NEW YORK CITY - Friends, family members and civil rights leaders gathered at a Harlem church on Friday to mourn Jordan Neely, whose chokehold death on the New York City subway set off a debate about vigilantism, homelessness and public safety, will be mourned by his family Friday at a church in Harlem.
A former Michael Jackson impersonator who had been struggling with mental illness and homelessness in recent years, Neely died May 1 when a fellow subway rider pinned him to the floor of a subway car in a chokehold that lasted several minutes.
The fatal struggle was recorded on video by an onlooker who said Neely had been yelling at other passengers as he begged for money, but hadn’t attacked anyone.
Last week, the man who pinned and choked Neely, Daniel Penny, was charged with manslaughter by the Manhattan district attorney. Penny's lawyers said he was acting to protect himself and other passengers after Neely made threatening statements.
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The Rev. Al Sharpton told worshippers that Neely's life should be celebrated, "but we should not ignore how he died."
Sharpton, who delivered the eulogy at Harlem's Mount Neboh Baptist Church, said Neely died "not because of natural causes but because of unnatural policies."
Neely's death and Penny's subsequent arrest polarized New Yorkers and people beyond, with some saying Penny, who is white, was too quick to use deadly force on a Black man who posed no real threat, and others saying the 24-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran was trying to protect people on the train and shouldn't be punished.
Sharpton noted that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, called Penny a "good Samaritan" last week and shared a fund-raising link for Penny's legal defense.
Jordan Neely is pictured before going to see the Michael Jackson movie outside the Regal Cinemas in Times Square in 2009. (Andrew Savulich/New York Daily News/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Sharpton said the Biblical parable of the good Samaritan is about coming to the aid of someone in need.
"A good Samaritan helps those in trouble," Sharpton said. "They don’t choke him out."
Sharpton added, "What happened to Jordan was a crime and this family shouldn’t have to stand by themselves."
While Neely had a history of disruptive behavior — he had been arrested many times and pleaded guilty this year to assaulting a stranger — friends and relatives have said they don't believe he would have harmed anyone if Penny had just left him alone.
Sharpton said Neely was screaming for help.
"People keep criminalizing people that need help," he said. "They don’t need abuse, they need help."
Elected officials including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and New York Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado were among the hundreds attending the funeral, which was at the same church where the funeral for Neely's mother, Christie Neely, was held after she was murdered when Nelly was 14.
DEEPTI HAJELA, with the Associated Press, helped contribute to this report.