When Victims Happen to be Black

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Carter, Stephen L.
article description
Shortly after a New York jury acquitted Bernhard Goetz of charges that he had attempted murder by rising angrily from his subway bench and shooting down four youths who were, in the polite euphemism of the street, hassling him for money, a syndicated cartoonist was inspired to draw what was intended to be the post-Goetz subway car. The imagery was at once stark and homely: two elderly women seated side-by-side in a car empty of other passengers, a screwdriver lying nearby, and outside, a crowd of people, eyes widened with fear, running away from the car. One of the women says to the other: "Heavens! . . .I was just reaching for my lipstick." Such evocation in a simple cartoon! For the artist managed, with those seven words, to capture the shuddering tensions apparent in public reactions to the Goetz incident and the verdict in his trial, and much more besides. Mr. Goetz's public—those who declared him a hero from the first—can find in this cartoon a portrait of salvation of a sort. The people fleeing are thugs and toughs, the anonymous yet ubiquitous individuals who frequent New York's subway trains and cast terror with a glance. Now they must think twice about their victims. If those who are frightened can defend themselves with violence, then every honest and angry subway rider is a threat to those who have made the subway a violent place. Even intimidating a little old lady no longer promises gain without risk, for when she reaches into her handbag, what comes out might as easily be a handgun as a change purse. Perhaps the odds are that she will turn over her paltry bankroll, as the hasslers hope, but the possibility that she will attack instead forces the criminals to reevaluate their plan. She might use force, even deadly force, to protect herself. Perhaps discretion is the better part of terror, and the young toughs who are thinking all of this through might do best not to be in the car when her hand emerges.