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. From Death Wish style tough guy to War On Drugs softy, Bernhard Goetz and his wildly erratic perspectives of the War on Drugs (and crime) call to mind the slogan Burger King recently ditched: “Have it your way.” As with the 40-year slogan, nothing lasts forever.
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.