It may be almost impossible for someone who did not live in New York twenty years ago to understand the first few days of spiritual uplift that followed the December 22, 1984, incident that made Bernhard Goetz famous. He had put some hot lead in four young thugs intent on mugging him one afternoon on the subway. The shooting brought about an enormous shift of mood. In so many telephone conversations and exchanges in bars, on street corners, in beauty parlors, in pool halls, and wherever each version of particular people met, from the too rich to the very poor, there was a collective emotion that cannot be described as anything other than jubilant.
At first, Goetz seemed as unusual as the station he was spun into for having done what many people imagined doing or had hoped someone would do. Those were not the Giuliani years, and the streets had been taken by the lions, not the lambs. There was a large body of resentment toward those predators who roamed New York looking for people to bully and mug or rape. There they were, young, crude, obnoxious, sullen, elbowing people on the subway, making vile statements to women, cursing anywhere and as loudly as they could. They were the worst dreams given the presence of flesh and blood, and they were too often young black men who incurred the silent wrath of, and sparked silent terror in, those who found themselves on the streets that they might be walking down at night or who were trapped between stops in subway cars with three or four of them looking as though the raw heart of a victim would be a good snack to chomp their teeth into. Oh, they were hated, and they didn’t care. In their own neighborhoods, they violently oppressed, disgusted, and embarrassed black people.
So when this beanpole of a Jewish guy let four of them have it when they moved on him with sharpened screwdrivers, he became a vigilante hero for a while. In a surprising way, he caused people to agree across the lines of color and class. His action had vindicated the feelings that people had when they looked upon such thugs or saw them going about their chosen role of putting a collective tremble on the civilized world—that the apparatus of law enforcement was failing them. They had had it with excuses for rude and violent behavior, they wanted to barf when hearing all of the socio-psychological explanations. Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films laid out how they felt about what it had all added up to at that point. Vigilante justice when confronted with a clear criminal threat should be no crime. Start of story, end of story.
As is so often the case, it was not exactly what it had seemed. Goetz himself was not the unexpectedly heroic type he was assumed to be when he first started appearing in the media. He had been mugged before, and he had been heard saying at a community meeting that the crime problems in his neighborhood would only be resolved once they got “the niggers and the spics” out of there. One of the men whom he shot twice, Darrell Cabey, was told as he lay there, “You don’t look too bad. Here’s another.” That second bullet paralyzed Cabey and led to a coma and brain damage that reduced his functioning to that of an 8-year-old.
Uh-oh. There it was. Goetz was then seen by black people as a man who had a racist serpent in his soul and had been looking for an opportunity to let that serpent have its head.
The reverse in feeling toward Goetz brought into view, once again, the ongoing complexity of crime, violence, and law enforcement when given even deeper convolutions of human meaning and mystery by the element of color. There was no doubt among black people when privately speaking of the case that there was a social crisis involving the plethora of black thugs who were usually the offspring of unmarried young women who had reared them badly because they were unprepared for motherhood and got little help once they became parents. Even so, it must always be noted, those thugs were not emblematic of black youth and were, had truth ever been told, the kind of people who were hated far more deeply by average black youths than just about anybody else outside of vitriolic rednecks.
But in order to understand what kind of young men Goetz plugged and why he was briefly loved by the masses, one has only to look first at James Ramseur, who vehemently described himself as a victim and called for Goetz’s execution. Soon after being released from the hospital, Ramseur attacked a young woman, took her up on the roof of her building, and held a gun to her head while his companion sodomized her. He was that kind of a guy. Barry Allen and Troy Canty, the other two who were shot, went to prison for robbery. Some crew.
But were they actually victims of Goetz and his animus toward young black criminals, after all? Some thought so: Darrell Cabey won a $43 million judgment against Goetz in 1996.
Personally, I think that almost everyone got, finally, what he deserved, except for Cabey, who suffered what one can suffer if he runs with the wrong kind of crew. What we as New Yorkers got was a brief feeling of collective joy. It became obvious very soon after that things were much more about what one Harlem woman said to me about the whole bloody mess: “All this talk is one thing. What actually happened is some other business altogether. It comes down to this: Five assholes met on a train. And one of them had a gun.”