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Crack, Reefer, and the “Subway Vigilante”: The Strange Saga of Bernhard Goetz and Other

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Much as with most things, perspectives of the War on Drugs vary based on one’s personal experience, awareness, and in some cases, empathy. The saga of Bernhard Goetz—coined the “Subway Vigilante”—illustrates this reality all too clearly. His story also highlights the fluid nature of such perspectives and the apparent primacy of personal experiences more often than not.

Goetz crime scene

Crime Scene of the Goetz Shooting.

In a prelude to the backlash against crime and drugs of the Crack Era, Bernhard Goetz boarded the 2 train in Manhattan on December 22, 1984. Goetz knew the subway to be a dangerous place as he alleged he had been mugged three years earlier. Unsatisfied with the punishment of criminal mischief handed down by police, Goetz vowed to measure out justice himself in the future. The police simply were not doing enough. As such, Goetz boarded the 2 train that day with an unlicensed revolver. He then fired the revolver five times at four young, black teenage boys from the Bronx. This time Goetz alleged he believed the boys had been preparing to mug him. Goetz seriously injured all four boys, permanently paralyzing one of his victims. The subsequent trial and appeals would last well through 1986 remaining a constant source of debate amongst New York City residents and the broader national public.

Goetz quickly became a symbol for those fearful of urban disorder and the poor, nonwhite “underclass” they sought to scapegoat. Despite the reality that all four boys were unarmed, their fearsome criminality came to be a dominant subject of conversation in the case after one of the boys—James Ramseur—was later arrested for raping and robbing a young woman. The other three boys were somehow guilty by association in the minds of many. Whether this is because they were with Ramseur that day or simply because they were young, poor, black Bronxites is another question.

James Ramseur, Barry Allen, Troy Canty, and Darrell Cabey were reportedly looking for the time and a few cigarettes. For their attempt, Ramseur, Allen, and Canty were all seriously injured. Cabey—the victim of the final shot fired execution style—found himself permanently paralyzed and brain damaged. The last bullet severed Cabey’s spinal cord. Why did Goetz suspect the boys as wanton muggers? Because of his prior history or for other explanations related to race, place, and class? Then U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani concluded the former, electing not to proceed with federal civil rights prosecution after finding, “insufficient evidence that race was a motive” in the shooting.


Goetz Beside His Victim, Darrell Cabey.

On June 16, 1986 the jury exonerated Goetz of all counts related to attempted murder and assault. Goetz would only be found guilty for criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree. A decade later Goetz would be found guilty in a civil suit awarding $43 million in damages to victim Darrell Cabey. Goetz subsequently filed for bankruptcy.

Strangely similar cases infused with the faulty logic of race, place, class, and anecdotal evidence persisted in the 1980s and indeed into the 21st century. The nation, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and a begrudging NYPD now acknowledge the miscarriage of justice perpetrated against the “Central Park Five” who were purportedly “wilding out” in a “wolfpack.” Like Cabey, the young boys—now men—were awarded $40 million in reparations. Have perspectives changed?


George Did Not Learn Much While Studying Criminology.

Not for some. In February of 2012, George Zimmerman of Sanford, Florida “stood his ground” shooting and killing teenage Trayvon Martin—a dangerous suburban teen armed with a hooded sweatshirt and skittles. Like Goetz, Zimmerman suspected the young, black teen to be suspicious and dangerous. Today, despite a series of incidents Zimmerman is a free man. He has also parlayed his recent celebrity into a fruitful foray in the world of high art. Perhaps most frightening, Zimmerman likely would not have been charged had there not been widespread outrage.

120 miles down the road and several months later in Jacksonville, Florida, a man ever fearful of loud rap music stopped to get some gas after his son’s wedding. Middle-aged Michael Dunn did not much care for the “rap crap” playing in the Durango beside him. Evidently he did not much care for the livelihood of its four teenage passengers either. Dunn fired 10 shots into the Durango. Rather than call the police Dunn casually drove home, walked his dog, ordered a pizza, and poured himself a rum and coke. His victim Jordan Davis died that evening. One of the bullets fired by Dunn ripped through the boy’s liver, lung, and aorta.

Dunn in ORANGES 2

Michael Dunn Does Not Like Your Music. Or the Verdict.

A jury later convicted Dunn on three counts of attempted murder. Somehow, murder charges for the death of Jordan Davis ended in a hung jury. Nonetheless, Dunn’s attorney Cory Strolla lamented his client’s “disbelief”. How could Michael Dunn be surprised? Perhaps Michael Dunn had taken note of recent history. Perhaps Michael Dunn knew well of his nation’s two-tiered justice system that still reigned; one that rarely held wealthy whites as accountable as their nonwhite counterparts. In such rare cases, the criminal represented himself or herself alone, not the entire race.

Just ask Jeb Bush. Keeping with family tradition, Bush positioned himself as a staunch drug warrior. As Governor, Bush supported mandatory minimums. He also waged a yearlong campaign against a ballot initiative estimated to prevent over 10,000 nonviolent Floridians from jail via a diversion program of drug courts and rehabilitation. In 1999—in an introductory letter on drug control strategy—Bush postured his determination to reduce drug abuse in Florida by 50%. Perhaps Governor Bush needed to heed his own conservative family values and start at home.

The Florida Governor’s Mansion Sure Beats Cabrini-Green.

In January of 2002, law enforcement arrested Noelle Bush for trying to pass a phony Xanax prescription at a drive-thru pharmacy. Later that summer, Bush would be caught twice in a rehabilitation facility violating the terms of her diversion program—the second time with crack. While Noelle Bush most definitely does not need it, should she be stripped of her rights to financial aid as other nonviolent drug felons are? Should her parents be kicked out of their public housing?

The Many Mugshots of Noelle Bush. Not a “Private Issue.”

Despite calling for jail time for other nonviolent drug offenders in Florida, Jeb deemed Noelle’s transgression a “private issue”. Staff at the rehabilitation center ripped up the confirmed statement, specifically violating their stated policy. After being touched by personal experience, Bush began to slowly acknowledge that drug users and drug addicts were people too. Suddenly, he became keenly interested in prescription drug abuse pleading for financial support to fund a prescription drug tracking system in his State of the State address in 2004. Bush cited that his administration noticed the “trend three years ago.” Moreover, Bush began to position drug users and abusers like Noelle as victims of, “unethical providers.”

Clearly personal experience changed Jeb Bush. Might it change Bernhard Goetz? At the age of 65 Goetz, like Bush, found himself on the other side of the Drug War. Arrested for attempting to sell $30 dollars worth of marijuana to a female undercover in 2013, Goetz again demanded justice. Only this time his conceptions of justice were drastically different. Goetz rejected a no-jail plea deal explaining: “This type of hysterical war on crime, which I helped start 30 years ago, is just no longer appropriate.” Displaying the nimble explanatory tools of his past, Goetz claimed that he was simply trying to romance the officer, calling the trap “outrageous”. Pure “baloney”. Indeed.


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