This must be what creeping senility feels like. My short term memory is, in technical terms, ever more verkochte (yes, I’m quite sure that is a technical medical term) with each passing day, yet I remember certain events from twenty-five, thirty years ago in vivid detail. I’ve been thinking about that over the past few days as I held back the urge to rage-blog about the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case, some of the viciously stupid reactions to it, and the mindless attacks on Zerlina Maxwell, one of my favorite writers and commentators, as she’s tried to speak sensibly about the case and rape in general.
All the while I’ve been holding back the invective that’s been building up inside me, two words kept coming to me, over and over: Bernie. Goetz. Bernie. Goetz. Bernie. Goetz …
In 1984, Bernhard H. Goetz was an unknown white guy who like to play with guns and ride the New York City subway at all hours of the night. Then one night – December 22, 1984, to be precise – Bernie and his unlicensed pistol happened to encounter four African American teenagers on the No. 2 subway train in lower Manhattan, and he shot them. This 2011 story in the New York Times, written on the apparent suicide of one of those young men, James Ramseur, explains:
It [Ramseur’s suicide] occurred on the 27th anniversary of the day he was shot by Mr. Goetz on a Lexington Avenue train near Chambers Street in Lower Manhattan.
The shooting engendered a furious public discourse over rampant crime in the subway, gun control, a citizen’s right to defend himself and race. Mr. Goetz, a 37-year-old electrical engineer at the time, is white. The four young men he shot were black.
Mr. Ramseur, then 18, and three friends admitted to approaching Mr. Goetz and asking him for the time and for a cigarette; one of them then asked for $5. Mr. Goetz, who had been mugged twice before, told the police that he thought he was going to be robbed. He shot five times with an unregistered handgun, hitting each of the young men.
One bullet severed the spine of Darrel Cabey, who was paralyzed and suffered brain damage. The others — Troy Canty, Barry Allen and Mr. Ramseur, who was hit in the chest — recovered from their wounds.
In 1987, Mr. Goetz was acquitted of attempted murder charges but found guilty of illegal weapons possession. He served eight and a half months in jail.
So why have I been thinking about Bernie Goetz while I resist the urge to punch every idiot who says something stupid about the Steubenville case, or rape in general, or Ms. Maxwell’s utterly sensible comments about all the above? Because here’s the thing about Bernie Goetz: Nobody asked what he was wearing that fateful night. Nobody asked whether he was wearing, say, a Rolex watch, or three hundred dollar Bruno Magli shoes.
Nobody asked if he looked or acted like he was a prime candidate to be robbed.
Nobody asked if he was drunk or high.
Nobody asked if he was asking for it.
Sure, there were questions about whether Mr. Goetz initiated the confrontation, or whether he escalated it to the point where shots were fired. Those were legitimate factual questions under the circumstances: Goetz told the police he shot the boys because he thought they were going to attack him; the boys told the police all they were doing was panhandling and that they didn’t threaten Goetz. And then there were witnesses who purportedly overheard Goetz say to one of the victims, “You seem to be doing all right; here’s another [shot].”
On the other hand, nobody seriously argued that Bernie Goetz shouldn’t have been on the subway that night, or that he shouldn’t have been “conspicuous,” or that he should have dressed a certain way, or gone out of his way to avoid being mugged or being approached by young men on the subway. To the contrary, Goetz became a folk hero, especially to conservatives. Rather than saying Goetz should have avoided that situation, the common refrain was just the opposite: He had every right to be where he was at the time, and those kids deserved what they got. Indeed, take a look at some of the comments posted on this Gothamist piece on Ramseur’s 2011 suicide and you get the distinct impression many people still view Bernie Goetz as a hero.
My point is not to re-litigate a nearly 30 year old case. My point is to demonstrate the obvious contrast between the way society views a man on a subway who may or may not be likely to encounter young men looking for trouble, and a woman who’s attacked in any situation. How many people who ask of a rape victim, What was she wearing? or Why was she there? would be the very first to defend a man in Bernie Goetz’s situation? Or maybe the better question is, how many people who defended Goetz and made a martyr out of him would turn around and ask those questions of a rape victim?
While I’ve always had grave misgivings about what Goetz did under the circumstances of the case, he and his defenders are right about one thing. Bernie Goetz had an absolute right to be on the subway that night, and he equally had an absolute right not to be mugged. But that’s because everybody has the right to go out in public wherever they damn please, whenever they damn please, without being the victim of a crime.
Everybody. No exceptions.
So enough with the absurd double-standards already. Especially double standards that put the burden of avoiding rape on potential victims, thereby enabling rapists and perpetuating rape itself.
[Cross-posted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles]