On December 22, 1984 Bernhard Goetz shot four young men in a New York subway car, seriously wounding all of them. While the story of what happened varied with the teller the incident became a symbol for frustration with urban crime, and in particular violent crime, which had been on the rise since the late 1960s. Goetz was perceived by many as a folk hero, while others saw in him a disturbing trend toward racist violence and vigilante justice.
Taken in on charges of attempted murder and reckless endangerment, Goetz was unapologetic for his actions. Goetz claimed that the teens had been trying to mug him. The teens claimed they were carry screwdrivers as part of a plan to rob arcade games.
Doug Linder explains what happened next:
Barry Allen, Troy Canty, James Ramseur and Darrell Cabey boarded the subway about 1:00 P.M. …The other 15 to 20 passengers on the car, wary of the boisterous gang, moved toward the other end of the car. At the 14th Streetstation, Bernhard Goetz, age 37, entered the subway car and took a seat near the youths.
When Canty and Allen approached Goetz with their demand for five dollars, they knew nothing of Goetz’s history and how the intense man, dressed in jeans and a windbreaker, would soon transform their lives. Three years earlier, Goetz had been mugged by three African-American young men and he had a permanently damaged knee to show for it. He resolved not to be a victim again and regularly carried a .38 revolver in his waistband.
When Goetz asked Canty to repeat what he just said, Canty again asked for five dollars. As Goetz later would tell investigators, “When I saw his smile and the look in his eye,… I saw they were intending to play with me like a cat plays with a mouse.” He opened fire. Goetz stated that he “started spinning and pulling the trigger, trying to get as many of them as he could.” The first shot hit Troy Canty directly in the chest. The second shot hit Barry Allen in the back. The third shot traveled through the arm of James Ramseur and became lodged in his left side. The fourth bullet missed Darrell Cabey.
Goetz moved towards Cabey and said (or at least thought), “You don’t look so bad, here’s another.” He fired a fifth and final shot at point blank range, severing Cabey’s spinal cord. The conductor, after bringing the subway train to a screeching halt, approached Goetz and asked, “Are you a cop?” “No,” Goetz replied, “I don’t know why I did it. They tried to rip me off.”
James Ramseur, one of the attackers, committed suicide in 2011 on the anniversary of the attack.(Link)
It’s interesting to compare this to the public reaction after John Lennon’s death. See Death in the Time of Lennon
The black community of the time was also appalled with the level of violence in the city, as they were most affected by it. See Black Silent Majority