Events

National Reaction to Bernhard Goetz as a Subway Vigilante

High Crime Rates in New York City

The 1980s are a decade that’s remembered fondly for some unique popular fads, such as big hair and boomboxes. Not everything about the 80’s, however, evokes positive nostalgic feelings. One of the decidedly negative elements of this unforgettable era was the increase in crime, particularly in New York City. The average murder rate in New York City in the 1980s hit close to 2,000 a year. The crisis got so bad that New Yorkers often felt like they were taking their lives into their hands each time they left their apartments. Perhaps nowhere was the palpable fear more strongly felt than on the city’s subways. Having fallen into disrepair and neglect, this subterranean network was quickly taking on the atmosphere of a dangerous urban jungle. There were 38 subway-related crimes reported per day on average during the 80s. At the height of the crime wave, an unlikely figure named Bernhard Goetz emerged on the scene to create an incident that would earn him the infamous nickname the “Subway Vigilante.” His actions on the fateful afternoon of December 22, 1984, simultaneously worked to unite as well as polarize New York City residents. In fact, the case evoked so many pent-up emotions that it captured the attention of both the national media and the public across the US.

Bernhard Goetz and the 1984 Subway Shooting

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The incident occurred on the #2 train. By Taltal13 CC BY-SA 3.0

Four teenagers carrying sharpened screwdrivers entered a subway train. The teens allegedly decided to mug Goetz, a slim electronics specialist. They were reported to order him to give them five dollars. At this point in the confrontation, Goetz brandished an unlicensed Smith and Wesson revolver and used it to shoot and wound each of the teens involved in the incident. Daryl Cabey, the only one whom Goetz shot at twice, ended up with a severed spine that left him a paraplegic.

The Country’s Reaction to the Subway Vigilante

The shocking incident made headlines across the United States, even landing Goetz on the cover of TIME magazine. Television audiences were riveted to the screen as they heard updates about the shooting and subsequent trial.

One of the complicating factors in reaction to the case was the race factor. All four teens (Barry Allen, 19; Troy Canty, 19; James Ramseur, 18; and Darrell Cabey, 19) were black, while Goetz, the vigilante, was white. Though some responses fell along racial lines, due to the public’s overall frustration with the exploding crime rate, many New Yorkers of all races sided with the Subway Vigilante. He was positively compared to the character of Paul Kersey in the popular “Death Wish” film series. Black Civil Rights activist Roy Innis even offered to fundraise to cover Goetz legal expenses. Throughout New York’s boroughs, he became a popular icon.

subway vigilante

Guardian Angels showing support for Bernhard Goetz.

Not all reaction, however, was positive. Plenty of minority New Yorkers and residents across the nation resented the overwhelming show of support Goetz’s actions received. They considered the shooting racially motivated, and saw Goetz’s supporters as closet racists.

Some of the public took a middle-of-the-road approach. While they understood the desire to stand up against crime, they disagreed with the vigilante approach, pointing to the fact that Bernhard Goetz was carrying an unlicensed weapon on the subway.

Trial and Aftermath

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After Bernhard Goetz surrendered to authorities, he was arrested and escorted for arraignment. AP Photo/Mitchell Tapper

Goetz ended up being tried for the shooting in both criminal and civil court. In the criminal case, the wounded teens claimed that they were being misrepresented by Goetz and that they weren’t mugging, but panhandling. The screwdrivers they carried weren’t weapons, they said, but tools to be used in stealing coins from arcade games. Later in the trial, Cabey implicated the other three teens in an attempted mugging while trying to exonerate himself. The public and jury didn’t find the teens’ arguments convincing.

In Goetz’s defense, his legal team pointed to New York’s self-defense statute. With a jury made up of New Yorkers, several of whom had been street crime victims themselves, Goetz was acquitted of both first-degree assault and attempted murder. He was instead convicted of third-degree criminal weapons possession and spent eight months in jail.

After eleven years, Bernhard Goetz was civilly tried for shooting Daryl Cabey, which led to Cabey’s paralysis. Goetz lost the civil suit. The prosecution, in this case, went after Goetz’s character, pointing to his admission of smoking PCP-laced marijuana and using racial slurs in the years immediately preceding the incident. He was ordered to pay Cabey $43 million dollars for punitive damages as well as pain and suffering. Years later Goetz claimed never to have paid any money to the plaintiff whatsoever.

According to recent reports, Goetz lives in Manhattan and spends his time working to help New York’s squirrel population flourish, running unsuccessfully for public office, and supporting marijuana legalization efforts. The four who Goetz shot have all struggled with crime and drug problems as adults.  James Ramseur died of a drug overdose in 2011 on the 27th anniversary of the shooting.

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James Ramseur died in 2011 of an overdose on the anniversary of the shooting. Here is a photo of him on the right in 1985.

Though largely considered justified in the crime-ridden atmosphere of New York in the 1980s, the shooting has begun to be viewed in a more nuanced light in recent years. Based on new evidence of possible racism in Goetz’s past as well as the shifting tides of public opinion, how the shooting will come to be viewed historically in the future remains a topic of debate.

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Jim H

Just like many of you who visit this website, Jim grew up in the 1980s. Since that timeframe, Jim has developed a love for website design and history. Jim and his wife Kim decided to put it all together and created inthe1980s.com. Thanks for visiting!