Questions for Everybody:

Back when I first began posting here and on the other soapblox blogs, I posted a very long, pro-Gun Control essay, that got many different answers, some controversial, some agreeing with me, and others disagreeing with me, either calmly or not so calmly.  

Reading and hearing about the death of the little girl in the midwest at the hands of her grandmother, Casey,  and the fact that her grandmother got off scott-free was rather unnerving to hear about, even though I don’t live close, because it’s a gross miscarriage of justice, especially since another trial will not be granted.  

The article has also caused something else to come to my mind recently:  Does anybody remember Bernhardt Goetz, the  mid-1980’s “NYC Subway Vigilante”?  Although I never lived in New York, which was in the middle of a really intense crime wave at the time when the incident took place, there were different opinions about what Bernhardt Goetz did on that late December afternoon,  after boarding a subway train in Manhattan near where he lived, at the time.  Ronald Reagan had just been re-elected for his second term by an overwhelming landslide, and that, I think, coupled with NYC’s crime wave at the time, really helped bring things in New York, and elsewhere in the United States  to a boil.  

Here’s what I understand:

One day, shortly before Christmas,  in late December of 1984, Bernhardt Goetz, an electronics expert in his late 30’s, entered the 14th street subway station, through the rear door in the subway car.  Not far from him, there were four African-American guys, all 18 and 19 years of age…not juveniles.  One of them asked Goetz  “How are you?”  Goetz answered  “I’m fine.”  This same person then asked Goetz for five dollars.   The four guys then allegedly  moved in, cutting Goetz off from other passengers, and may have signaled to one another about weapons.   Having been mugged and beat up  a couple of times in the subway before, while transporting electronic equipment,   sustaining permanent knee and chest injuries, Goetz felt threatened, and that the four guys were about to beat him up and rob him.  Goetz then pulled out a gun and shot all four of them, seriously injuring them, and  permanently paralyzing and brain-damaging one of them for life.  Goetz then got off at the Chambers Street station, went home, gathered some belongings, rented a car and drove north, to Bennington, VT, where he buried the gun, and disposed of his jacket, and turned himself into the police in Concord, NH, admitting that he was Bernhard Goetz, the NYC subway vigilante.     There was much controversy at the time over what Bernhardt Goetz did;  many condemning him as a reckless, hotheaded vigilante who’d set a dangerous precedent, and put the lives and safety of other subway passengers at risk.

Goetz was charged with attempted murder, reckless endangerment, and illegal possession of a fire-arm (Goetz had applied for a gun permit after he’d been mugged the first time, was denied, and went out and purchased a gun illegally, anyway.)  A jury consisting of ten whites and two African Americans acquitted him of all the charges except illegal possession of a firearm.  

Almost overnight, Goetz became an instant celebrity and hero to many New Yorkers of all racial and ethnic groups who travelled on the subways frequently and were fed up with the crime wave in NY during that period.  Yet, many others of all racial and ethnic groups condemned him as a reckless, hot-headed vigilante who was was not only a racist, but who’d operated in such a way as to endanger people and seriously injured people unnecessarily.   My immediate family and friends didn’t like what Bernhardt Goetz had done;  we felt he was out of control and had shot the kids unnecessarily.  However, there were many other people that I knew, both friends and family, on the other hand, who were supportive of what Bernhardt Goetz had done.  Interestingly enough,  Roy Innis, an African American and the leader of the Civil Rights group, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and the Guardian Angels, which consisted of many, if not mostly Black and Latino teenagers, gave Goetz much support, even raising funds for his support.  

Not that the guys who’d accosted Goetz and were shot by him were saints, by any stretch of the imagination.  In fact, all four of them had criminal records.  One of them was permanently paralyzed (Goetz had said to him  “You don’t look so bad, here’s another”, while shooting him a second time),  another had committed two robberies afterwards, and another one had gone out and pointed a  gun at a pregnant 18-year-old  woman’s head on a South Bronx rooftop, while another associate of his raped, sodomized and beat her up.  Yet, in my mind, while Goetz’s feelings at the time were somewhat understandable after having been mugged, robbed and beaten up  in the NY subway system before,  his actions struck me and many other people in NY and throughout the United States as pure vigilantism, especially since, at the time of the shooting, Goetz had expressed a desire to “murder them and get them all”, and had been allegedly known to make racially-charged  comments at neighborhood meetings where he lived, prior to the incident.  

Having said all of this, I didn’t sympathize at all the the guys who’d accosted  Goetz, since they were a nasty bunch, and the direction in which they were headed was quite clear.  However, it was hard for me to defend Goetz, who was somewhat nerdy and crazy, for having overreacted.

There were at least two or three camps in opinion:

Many working-class people of all racial and ethnic groups, who lived in areas that were more impacted by crime, totally sided with Goetz and felt that he was justified in shooting the guys who accosted him.  Still other people of all racial and ethnic groups condemned Goetz and felt that he should’ve been charged with all the other crimes he’d been originally charged with as well, instead of being acquitted of them.  At another trial, where African Americans presided, a white lawyer for Darrel Cabey, the guy who’d Goetz shot and paralyzed, awarded him  43 million dollars in damages.  Goetz responded by filing for bankruptcy, claiming that legal fees had left him almost penniless.  

Still other people felt that Goetz had been threatened, but that Goetz had grossly overreacted by shooting the four men who accosted him.

Because Goetz was white and the four men who’d accosted him on the subway (he’d also shot one who was trying to flee the scene), were African American,  already-existing racial tensions and hostilities in New York at the time soared way above the boiling point.  Equally important, however, Goetz was looked upon as an “avenging angel” by many New Yorkers who were fed up with the crime rate in the city, felt things had gone out of control, and suppressed rage came bubbling up to the surface.  

Here are some questions:

What do you all think of Bernhardt Goetz and what he did in response to feeling that the guys who approached him were about to beat and rob him?

What should Goetz have done instead?  Do you think that what he did smacked too much of vigilantism?

What is there about our society that produces people like Goetz, who decide to take the law into his own hands?

Should Goetz have refrained from turning himself in after he shot those four guys?

Even though this was over 25 years ago, What are the implications for our society and relations between people of different racial and ethnic groups as a whole?  

Just curious as to what others thought at the time of this whole sordid incident, and what they think now?  Thoughts, anybody?


    • mplo on July 7, 2011 at 17:50

    As much as I have a hard time with this kind of vigilantism, and taking the law into one’s own hands, Goetz’s feelings at the time, given the fact that he’d  been mugged and beat up in the subway station a couple of times, it’s easy to understand a little bit how he felt.  What he really should’ve done was often debated by people in various circles, and in all racial, religious and ethnic groups.  

    • mplo on July 11, 2011 at 09:56

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