Bernie Goetz: The Black Community at Gunpoint

“The wimp who would save the world, Bernhard Goetz is transformed with a few bullets into Clark Kent, the mild­-mannered bachelor ready to shoot a mugger before he makes a single bound.”


“I, The Jury”

The Bernhard Goetz affair is but part of a remarkable confluence of events, all of which illustrate the rage, indifference, corruption, arro­gance, and hysteria surrounding crime in this city and this nation. This clairvoyant shootist has been called the father of a new rainbow coalition, since his support initially dissolved racial lines. Legislators report that a multibillion-dollar crime bill expiring on its knees in Washington was snatched to its feet by the elevation of Goetz to heroic status. One televi­sion interviewer was assigned to learn what he had for breakfast, and though we have yet to find out his shoe size or whether be wears any bawdy tattoos, we do have the word of the impeccably public-minded Myra Friedman that she heard Goetz say at a community meeting: “The only way we’re going to clean up this street is to get rid of the spics and niggers.”

When it first got out that a blond man in glasses had shot four black teenagers on the subway, Goetz received broad sympathy in the Negro community, even though there was still heat in the air over the Bumpurs shooting. Many agreed with Roy Innis, who had lost one son to street vio­lence and had seen another wounded: The man was right in defending himself. Perhaps this would teach some of those kids a lesson; maybe it would discourage those emboldened by the vulnerability of the subway rider and the lack of support most victims fear if attacked. Race was one thing, crime another. It was no longer second nature for black people to take the side of the impoverished colored teenager who created so many of their own problems: “The thing is you start hating these young people out here today. They don’t have any respect for anybody. They curse around anybody, play those goddamn boxes loud as they can, write that dumb graffiti all over everything — their own building, a subway car, what­ever. They don’t care. Then they knock people in the head, too.”

This Harlemite was clearly describing teenagers like two from Bedford-­Stuyvesant I overheard as they sat behind me on a bus and discussed the world in which they live, a world so savage it seemed a universe of tall tales. They were traveling upstate to a correctional camp where they were supposed to study and get away from bad influences. They spoke some­times at the tops of their voices, cursing and giggling as they reminded each other of the violent deeds they had brought off as a team or independently: robberies, rapes, beatings, shootings. Both young men detailed how street-crime fads had changed over the years. “Yo, you remember when it was them sheepskin coats, then it was boxes, then it was running shoes, gold chains, and now these sunglass frames?” When I later asked them if they thought there was any racial connection, one said, “Hell no. Jealousy, man. You see a motherfucker with something you ain’t got and you get mad. You start thinking, ‘Now, why he got it? How come I can’t have it?’ So you get your tool and you stick it in his face. He gives it up. It can happen to you, too. At school, I was in the hall with my sheepskin, you know? So the next thing I know is this nigger got his tool in my face and I’m trying to look and see if he has bullets in the chambers or if he’s bluffing but the light was in my eyes. It wasn’t cocked so the chamber has to move for the bullet to get under the hammer. If it was empty on both sides, he was bullshitting, but I couldn’t see. So I let him have it, but like a fool he didn’t search me, just took my coat. Then I pulled my tool on him but I cocked it. You ever seen,” he laughed, “the way a motherfucker will stop when he hears that sound? He thought I was go­ing to kill him. All I wanted was my coat back. Plus I had another gun. His.”

Young men like that create understandable reactions. Linda, married with two small children, lives on Edgecombe Avenue in a building once famous for its celebrities. There are still show-business legends behind the multilocked doors but for all the wonderful living spaces no contem­porary stars have joined them; today, 160th Street is perilous. As he re­turned home one evening, Linda’s husband, a carpenter and painter, found himself staring into the barrel of a pistol held by a burglar who promised to blow his head off if he spoke or moved. This did not make Linda, who comes from an affluent Philadelphia family, feel any safer. So her routine became even more careful.

When she prepares to leave home for work in the morning, Linda opens the door slowly and looks both ways, making sure there is no one she doesn’t know in the hall. At the elevator, she stands so that she can see the entire inside of the car. If there is an unfamiliar man in the elevator, Linda says she’s going up if he’s going down, down if he’s going up. In­side the car, she is ever prepared to leap out and start screaming if some­one tries to trap her. On the way to the subway, she walks close to the curb so she can jump into the street and start shouting for help if neces­sary. At the train station, Linda doesn’t stand near the tracks for fear of being pushed and always looks for an escape route or space to struggle in. Once on the train, she makes sure that she is situated near a door, since it is so easy to get rolled or intimidated in between, where the only exit would be a window.

But the feeling of being cut off from a vandalized environment, unsafe in crowds, and ignored by public institutions funded to protect society was replaced with something different the first few days after Goetz shot his way into the news. “When I first heard about the shooting,” Linda says, “I was glad. I thought it served them right. I was actually happy for a few days, and the mood in the subway cars was a kind of camaraderie I had never felt before. Everybody seemed closer. It was like we all had won one. Nobody said anything, but you could feel it. It didn’t have any­thing at all to do with race. Everybody was in agreement: Goetz had done something for all of us.”

Goetz seemed to focus the perhaps unprecedented public anger, cyni­cism, and sense of victimization that results from what Dr. Willard Gaylin, author of The Rage Within, calls “the vulgarization and destruction of the public space.” In 1940, says Gaylin, a citizen of New York had only a one-in-ten chance of witnessing a serious crime; 30 years later he or she had a one-in-ten chance of not seeing one.

As further details came to light, Goetz seemed both more and less than what he was touted as. Blue-collar Caucasians saluted him on talk shows, white intellectuals analyzed his expression of urban frustration, the Guard­ian Angels praised him. But soon the literal writing on the walls con­veyed meanings that seemed to belie those first few days of subway close­ness. “Goetz was wrong” is answered on the bathroom wall of a Sheridan Square coffee shop by “Why don’t you baboons go back to the South Bronx where you belong!” Voice writer Carol Cooper noticed pickpocket warnings on the subway with a note written next to the illustration of the thief’s fingers — “The hand should be black.” A Voice messenger was stopped on Central Park West by police one night and told to leave the neighborhood because he looked like a mugger. They didn’t go into de­tail about what they meant, but he guessed.

Clearly, there was more to Goetz’s support than tabloid attention, more than admiration for a person who had stood up to danger. The Hawkins family in Los Angeles had been much more heroic, holding off gangs that attacked its home with pistols and Molotov cocktails in 1982. Quite re­cently, an elderly man in Chicago shot and killed an attacker bent on rob­bing him. He spent one night in jail and was released. When asked if he would so defend himself again if necessary, the old fellow said he would and was forgotten. There was even the grandmother from the South who scared off a pack of muggers when she pulled her pistol in the Port Au­thority Building a couple of years ago. Her story made the papers for a day or two, but soon she went on to line bird cages and cat boxes with the rest of the briefly famous. But Bernhard Goetz hasn’t been briefly famous, because, unlike those others, he is white. Goetz seems to have become the Gerry Cooney of urban America, the white hope on whose shoulders rest the burdens of contemporary Caucasian uneasiness.

That mood entails a selective process focused on class and color. Obvi­ously the white people who helped make The Cosby Show the most popular television program, who bought so many Michael Jackson records, who were thrilled by the performances of black athletes at last year’s Olympics, and so on, aren’t troubled by Negroes per se. Their nemesis is the violent criminal who is too often construed as emblematic of the black underclass. I would suggest that their anger isn’t so different from that of anyone humiliated by a person inferior in every way other than his ruth­less willingness to intimidate or assault. So the white person in the city feels like an easy kill for an impoverished, illiterate brute with his hat turned sideways, his mouth full of vulgar epithets, his running shoes can­vas-and-rubber cushions for quick getaways. Then Bernhard Goetz steps forward, looking for all the world like a piece of meat ready for the predator’s platter. But not Bernhard! The wimp who would save the world, Goetz is transformed with a few bullets into Clark Kent, the mild­-mannered bachelor ready to shoot a mugger before he makes a single bound.

Given the new information about Goetz, most recently revelations of how callously Goetz fired twice at one of his victims, his smallest swallow of judicial castor oil should have been four counts of attempted man­slaughter as well as the illegal weapons charge. But his case converges with the indictment of Sullivan for the Bumpurs shooting, the indictment of six transit cops in the Michael Stewart case, and allegations that medi­cal examiner Elliot Gross falsified autopsies in favor of the police. Individ­ual and bureaucratic immorality intensify the crisis of public morale — the emotional dues of anxiety, disgust, and uncertainty that go with the streets, the dilapidated subways, and the quick claw of robbery. Already as im­patient as anyone else with courts that seem to favor criminals, black peo­ple feel even deeper ambivalence toward those in public service when thousands of police gather in the Bronx to support Sullivan and one sign reads: “If Goetz is a hero, Sullivan is a saint.”

Videotape notwithstanding, the Goetz grand jury was not so different from others, according to Queens district attorney John Santucci. On Feb­ruary 3, he told ABC’s Milton Lewis that in many cases a store owner had shot a robber with an unregistered gun and the grand jury refused to in­dict even for illegal possession of a firearm. Though the grand jury was consistent, I doubt that if a black man, say, bus driver Willie Turks, had shot those white guys who had attacked and killed him then skedaddled home, the Queens police would have left a polite note under Turk’s door requesting that he come in for questioning as the Manhattan division did in the Goetz case. This double standard erodes whatever confidence black people might have in the police. But the confidence of the entire city should have been shaken when Philip Caruso, president of the Patrol­men’s Benevolent Association, explained to Gabe Pressman on NBC on February 10 that he thought citizens shouldn’t be allowed to decide cases involving purported infractions by officers in the line of duty because lay­men are incapable of evaluating subtle points of law. This becomes even more disturbing when the police make statements implying that the word of Sullivan and a few of his co-workers should take precedence over the findings of an autopsy. The fact that Michael Baden, who was drummed out of the coroner’s office and replaced by Gross, is the man who faced down the Rockefeller regime’s explanation of the hostage killings at At­tica, makes the importance of the Gross case even clearer. Caruso’s belief that people who decide so many other complex cases should stay out of police affairs is as close to the call for a police state as anyone could imag­ine a contemporary official making. And though I feel the term “police state,” like “fascism,” has been beaten past pulp to liquification since the ’60s, it is difficult to find a better explanation for Caruso’s vision.

Ironically, the metaphor of victimization is now so well circulated that it is used to explain everybody’s predicament: the teenagers wounded by Goetz were victims of poverty and barren social services; Goetz was the pawn of frustration in face of threat, flagrant dope dealing, and the jus­tice system’s revolving door; Bumpurs was victimized by police callous­ness or racism; Sullivan suffered as fall guy for the failures of the society and District Attorney Mario Merola’s antipathy toward the police; while he was apparently defacing public property, Michael Stewart became a casualty of color prejudice; the six transit cops were wrongly charged be­cause of the hysteria whipped up by the media; and our poor boy down among the corpses, Elliot Gross, is the target of professional enemies. Such a sweeping sense of victimization implies that the idea of individual responsibility has fallen by the wayside and no one, purported mugger or clairvoyant shootist, policeman or casualty, coroner or grand juror, is truly accountable for his or her actions. Human beings are no more than silly putty pulled and shaped by forces beyond their control. That might be meat for a Marxist or behaviorist analysis in which human beings are piano keys that go out of pitch when the weather is inclement and need only a master tuner to get them in order, but such explanations are the antithesis of civilization, brought into battle by so many different parties in these cases because they have worked so well for criminals — prompting even police to use them!

Such developments could intensify the cynicism tantamount to fatalism that neither this city nor this nation can afford. The only way solu­tions can be reached is for people to stop acting as though America is a monarchy — this is a democracy, and the responsibility for bird-dogging elected officials is theirs. This is especially important in terms of the black community. As playwright Charles Fuller says, “We have to take back the streets. Us. Black people. We have to involve ourselves in the workings of society and play our role in what is not only good for us but good for the general society. There is no truly segregated reality in America. All we have is different styles. Crime is the same for all of us. Fear is the same to all of us. Education and safety are equally important to all of us. We can­not abrogate our role as participants in American life.”

Nor can black people ignore the truth. Less than 1 percent of the peo­ple in the most dire economic conditions deface public property, commit violent crimes, or frighten residents from the streets of their own commu­nities after dark. Those who do are by and large black teenagers and the children of teenage mothers. As Dorothy I. Height, president of the Na­tional Council of Negro Women, points out in the March 1985 Ebony: “We find that in 1950 only about 18 percent of all black infants were born out of wedlock, and only about 36 percent of all black infants born to teenage mothers were born to unmarried women. In 1981, 65 percent of all births to black women were out of wedlock. Among black women un­der 20 the proportion was over 86 percent. The fastest growing black fam­ily formation today is that headed by teenaged mothers.” From these households come many of the violent criminals who lord over the night. As one resident of 152nd Street reports, “You see these kids throw a cat on the tracks and watch it get run over. They have no compassion because they’ve never felt any. It has never happened to them — the feeling of love, I’m talking about. All they know is life on an animal level. They’re only conscious of their needs; they lack the capacity for self-conscious aware­ness of right and wrong. Right is what you can get away with; wrong is the mistake that keeps you from getting away. That’s all they know. They’re beasts. Savages. Capital punishment, hard, hard labor, and long sentences in the penitentiary are the only things that will straighten them out.”

You hear the word savages quite often, though it never comes trip­pingly off the tongue. It is usually uttered with a combination of pity and bitterness, knowledge of how dangerous things become when teenaged mothers discover that parenthood is at least a 20-year sentence and be­come abusive. In too many cases the male children deflect that abuse onto the society itself. One man I know threatened to take his daughter to court and fight for the custody of her son if she didn’t stop letting his but­tocks become raw because the cost of changing the boy’s Pampers would cut into her nickel bags. She had married too early, gotten tired of moth­erhood, and treated her son with a malicious indifference. “She has no sense of sacrifice,” he says. “She thinks that if she doesn’t come first some­thing is wrong. I told her she was a barbarian, and when I heard her try to read, I was convinced of it. Illiterate, selfish, and incapable of compre­hending any kind of subtle ideas. Her mother was ignorant, my mistake was getting her pregnant and letting her raise the girl on welfare. But I’m not going to let my grandson be destroyed like his mother was.”

According to Ulysses S. Kilgore III of the Bedford Stuyvesant Family Health Center, 40 percent of the mothers of these girls with teenage preg­nancies don’t know the most fertile time of the month themselves. “These children are surrounded by ignorance and the only thing that is going to change the situation is rolling up our sleeves and putting aside the text­book rhetoric for a while — a long, long while,” he says. Kilgore under­stands that black people themselves must act to solve this problem; what he terms “textbook rhetoric” is no more than the defeatist sneering at des­tiny rather than wrestling with it. That the cases under discussion rise from the subway to an eviction, descend from the grand jury to the morgue, accentuate the need for accountability from law enforcement agencies and call into question the quality of urban life and the necessary support systems that define it, suggests that Fuller’s observation about the need for Negro participation in the workings of American life is abso­lutely on the mark. It is only through participation that the social morale of both the black community and the nation at large can be raised. “It all has to come from us,” says Kilgore. “If we make the thrust, roll up our sleeves and work at fighting the things that hamper the progress of black people, others will follow. But now, I think we have to make the first move and the second and however many more are necessary to get some­ thing going.”

Getting something going is obviously a big job that calls for a new vi­sion of social action from Negroes, not as outsiders but as voters, taxpay­ers, and sober thinkers. All civilized societies know that unless what is largely the sexual energy of adolescent men is channeled, anarchic behavior is almost automatic. Unless people get education sufficient to compete in the world, they will either become criminals or welfare leeches draining off funds that could be used to better life rather than sustain dead-end poverty. Unless there is a reciprocal respect between citizens and law enforcement agencies, an adversary relationship develops that creates mutual contempt and paranoia. Unless young women learn that this is the best time in history for them to take on careers and explore their talents, they will continue to give birth to children with dubious futures. The history of Negro Americans, for all its heartbreak and tragedy, is also one of extraordinary accomplishment in face of ruthless resistance. If all the shootings and the controversies serve to alert both Negroes and the society at large to a grander struggle, none of the shock and despair will have been in vain. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 17, 2020