, legal) admonition that occurs when a non-being asserts that he is a being. Herein lies the inanimate position that the unthought is reduced to when demanding to become a thought.
A BLACK CRITIQUE is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.