25 years ago, on a subway in New York City, Bernhard Goetz was approached by four African-American teenagers who were in all likelihood trying to intimidate him into giving them some money. One of the teenagers told Goetz to give him five dollars, Goetz asked, “What did you say?” And the teenager repeated the request. At that point, Goetz stood up, pulled out a revolver, fired five shots and hit all four of the would-be muggers.
In the criminal trial, Goetz would call New York City “lawless,” its legal system “a sham.” He would be acquitted of the attempted murder charge. Here he is recently, acting. 11 years later, he would be convicted in the civil trial and ordered to pay $43 million, which he apparently has paid none of.
For a number of reasons, the Bernie Goetz story struck a chord. For some, it was simply a reaction to living in a dangerous city. It was nice to see someone so identifiable–Goetz is rather soft spoken as well as being, I kid you not, a vegetarian–lash out at the intimidating and emasculating forces of city crime. Here’s a summation of that theory from a 1985 Time article:
“It may simply indicate that there are no more liberals on the crime and law-and-order issue in New York, because they’ve all been mugged,” said Harvard Professor of Government James Q. Wilson.
New York City was a dangerous and frightening place in the 1980s, and the subways were the scariest part of that. On average, 38 crimes were reported every day on the subways, and the head of the Metropolitan Transit Authority would not let his children ride the subways due to the danger.
On the other hand, there was a rather strong evidence that race played an important role in the incident. Whenever you have a white man who shot four black men who, though they were intending to rob him had not pulled any weapons or even made any threats, there is going to be a contentious debate regarding racial inequities in the legal system (though Goetz’s supporters could point to a case where a black man in fact killed a white man who had accosted him). And of course, plenty of people simply thought that such vigilantism, particularly shooting people on the Subway is, you know, crazy.
One more thing about the Goetz case that made it particularly appealing to those among his supporters with racial prejudices was that it served to confirm them. At first, some tried to make the case that the victims were simply panhandling, but Darrell Cabey, who Goetz’s bullets paralyzed would later admit that Goetz looked like “easy bait.” Nevertheless, the Goetz case proved (for some, anyway), that their prejudices are right. So what if Goetz had no evidence the teens were armed? Two of them had screwdrivers. So what if Goetz had no idea if they had criminal records? All four did, totaling 14 criminal bench warrants.
So what if Goetz had a history of using racist language? It became easier to defend Bernie Goetz from a racialized perspective, since his prejudices (racial or otherwise) to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, had the added advantage of being true.
What does any of this have to do with anything? Well, this clip of an incident on a bus in Oakland has been making the rounds on the Internets. I’ll summarize briefly. The Old Bearded White Guy (who has become known as “Epic Beard Man” in some quarters) asked the younger black man to shine his shoes. The black man took issue with the racial dimension of this. Epic Beard Man went with the innovative “It could be a Chinamen [ED NOTE: Really. He says Chinaman]. I’m not prejudiced” defense. Then there is more verbal disputes, then the black man (who is, so far as I can tell, for no apparent reason referred to as “Tyrone” in a number of places) puts his hands on Epic Beard Man, who proceeds to give him a pretty thorough beating, badly bloodying the younger man. (Clip contains violence and profanity)
Now, even more so than Bernhard Goetz, there is considerable evidence this man is rather unhinged. Here he is being tased at an Oakland A’s game. Here he is after the fight, assaulting a newsstand and shouting about how he is 67-years-old (more profanity):
Now, perhaps I am missing something, but the reaction to Epic Beard Man has certainly been much more subdued, and I would not imagine he will end up having much in the way of unironic support (sorry, Epic Beard Man facts). Nobody views him as some sort of actual hero or vigilante stopping crime in its tracks. Nor do I think there is much in the way of support for the other participant in this childish melee.
On the whole, is this good? It certainly is better that our vaguely racialized public transportation fiascoes have moved from shooting to fistfights, and the reaction from contentiousness to outright mockery. Though there is an obvious distinction in that Bernie Goetz was being mugged while Epic Beard Man was just being harassed after making a seemingly racist comment, the satisfaction in both events some feel does appear rather similar in terms of catharsis at striking out at something younger, blacker, more aggressive and scarier than yourself, even if it is in the form of a perhaps mentally deranged vigilante. That appears to be the same as it was 25 years ago.