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25 years after Bernhard Goetz shooting

Twenty-five years ago today, on December 22, 1984, when I was in my second month as a reporter for New York Newsday, I was sent out to check on a report from police that four people had been shot on the subway. There were several detectives in the subway station where the train stopped, and I was among a few reporters who peppered them with questions. The detectives seemed to be bursting to tell what had happened: that a well-dressed "golden haired" white man had shot four black youths who may have tried to rob him.There were maybe three detectives there - at least one was black - and they told us that the shooter was "a Charles Bronson-like character." My more inventive colleagues at the Daily News and the New York Post quickly dubbed him "the `Death Wish' gunman," after a movie in which Bronson plays a vigilante who shoots thugs. TV news, talk radio and UPI picked up that line and made it a refrain. It took more than a week for police to arrest Bernhard Goetz, and in that space of time, the mysterious subway gunman had become a folk hero. When police asked the public for help in solving the shooting, it yielded hundreds of phone calls from people praising the gunman.The police commissioner and Mayor Koch called for the public not to glorify vigilantism, to little avail. Gradually, actual facts began to come out: that the youths had in fact asked for money ($5), upon which Goetz drew his unlicensed handgun and shot them. Goetz fired a second shot into the back of one of the fleeing youths, supposedly telling him, "You don't look so bad. Here's another." He was paralyzed from the waist down at age 19. Goetz was ultimately acquitted of attempted murder and convicted of illegal possession of a weapon, for which he was sentenced to six months in jail.Up until my last week as a reporter at Newsday - the week of Sept. 9, 2001 - I had never covered a New York story that drew as much attention and controversy as the Goetz case did. I recall one TV "news" interview that aired in which a reporter, having followed Goetz from a court hearing, interviewed someone in a diner where he had eaten and breathlessly asked what kind of sandwich he had eaten.I've been wondering what the reaction would be today to such a case. Have racial fears in the age of Obama and violent crime calmed enough that such a gunman would not be turned into a hero even before his name was known?

About the Author

Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015).



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From a distance, I admit, it seems to me that:-there's still a lot of racial fear around,but-the crime scene in New York is less fearsome (if reports I see are accurate)-gun toting is not such a great thing (due not only to the current mayor's views but also events like the LIRR shootings, Son of Sam etc..)Of course there are always lunatic crazies who can be heroes to some like the guy in Kansas who shot the abortion doctor.

I was a young tenant organizer in the Fordham section of the Bronx when the Goetz trial was going on. The trial must have been a couple of years after the crime itself, because I don't think I was organizing until 1986 or 87. I remember having a conversation with community leaders at some event, where I expressed dismay that Goetz got off so lightly; the neighborhood people kind of jumped all over me, feeling a lot of sympathy for Goetz even a few years after the shootings.New York City, at least in the Bronx, was a very different place in the 1980s. The subways were especially violent. I remember I wouldn't wear jewelry, and women wore their purses with the straps diagonally across their chest to make it harder to steal them. I always carried some cash, so in case I was robbed, I would have something to give the mugger. My husband remembers breaking up a rape on the A train, I was robbed a couple of times on the D platform; everyone has stories about something they saw or experienced on the trains in those days. Many people thought Goetz reasonably feared he was about to be robbed. That's a long way, though, from justifying his extreme response and from making a folk hero out of him. Didn't the Guardian Angels sort of adopt his cause as well?The subways today are much, much safer than they were in the 80s. I believe many years later, in that different, much safer NYC, Goetz did lose a civil suit to the kid he paralyzed, didn't he? So, yes, I think there is less racial fear and less fear generally, as well as less violence, and the outcome would be different now.

Context is important as Irene points out. Whatever his faults Giuliani was the first mayor to unequivocally state and make sure that the streets and subways returned to the people. In that setting in which women and older people were daily and too often fatal victims, Goetz did what law enforcement was not able to do . It was shameless on the part of Koch and others to condemn vigilantism when the mayor and police were deficient in their job. Goetz was excessive only when he shot a fleeing criminal. The crime was in no way racial. It was a symbol of a concerned citizenry living in a jungle.

It's been a long time, but I seem to recall that Goetz admitted he had used racial slurs at times prior to the shootings. If I'm not mistaken, Goetz got off the half dozen or so shots quite rapidly--in just seconds--and there was no time for any of the four young men, who later admitted they intended to rob Goetz, to flee. The individual who was paralyzed was shot a second time while he was down, and I believe it was he who got the approx. $40M civil judgment against Goetz, who filed for bankruptcy in an unsuccessful effort to get the judgment discharged. I recall seeing Goetz a few years ago on TV, somewhat self-satisfied that he had never paid anything on the judgment.

I've been on a subway car during an assault. It's a frightening experience and perhaps the scariest part is the stark realization that the only real substance to "safety in numbers" is the fact that a larger number of potential victims makes it proportionally less likely that the next one will be you. Even on a crowded subway car, everyone realizes what is going on but does the only prudent thing, which is to look straight ahead, avoid eye contact and show no reaction. It would take a Gandhi-caliber pacifist to experience the utter powerlessness and vulnerability of that situation and not feel at least a little pleased that someone finally fought back.

Racism exists and must be vigorously fought. But the application fails when it is used with hoodlums. Bronson was out of order as he set up people. No society should defend plunderers whether they be Christian knights or poor people.

The one things that's truly different as Irene points out is that the subways are far safer now than they were then. It's probably a sign of New Yorker's essential sanity that there weren't more Goetz-like incidents back then. Whatever Goetz's motives, people identified with him not necessarily out of racism, but because they too had been intimidated and would have like to strike back as he did. A few years ago, I was on a subway at 3 pm when most New York high schools get out. There was a fist-fight between two boys; MAT's right it's frightening not to be able to do something and not to be able to get off the train. In this case, peers of the fighters pulled them off one another, but one wound up on the platform of the next stop unconscious and very quickly surrounded by cops. Another big difference between then and now. The subways are policed.

Moses doesn't mention that Goetz was violently beaten in a previous robbery. If you can sympathize with someone who hates the Church because he or she was sexually abused by priest, can't we understand the desire of someone who didn't wish to be a crime victim again? (Also, three of the four men later got arrested again for different crimes--one of them for rape.)Goetz did apply for a gun permit, but it was denied. By contrast, the city was willing to issue permits to celebrities, politicians, and rich people such as Bill Cosby, former Mayor John Lindsay, Donald Trump, and even the publishers of the pro-gun control New York Times (Arthur Sulzberger) and the Daily News (Fred Drasner). What makes their lives and safety more important than everyone else? (Even pro-gun control Rosie O'Donnell hired an armed bodyguard.)Prof. John Lott has shown that states (31) that allow people to carry concealed handguns have lower crime rates. This because criminals don't know who might armed, and that people who are attacked can defend themselves. (A gun doesn't have to be fired to be used in self-defense, but only brandished.)I think the availability of guns can help the most vulernable members of society such as the elderly, disabled, minorities, store owners in high crime neighborhoods, taxi cab drivers, gays, and victims of domestic violence defend themselves from crime. I just don't think we should be expected to depend on 911 for help. (In most cases, all the police do is show up after the fact and take the information.)I recall the woman who was sexually assaulted by her former co-worker, writer Peter Braunstein about 4-5 years ago. While he was on the run, the woman had to completely change her routine, stay away from her home and place of work. Wouldn't it been easier to issue the a woman a gun permit? Why should she or anyone have to change her regular activities to avoid a criminal?

I am so thrilled to read the comment boxes here that i actually agree with!About the question if this has happened subsequently. Wasn't there a robbery of a white merchant in his own store in a black neighborhood in New York recently. He shot and killed the robbers and was applauded by the neighborhood? Not exactly Geotz, but he did have an illegal firearm. Law and Order did a recent episode based on this, with Elliot Gould. They butchered the story but the bare bones were there.

On the other hand --- with this crowd? --- good thing Bernie Goetz wasn't a Bishop!

One of the stories I remember best about the Goetz controversy was a column in New York Newsday by Jim Dwyer. He wrote about a single object recovered by police in the subway car and held long after in the Transit Authority's lost-and-found: a baby stroller. A crowded subway car isn't the place to shoot a gun, and it is especially not the place to keep firing at someone who has already been shot. Goetz was hardly a good candidate for a gun permit. Gun advocates don't help their cause by turning someone who acted so irresponsibly into a hero.

Paul,Goetz is not a hero. The problem with the action at the time is that he was named a racist. Today he would have not been convicted in the civil case. Except if they got an OJ jury. Sharpton and Co made them heroes which was the repulsive part.

"... and they told us that the shooter was a Charles Bronson-like character."I find it fascinating that Mr. Bronson has become synonymous with vigilanteism. I always remember him primarily for his, pun intended, magnificent roles in "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Great Escape", which, being the Steve McQueen junkie I am, perhaps occupy a disproportionate chunk of my memory with respect to his filmography, but are of course not related to vigilanteism in any way. "A crowded subway car isnt the place to shoot a gun, and it is especially not the place to keep firing at someone who has already been shot. Goetz was hardly a good candidate for a gun permit. Gun advocates dont help their cause by turning someone who acted so irresponsibly into a hero."I do not know enough about these events to be able to take any sort of position on it, but as a general proposition, I imagine gun advocates would counter that a regime of gun-owner education which could accompany broader CCW laws in NYC would have mitigated Mr. Goetz's potential recklessness. At the same time, personally speaking, as an NRA member and gun owner myself, including handguns, you make a good point that it does our cause little justice to elevate someone as a hero who openly flaunts their material non-compliance with local gun laws or uses their firearms in a reckless manor.

It is most interesting to read the comments. They prompted me to look up the Wiki entry on Goetz, leading to his recent life. of 2005, Goetz was again living in New York City and had run for both Mayor (in 2001) and Public Advocate (2005)... He is also an advocate for vegetarianism and the serving of vegetarian lunches in the New York City public school system. Goetz is also involved in the squirrel community of New York...Merry Christmas!

To add, Goetz's shift from vigilantism to vegetarianism and squirrel advocacy doesn't sound like something we hear about every day. Or perhaps he was already a vegetarian or already installed squirrel shelters 25 years ago.

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