Friday, December 31, 2010

December 31, 1984 – Goetz Resolves to Vigilantism

On a cold Saturday afternoon, five gunshots rang out on the New York City Subway, heralding a new age of vigilante justice in major American cities. Bernard Goetz, carrying electronics in transport for his business, boarded the No. 2 Express bound for downtown, where he ran across four young men. After exchanging signals, they approached him, cutting him off from the rest of the passengers, and one, Troy Canty, told Goetz, “Give me five dollars.”

Goetz stood, put his hand into his jacket, and asked Canty what he had said. Canty said again, “Give me five dollars.”

Controversy continues as to whether the young men were panhandling or preparing for a mugging, but Goetz took the demand as that of a robbery. He had been mugged before in 1981, when three men jumped him and threw him into a window while trying to get to his valuables. Though he managed to assist an officer in making an arrest, Goetz spent twice the time at the station than the would-be robber did, being charged only with “criminal mischief” and would suffer chest and knee pain for the rest of his life. Never wishing to be a victim again, Goetz applied for a handgun permit, but was denied (possibly on his faking of mental illness some fifteen years before to escape the Vietnam War draft). He purchased a revolver anyway on a trip to Florida, and now he made use of it.

Goetz fired five shots, wounding all four of the young men, Darrell Cabey permanently when the bullet pierced his spinal cord. The other passengers made a terrified dash out of the car, leaving two women behind, nearly trampled. Goetz spoke with them to see that they were uninjured, then met with the conductor, who asked if Goetz was a police officer. Goetz replied simply, “No.”

He hurried home, rented a car, and began to drive through New England to clear his head. On December 26, an anonymous tip gave Goetz's name as matching the description of the gunman and mentioned that he had been mugged before. Goetz learned from his neighbor Myra Friedman that the police had been by his apartment, and, on December 30, he returned to New York City. He prepared to leave again to turn himself in somewhere peaceful when he came across a copy of the Marvel comic book Punisher at a newsstand in New Hampshire. Goetz suddenly felt vindicated in what he had done.

New York City at the time had more than 170% the crime rate of the rest of the United States. Some thirty-eight crimes were committed each day on the subway alone. A New York Times poll showed that 25% of New Yorkers knew family who had been victims of crime in the last year and that “Two in five said muggings and holdups had become so bad that New Yorkers 'have a right to take matters into their own hands.'”

Goetz returned to New York City and began his campaign of masked crime-fighting, combing the city streets, maiming would-be muggers, and leaving calling cards encouraging other New Yorkers to join him. Word spread through front-page newspaper articles despite police and city leaders urging the city to remain calm. The famous Guardian Angels community watch group became split, many holding to their programs of nonviolent outreach while others turned to guns. Pimps and cocaine-dealers were brought down all over the city by covert “heroes” or snipers from apartment rooftops. The New York crime wave came to an abrupt halt and traffickers fled elsewhere.

While crime itself froze, New York became a city on edge, what Mayor Edward Koch referred to as, “some kind of Wild West town.” Police attempted to maintain order with record numbers of shootings while the DA's office was lambasted with claims of self-defense. Some citizens called for tight gun control, others applauded the new peace, and political leaders decried the statistics on injuries as being a huge step backward in race relations (though others reported ).

That March, Goetz was brought in by a special police task force that had studied his patrols through the city. His trial for the initial shootings became a circus as support and opposition poured out from across the nation. While he was acquitted of attempted murder, he was found guilty of reckless endangerment and criminal possession of a weapon, 200 hours community service among his sentences. Goetz asked to perform his service as a volunteer with the police, but his request was denied, citing his references to the justice system as a “joke”, “sham”, and “disgrace.” As more of his shootings became known, he would attend trial for years to come.

With its most influential case setting precedence, masked “superheroes” have been seen throughout the United States and even other countries in the past 25 years, soon earning the nickname “Reals.” Recently, they have been applauded by President Barack Obama (famously a comic book geek) as “active citizenry.” Though armed with legal weaponry such as stun guns, mace, and self-defense training, their casualty rate is notoriously high.

In reality, Goetz turned himself in at a police station in Concord, saying, “I am the person they are seeking in New York.” His actions led to great discussion, but ultimately he would be convicted of reckless endangerment and weapons possession. Crime rates would eventually be lowered by economic forces.

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