A few minutes into Vigilante, journalist Leon Neyfakh’s riveting and heart-wrenching new podcast, we hear from Garth Reed, a gravel-voiced New Yorker who had immigrated from Jamaica in the late twentieth century. He recalls traveling south through Manhattan on a dirty, graffiti-covered 2 train. It was a Saturday afternoon, just a few days before Christmas, in 1984. The train was not especially crowded, but most of its passengers had apparently eased away from four rambunctious black teenagers taking up a lot of space toward one end of the car. They were “hanging onto the handrails, swinging around, walking around the train,” Reed recalls.
Reed comes off as friendly and outgoing, but he says that after moving to New York, he’d learned to tamp down those parts of his personality. He’d become more cautious and streetwise: since he was with his wife and infant daughter, he kept an eye on the teens, while being careful not to stare. He likewise noticed when Bernhard Goetz boarded the train, at 14th Street. “He was just a regular, Mr. Rogers-looking kind of guy,” Reed says.
Listeners won’t miss the irony. A few moments later, the teens approached Goetz. Whether one of them asked for five dollars or demanded that Goetz hand over his money has never been entirely clear. “[Goetz] sprang up out of his seat, and that’s when I heard the gunshots,” Reed continues. “Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!” All four teens survived, though one, Darrell Cabey, suffered a severed spinal cord and a brain injury. Goetz became an infamous figure in New York City history. Whenever he comes up in public discussion—as happened recently—people render their own judgments. Was he within his rights to shoot those teenagers? These questions propel Vigilante over the course of six 45-minute episodes.
Neyfakh, the co-creator of Slate’s Slow Burn series, is no stranger to navigating difficult issues. He narrated that show’s first two seasons, on Watergate and Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Later, he built Fiasco, a series of audio documentaries that likewise explore fault lines in recent American history. Vigilante marks the series’ sixth season. Neyfakh displays a knack for teasing meaning from aspects of these stories that have, in one way or another, been forgotten, overlooked, or underappreciated. He is also a friend of mine who is comfortable with intellectual disagreements. And that’s a good thing for our friendship because what follows is my assessment of Vigilante.
The show has an unmistakable post–George Floyd flavor. Listeners do hear a range of perspectives, including from relatives of the teens Goetz shot, cops, lawyers, journalists, jurors, and even the judge who presided over Goetz’s criminal trial. Many of these people speak insightfully. Ultimately, however, Vigilante focuses unduly on aspects of the story that reflect poorly on Goetz, while downplaying the perniciousness of predatory crime.
Early in the first episode, Neyfakh says that in the years leading up to the shooting, journalists and reporters covered crime “obsessively.” The media’s “unmistakable, overall message,” he says, “was that the world was becoming a scarier place, and that one group in particular was to blame.” But the country—and its biggest city—really was becoming more dangerous. By the mid-1980s, crime had risen steadily for almost 20 years. It was an urgent matter of national concern, one that contributed to the changing complexion of our cities and helped drive a national political realignment. And while the racial dimensions of crime may feel unpleasant to discuss, it has long been the case that young black males commit a disproportionate share of felonies.
Shifting standards characterize the series. Vigilante’s fourth episode, “Anti-Hero,” is a character study of Goetz. “We wanted to know what would drive someone to shoot four teenagers,” Neyfakh says solemnly. Listeners learn that Goetz was a seething, volatile man, prone to harsh judgments and epic resentments. How, then, should we think about the teens who accosted him?
Here, Vigilante treads gingerly. We do learn that the kids were school dropouts with criminal records. Two were carrying screwdrivers (misreported in the press as “sharpened” screwdrivers), with which they said they intended to pilfer quarters from a pinball arcade. (That ordinary screwdrivers can be used as weapons as readily as sharpened ones goes unmentioned.) In the podcast’s final episode, we hear in passing that two of the teens later served significant prison sentences—Barry Allen for robbery, James Ramseur for rape. Neyfakh might have added that Allen preyed upon a 58-year-old diabetic. And the crime that sent Ramseur to prison? It was a gang rape of a pregnant teenager that left her needing stitches in her anus.
Vigilante withholds these awful details. Meanwhile, listeners repeatedly hear that Goetz shot two of the teens “in the back.” The point is made at least five times—by lawyers representing Goetz, by the newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin, by the NYPD’s erratic former police chief Benjamin Ward, and by Neyfakh himself. This is a blunder. If the jury in Goetz’s criminal trial thought that the teens were “fleeing” or “running away” when he shot them, surely, he would have been convicted of attempted murder (and few would have disagreed with that verdict). But Goetz was acquitted because the teens had formed a semi-circle around him. He shot each of them at close range, using all five of his bullets in about 1.5 seconds. One bullet entered Allen’s side, and another went into Cabey’s back, as they instinctively flinched and turned away.
I’m not here to say that Goetz acted appropriately. (I can think of better ways of handling the situation.) It is disappointing, however, that Vigilante perpetuates the myth that Goetz shot two black teenagers in the back as they were running away. That is not what happened.
Near the end of Vigilante, Neyfakh urges tolerance. “A society with a high crime rate may seem ‘weak,’ or ‘broken,’ and I get that,” he says. “But a society that tolerates no crime whatsoever might be even scarier. Because whether we like it or not, there is a relationship between the level of freedom we all want for ourselves, and some amount of social disorder. And there’s no clear sign that says, ‘Hey, you found it! Your world is both free enough and safe enough.’”
No doubt governance requires tradeoffs. It hardly follows, however, that American society should acquiesce to rising crime. That’s particularly so given that the harms in this scenario are most likely to be borne by those who are most vulnerable.
Recent history suggests that a mostly free, mostly safe society is indeed attainable. Beginning in the early 1990s, New York went from being one of the most frightening big cities in America to one of the most attractive. Under the leadership of NYPD chief William Bratton and his deputy, Jack Maple, the police instituted commonsense reforms that worked. They used strategies (many devised in these pages) that gave cops considerable discretion about how to enforce the law but nevertheless demonstrated that someone was in charge. They took gun crimes extremely seriously, and they aggressively served warrants. The NYPD began allocating its resources more efficiently, going after criminals wherever they operated. It did all this, at least for a time, in ways that were compatible with the public’s values. We know how to reduce crime because we have done it; and what has worked previously may work again.
A little more than halfway through Vigilante, listener hears clips from Goetz’s police interrogation. He comes off terribly. He’s rude to the female district attorney who interviews him. He self-incriminates. He stresses that he wanted to kill the teens. He speaks in a rush fever, as if his sympathetic nervous system is running hot. Nevertheless, he is largely articulate—until his emotions overwhelm him. Goetz, who had been violently mugged previously, is trying to convey something about the lawlessness, disorder, and degraded nature of daily life in New York. But he can’t be understood because he’s sobbing. “To live, being afraid, is unbearable,” Goetz says. “Is it too much to ask? Goddamnit!”
One conclusion that people have drawn about Goetz, and which is heavily implied in Vigilante, is that he was not cut out for life in New York City: he was too intolerant, too weak; if he disliked New York so much, he should have lived elsewhere. But can there be any doubt that the criminally minded teens whom Goetz shot were the aggressors? They were menacing him. They wanted him to be afraid.
I enjoyed Vigilante; Neyfakh’s storytelling and production skills are first-rate. But we see things differently. Bernhard Goetz is a flawed man, but he was right about at least one thing: it is not too much to ask that our cities be safe.
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