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The 'hero' who'd had enough: how subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz inspired Joker

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker, left, and vigilante killer Bernhard Goetz 
Joaquin Phoenix as Joker, left, and vigilante  Bernhard Goetz 

Half an hour into Todd Phillips’s Joker, Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, a downtrodden, unstable part-time clown in 1980s New York, fatally shoots three aggressors on a subway train. Fleck, who has already been pummelled on the streets by various gangs, finally snaps at the group of drunken Wall Street traders, who, having leered and swaggered through the carriage, punch him to the floor. 

The beatdown is tough to watch – as is Fleck’s instinctive uprising. He shoots them all in cold blood. His anger is justified; the murder, not so much. And for those who remember what happened in Manhattan around Christmas, 1984 - when director Phillips, a New York native, was 13 years old - the sequence will seem eerily familiar.

On December 22, at around 1:30pm, 37-year-old Bernhard Goetz stepped onto a Manhattan subway train to meet some friends for Christmas drinks. Ten seconds after the unimposing, white and bespectacled electrical engineer sat down, he was asked for $5 from 19-year old African American Troy Canty, who was with three teenage friends. Goetz whipped out a pistol and shot all four of them.

Goetz’s pre-empted action seemed not so much against the teenagers but against the city’s ever-present threat of danger. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, as a result of the city’s financial crisis there were fewer cops on New York’s streets, the wildly spiking crime rate exacerbated by a crack epidemic.

Joker is set amidst the same frame of unrest: “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” muses Arthur Fleck at the start of the film to his therapist. On the news, Fleck watches scenes of cars burning and gangs looting. 

On the Reply All podcast last year, Bill Courtney, who became a transit cop in 1983, called New York City “a horror-show.” There was a lawlessness on the streets, he said. “Things would unfold in front of you, as you’d turn a corner and walk right into a robbery. Or walked into a guy holding somebody at gunpoint, or a stabbing. It was just mayhem non-stop.” 

New York subway terror was at its most rampant then, with a crime rate higher than any other transit system in the world, and over 250 recorded felonies a week. “Lurking behind the statistics are daily degradations that account for the dread most New Yorkers feel upon descending into the underworld at any hour,” explained Time magazine in 1985 in the wake of the Goetz shooting.

Talking to the publication, Senator Alfonse D’Amato said even his bodyguard was scared to go down those steps. On the trains there were “wolfpack”  robberies – groups of anything up to 30 people attacking people on board, with fists and knives. In return, commuters began carrying their own weapons to defend themselves.

That afternoon in December 1984, Bernhard Goetz was the one with a weapon. In court, he said one of the teenagers made a gesture that suggested he might have one too. At the next stop, Goetz jumped onto the tracks, ran through the tunnel to the next station, left the subway, went home and drove north. He dismantled his gun, discarding the parts in the woods, then motel hopped for a few days under pseudonyms before eventually turning himself in to the police. He was charged with attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment, and more.

The shooting wasn’t completely spontaneous. In January 1981, Goetz was subject to an attempted robbery of electronic equipment he was carrying for work, and was later furious when he heard the one suspect who was caught and arrested spent only two and a half hours at the police station – Goetz himself had been detained there for over six. Goetz, who suffered permanent knee damage from being smashed into a plate-glass window during the attack, was even angrier when the youth’s only charge was for criminal mischief.

Bernhard Goetz leaving court in Manhattan with his lawyer 

In response, he applied for a pistol permit, citing the many times he’d be carrying expensive equipment, and money, around the city. Denied, he went to Florida and bought a revolver anyway. After the 1984 shooting, he explained the 1981 robbery as context. “That incident,” he told police in his statement, “was an education. It taught me that the city doesn’t care what happens to you.” He was left with the fear what anything could happen at any moment. The “lawless” New York, he said, was a disgrace.

The subway was spawning potential vigilantes. “You have to think in a cold-blooded way in New York,” said Goetz in his statement. In 2014, discussing Goetz’s trial with a panel including the prosecuting and defence lawyers, New York native and talk-show host Geraldo Rivera recalled the period, saying that “anarchists ruled the city… a town under siege.” Goetz, posited Rivera, saw himself as Charles Bronson’s character from the Death Wish films that had been stoking the vigilante flames since 1974: “He was going to stand up and protect this town from the people that were the cancer of this town that were making it unliveable.”

Goetz disagreed with this notion. This wasn’t Death Wish, or Dirty Harry, he told police, although he said that it was ”unbearable for people to live in fear.” He had been “reduced to this kind of animal to survive in this city,” he said, likening his actions to a rat in a cage being poked one too many times. “What happened here is I snapped. If I had more bullets I would have shot them all again and again.”

Much of the public not only sympathised with Goetz but sided with him. It wasn’t true that he did what he did because people were “looking for a hero,” he said in his confession. But they were, and there was a groundswell of support for him. “It may be almost impossible for someone who did not live in New York 20 years ago to understand the first few days of spiritual uplift that followed the December 22, 1984, incident that made Bernhard Goetz famous,” wrote New York magazine’s Stanley Crouch in 2003. “There was a collective emotion that cannot be described as anything other than jubilant.”

In the days following the shooting, even before Goetz had handed himself in and revealed his identity, a police hotline was swamped with callers praising his actions. On radio talk shows, reported the New York Times on December 30, there was similar support. According to the hosts and producers of these shows, said the paper, the specific details of the case seemed unimportant – what mattered was that someone had chosen to fight back. “They have found themselves a hero,” said the Cable News Network co-host Dave Walker.

The Guardian Angels, the volunteer group of protective patrols on the trains, found support from commuters, collecting thousands of dollars from them for Goetz’s legal defence costs. “Even some of Manhattan’s staunchest liberals wondered out loud whether the man wasn’t right to take the law into his own hands,” wrote the New York Times journalist, David Sanger, contacting political scientist James Q Wilson for comment. “In New York City there are no liberals any more on the crime and the law-and- order issues,” said Wilson. “All the liberals have been mugged.”

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker

New York was beginning to look like dystopian fascist sci-fi, the lines between good and bad, and law and order, blurring. Goetz was quickly becoming an icon, labelled by the media as The Subway Vigilante. The cover of Time magazine on April 8, 1985 was an illustration of Goetz walking up the subway steps onto the street. Looking at us, he is the everyman, his blank expression inviting the viewer to project their own fears and desires onto the incident. There’s something of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle [an inspiration for Joker] about it. It looks like a film poster.

The introduction to that cover story, Up In Arms Over Crime, synopsised the shooting, concluding with the line “Bernhard Goetz becomes legend.” A poll, reported the magazine, had 47 per cent of Americans approving of Goetz’s actions. 36 per cent said they didn’t have enough details to form a judgment. Only 17 per cent felt Goetz was in the wrong. Indeed in January 1985, a grand jury decided Goetz’s use of force had been justified, indicting him solely for illegal possession of weapons. Things, though, were not as simple as they seemed.

As Goetz’s statements were made public, and his background was explored, nuance began to slide in. A neighbour told New York magazine that at a 1980 community meeting, Goetz had suggested that “the only way to clean up the streets is to get rid of the n------ and the spics.” And recalling the shooting, Goetz had explained why he shot one of the teenagers, Darrell Cabey, for a second time. “You seem to be doing alright,” he remembered saying, “here’s another,” shooting him in the stomach. The gun was empty, but the first shot paralysed Cabey and put him in a coma, leading to brain damage. In his confession, Goetz said he was going to gouge out one of the teenagers’ eyes with his keys, but changed his mind.

Goetz on trial for murder, 1984 Credit: Reuters

In April, a second grand jury charged Goetz with four counts of attempted murder, and assault, and reckless endangerment of other passengers. Nevertheless, when the case went to trial in 1987, Goetz was acquitted of all charges except for carrying an unlicensed firearm. In court, defense attorney Barry Slotnick asserted that, despite his statement, Goetz had never said, “You seem to be doing alright, here’s another,” and had just thought that to himself in retrospect. Goetz was acquitted: the prosecution had not proven the case against him beyond reasonable doubt. It was, the jury of 10 white and two black citizens decided, reasonable self-defence. He was sentenced to six months in jail.

The result was a blow to race relations in the city, reported the New York Times shortly afterwards. Paris newspaper Le Monde wrote that “no one believed, of course, that the verdict would have been the same if the accused had been black and the victims white.” A civil suite filed by Cabey’s lawyers a month after the shooting finally came to trial in 1996. Jurors found that Goetz had deliberately inflicted emotional distress on Cabey, who was awarded £43m for pain and suffering, and in punitive damages. Goetz filed for bankruptcy.

The debate still rages today. Scroll down under videos about the case on YouTube and you’ll find an inevitable hellhole of polarised comments. Goetz is a hero to those who ignore the finer points of what happened, of a man shooting four unarmed teenagers. They all had prior convictions, but he hadn’t known that. And in a 1985 newspaper interview, Cabey said his friends had indeed intended to rob Goetz. “It comes down to this,” a Harlem resident told New York magazine’s Stanley Crouch: “Five assholes met on a train. And one of them had a gun.”

The parallels with Todd Phillips’s Joker are unmistakable: after one shooting, Fleck tells his audience the city is an uncompassionate one, its injustices unchecked. Goetz's defence was the same. And, just like Goetz amassed a cult of disciples, when Joker's killings are broadcast on the news, masses of self-identifying revolutionaries take to the streets in clown masks, wreaking havoc in his name.

Phillips takes hero-worship to an operatic conclusion, creating a bona fide supervillain for the bloodthirsty masses. It's a frightening piece of work and, maybe, a warning. These unsavoury saviours come in all shapes and forms.