The Power of Speaking Up
For Jordan Neely
Several years ago, I was riding the BART train one afternoon, sitting and reading a book. A Black man in a jaunty hat and well pressed clothing was singing to himself, swinging and swaying as he stood. He was en route to visit his mother, he said. He seemed happy.
The train stopped at a station and police got on and began to pull the man off the train. He resisted, clearly frightened.
The police said there’d been a complaint of a disturbance. The man began to panic.
I spoke up, loudly, “He did nothing wrong!”
The police kept trying to get him out the door. The man began to recite his mother’s phone number to another passenger, begging her to call, because his mother would be worried if he didn’t show up.
I stood and took one step toward the police and the man, repeating myself, “He did nothing wrong!”
Others began to repeat that phrase, or things like it. Others stood, too. Everyone was clearly upset, and not at the man, but at the police.
Several of us were clearly ready to follow them off onto the platform. No way were we leaving that man on his own.
The police read the room. They released the man. The doors closed. We went on our way, all of us shaken. We tried to comfort the man.
The train went on to the next station. The man would get to see his mother after all.
Jordan Neely won’t see anyone again.
Jordan Neely—a NYC street entertainer—was, by several accounts, in a mental health crisis on a subway car when he was choked to death by one white man while being restrained by two others.
No one spoke up for Jordan Neely, until around two and a half minutes into the chokehold, a Black man stepped back onto the train and calmly explained to the three white men that the chokehold was killing the man on the ground.
By the time they listened, Neely was already dead.
It can be hard to know what to do when adrenaline is pumping and a situation seems confusing.
It can be hard to speak up when our current overculture has taught us to outsource our responsibilities to each other to some shadowy “authority,” whether that authority comes in the form of police, or immigration, or politicians… or three white men who have taken over a situation, causing harm.
But sometimes? We have to claim our own authority. We need to take a breath, find our courage, and speak. Loudly.
When we speak, that gives others the courage to speak up, too.
If one person had loudly insisted early on that Neely not be choked? Others may have joined them, and Neely might still be alive today.
I don’t know this, of course. I was not there.
But I do know that we must try to do better by each other.
New York City knows what a chokehold did to Eric Garner. Florida knows what vigilantism looked like for Trayvon Martin.
Everyone in the US knows how violent some of our family members and neighbors are. There’s a new story now, every day.
But what we don’t hear or see enough are the stories where crisis was averted because someone spoke up, and others joined them.
I’d like more of those stories.
I also wonder what would have happened if a few people had tried to talk de-escalate the crisis. To talk to Neely. To ask him if he needed assistance.
I wonder what would have happened if someone had offered him food. Or asked him to sit down and talk.
That’s hard, and I get it. I have a fair amount of on the ground experience with talking to highly agitated people in crisis. Most folks do not. It can feel scary to try to look beyond the surface behavior and re-humanize someone who is acting in erratic, perhaps frightening ways.
But if we are able to practice this? We can help others practice, too. Because if we’re going to be vigilantes, let’s be the kind who try to de-escalate a situation, instead of choking a man to death.
We have the power to help each other. We just have to choose it.
We have to practice when we are not in a crisis situation.
This starts in small ways: We talk to our neighbors. We ask someone on the street if they need help. We share what we have. We stop outsourcing our authority every time we encounter something annoying or upsetting.
We work to unlearn our racism, or our transphobia, or misogyny. We work to unlearn bigotry and fear.
We ask ourselves: “What would I do in a confusing situation where I feel that something’s wrong?”
And then: We practice breathing. We practice speaking up. We practice asking others for help.
It doesn’t always work. I’ve sometimes gone to people’s aid with no back up. But oftentimes, other people join in. And we act as community.
And together, we save this world some pain.
A Basic Bystander Intervention Resource
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