The killing of a troubled man in a New York City subway car earlier this week has ignited a political firestorm.

The battle is not the usual partisan fight between Democrats and Republicans, but instead a struggle between progressives and more centrist members of the Democratic Party.

At issue is the response to the killing of Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old man experiencing homelessness, on an F train in Manhattan on Monday.

The final parts of the encounter that led to Neely’s death were filmed on a cellphone. They show him being held in a chokehold by another civilian. Neely is Black, and the man who put him in the chokehold appears to be white.

The killing has been ruled a homicide by medical authorities in New York, and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) is investigating.

The person who held Neely in a chokehold has not been identified yet, though the New York Post has reported he is “a 24-year-old Marine from Queens.”

Bystanders have said Neely was screaming at passengers and appeared to be mentally disturbed before the confrontation. 

The circumstances of his death have opened new fissures between progressive Democrats in the city, of whom the most famous is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and their more centrist counterparts, most prominently Mayor Eric Adams (D).

At the core of the case are a whole stew of the most incendiary issues in American life: race, poverty, mental health care, law and order — and the question of when, if ever, citizens can take the law into their own hands.

Adams, a former New York Police Department officer, won his current office in 2021 after defeating several more progressive Democrats in the mayoral primary. At the time, his “tough-on-crime” message was perceived to have resonated even in a city that has long been a liberal bastion.

Ocasio-Cortez, by contrast, has taken a far more skeptical view of current policing practices. She is also significantly further to the left than Adams on almost every issue.

Ocasio-Cortez said late Wednesday afternoon that Neely had been “murdered.”

The congresswoman added that because Neely was “houseless and crying for food in a time when the city is raising rents and stripping services to militarize itself while many in power demonize the poor, the murderer gets protected.”

Adams took a far more muted tone. Although the mayor called the loss of Neely’s life “tragic,” he added, “There’s a lot we don’t know about what happened here.”

That sparked a riposte from Ocasio-Cortez, who called the statement “a new low: not being able to clearly condemn a public murder because the victim was of a social status some would deem ‘too low’ to care about.”

The New York congresswoman also hit out at Adams for alleged hypocrisy in calling on other leaders to place importance on “getting people the care they need.” Adams’s administration, Ocasio-Cortez contended, is “trying to cut the very services that could have helped.”

Adams is pressing city agencies to make budget cuts across the board. But, in March, he also announced a plan that, among other things, would send mental health professionals rather than law enforcement to respond to emergency calls regarding mental health crises.

In any event, the issue is not just a disagreement between Adams and Ocasio-Cortez.

The fact Neely was Black and the person who put him in a chokehold was apparently white can’t be ignored, at least according to some political figures.

New York state Sen. Julia Salazar (D) on Twitter described the killing of Neely as “a lynching.”

Rev. Al Sharpton, referring to past New York tensions, said on Wednesday, “We cannot end up back to a place where vigilantism is tolerable.”

New York City Comptroller Brad Lander (D), a progressive, invoked the same idea in a Wednesday tweet, saying New York could not “become a city where a mentally ill human being can be choked to death by a vigilante without consequence.”

After Adams called that comment irresponsible, Lander tweeted a dictionary definition of “vigilantism.”

Progressives across New York appear to share that outrage.

“No matter the possible mental health challenges or emotional disturbance that Jordan might have been experiencing, there is no reason why we should be supporting — or not calling out — vigilante justice,” Elmer Flores of RAPP, or the Release Aging People in Prison campaign, told this column.

“A person with mental health conditions should not be murdered or held in a chokehold as a response to their demands for basic needs like food and water,” Flores added.

More centrist figures, naturally, see it differently.

Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf told The Hill that the suggestion Adams or other figures, like New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), are minimizing Neely’s death was “an unfair attack.”

“Nobody wants to see anybody die, but nobody wants to feel that they are going to die at the hands of someone else in a subway car, either,” Sheinkopf said, referring to eyewitness reports of Neely’s disturbed behavior. “It is up to authorities — unlike AOC and Brad Lander, who are using this for political purposes — to determine exactly what occurred.”

New York University professor Mitchell Moss also cautioned against a rush to judgment. But he sounded the one note that unifies many Democrats among the discord — the belief that Neely was clearly failed by the system.

“I don’t think there has been an adequate understanding of what provoked [the chokehold],” Moss said. “But in any event, what is really important is that the response should not really be to attack the mayor or the governor but to attack the inability to have an adequate mental health response.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.