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Your Discomfort Isn't Worth Someone's Life

By Nate Parker | Politics | May 5, 2023 |

By Nate Parker | Politics | May 5, 2023 |


When did we forget that killing people is wrong?

Take Jordan Neely. This homeless Black man, a known Michael Jackson impersonator who performed for loose change in the NYC subway system, had problems. He’d been arrested more than 40 times, mostly for petty violations inherent in a country that criminalizes abject poverty but possibly for assault as well. He was loud, brash, and, according to reports, in the middle of a mental health crisis Wednesday when he began yelling about his situation on the subway. He said he had no money, no food, and didn’t care if he went back to jail. He threw his jacket to the ground. In response, a 24-year-old ex-Marine, who had not interacted with Neely, placed him in a chokehold for 15 minutes, cutting off his blood and oxygen supply. He died. The medical examiner ruled Neely’s death a homicide, but his killer has not been arrested. In response, every right-wing pundit and no shortage of alleged centrists have come out in support of the killer, because Neely made his fellow passengers nervous. His odd behavior made them think he might become violent. He didn’t. He wasn’t armed — it would be headline news if he’d carried so much as a pocket knife. But because they were scared, no one helped Neely as he was choked to death. The officers on-scene didn’t detain his killer. He walked away. Jordan Neely did not.

There were other, non-lethal options. There were other options when Andrew Lester shot Ralph Yarl for ringing his doorbell. Kevin Monahan had other options when Kaylin Gillis and her friends accidentally pulled into his driveway. And there were other options available to Francisco Oropeza when he was asked to stop firing his gun at 11:00 PM. These fatalities aren’t the only violent cases in the news. There’s Don Carmignani, former San Francisco Fire Department Commissioner who sprayed homeless people with bear repellent until one, Garret Doty, finally defended himself with a metal pipe. After he did, Doty was arrested and convicted in the court of public opinion, despite his testimony, video evidence, and the 8 separate police reports filed by other homeless people in the area about attacks by a man matching Carmignani’s description. Two fathers shot one another’s daughters during a road rage incident in Florida. Texas meteorologist Chris Robbins threatened a young girl with violence this week when she rang his doorbell during a search for her lost cat, then told on himself in a Facebook post. There are similar cases every week.

We’ve reached — or perhaps returned to — a dangerous point in American history where discomfort or fear over what a stranger might do is enough to provoke a violent, often fatal response. When Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down and killed by 3 white strangers in 2020, it felt like a horrifying flashback to a darker time when lynchings were common. It wasn’t unique, but even in a time of escalated tension, it felt out of place. Now, it feels like a precursor to what’s happening as gun regulations are further weakened and “Don’t Tread On Me” becomes the justification for lethal violence. Worse yet are the crowds applauding it because homeless people make them uncomfortable.

Let’s be clear about this; you have no right to physically attack someone just because you feel awkward, uncomfortable, nervous, or defensive.* This is the baseline required for society to function. If we can’t even agree that gun violence is an unacceptable response to a ringing doorbell - its only job is to let us know someone’s at the door! - then there’s no common ground. We can’t agree that everyone deserves a home, healthcare, a job, or sexual freedom. We can’t agree that all children deserve a quality education and personal safety. The very least we should be able to expect is that we can exist in society without getting killed by our fellow citizens for the slightest infraction. When asked, NYC Mayor Eric Adams had this to say.

I’m pretty sure “blanketly” isn’t a word. And even if it is, we actually can say what a passenger should not do. They should not kill a fellow passenger unless there’s an actual, legitimate threat to someone’s safety. Otherwise society is a free-for-all, and there’s nothing to stop me from bashing in the skull of the next person I see freaking out at a store clerk who won’t accept an expired coupon.

We also can’t pretend this is a “both sides” issue. If it was, a lot of anti-vax, anti-mask loudmouths would’ve been slapped around or worse for their public temper tantrums during the pandemic. Instead, people used their words like adults. They kicked out unruly customers. No one got murdered for spitting at the hostess. Employees were even told not to engage with the anti-mask crowd for fear of their violent response. Half of us understand it’s not OK to rely on violence to solve our problems. The other half keeps killing people. The urge to be a hero has derailed common sense and, worse, humanity.

Murder cannot be our first resort. Most of us avoid it every day, even when people are rude or aggressive or set off fireworks in April. April! What is there to celebrate, more rain? Another pothole? It’s ridiculous! But I don’t kill him. I don’t even let my dog poop in his yard. I own guns, but I don’t use the cars that turn around in my driveway for target practice. People don’t deserve death for being an annoyance, or a public disturbance. I don’t know the “right” way to respond to someone like Jordan Neely. He was upset because he didn’t have food, money, or a home. Giving him food or money seems like a good first step. Even calling the cops is a better choice than cutting off his airway for 15 minutes.

Although public violence is the most alarming example of this trend where a person’s inability to deal with their own discomfort leads to an extreme response, it’s not the only one. Every piece of anti-trans and drag queen legislation is rooted in conservatives’ inability to deal with people they can’t understand. Rather than accepting that people are different they lash out, either through protest or the legislature. They ban books because they can’t process their own emotional baggage. They respond violently to beer commercials because it’s easier than maturing as people.

I’m not a social worker, and I’m definitely not a pacifist. I don’t believe in turning the other cheek if someone offers violence. But there has to be a genuine threat to someone’s safety, or it’s nothing more than arrogance and malice. If we’ve fallen so far that we lash out violently at every minor inconvenience or emotional disturbance, then I don’t know how we ever get back up.

*Does not apply to Nazis.