It took nine days for Bernhard Goetz, a 37-year-old electronics specialist, to turn himself in after he shot and injured four young Black men on Dec. 22, 1984, in a New York City subway car. Goetz told police he shot the men because he believed they intended to mug him. He fled to Vermont and dismantled the gun he had emptied in the shooting. Nearly 40 years later, observers have drawn parallels between Goetz, dubbed the “Subway Vigilante,” and Daniel Penny, a 24-year-old Marine veteran who was filmed placing Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old Black man, in a fatal chokehold on a New York City subway car. Witnesses described the homeless Neely acting in a “hostile and erratic manner.” Penny was arraigned on a second-degree manslaughter charge and released on bond Friday, the Washington Post reports.
For almost two weeks, Neely’s family and lawmakers called for prosecutors to bring charges. The Rev. Al Sharpton drew comparisons between Penny and Goetz. “I fought the [Bernhard] Goetz case, and we cannot end up back to a place where vigilantism is tolerable,” Sharpton said. “It wasn’t acceptable then, and it cannot be acceptable now.” Penny and Goetz’s cases raise questions of racism, subway safety, dangers of vigilantism and political polarization. To his supporters, Goetz represented those New Yorkers exasperated with the high crime rates of the 1980s. The current level of crime in the city is more comparable to a decade ago — when New York was celebrated as the country’s safest big city. Back In the 1980s Goetz said he thought he was being robbed when the group approached him and he shot in self-defense, adding that he had been mugged before. A jury found Goetz guilty of carrying an unlicensed firearm and acquitted him of other charges. Asked to comment on Saturday, Goetz said, “No, thank you. I’m only interested in promoting vegetarianism.”