New York’s Original Subway Vigilante Defends Embattled Bodega Worker

Bernhard Goetz became an overnight folk hero in the 1980s for shooting four young men attempting to mug him on a subway train. He is the latest in a stream of supporters for Jose Alba.

AP/Rene Perez
In this January 16, 1985, file photo, Bernhard Goetz is escorted by police as he is taken out of criminal court at New York. AP/Rene Perez

The Subway Vigilante has weighed in on New York’s latest case involving self-defense — the plight of a bodega worker, Jose Alba, charged with second-degree murder.

“He shouldn’t have to wear an ankle monitor,” Bernhard Goetz wrote to the Sun in a one-line email.

In 1984, Goetz became an overnight folk hero when he shot four young men who were attempting to mug him on a subway train, in a city that was ridden by crime, particularly in the subways. He is the latest in a stream of sympathizers with Mr. Alba, including Mayor Adams himself.

Mr. Alba’s case has drawn attention and sympathy from New Yorkers who believe he was acting in self-defense when he allegedly stabbed Austin Simon to death on July 1. Simon, who was unarmed, crossed the counter of the convenience store and cornered Mr. Alba, who then reportedly reached for a boxcutter and began stabbing Mr. Simon.

Mr. Alba is being charged with second-degree murder, implying intentional homicide or “depraved indifference to human life.” He spent six days on Rikers Island last week after his bail was set at $250,000. On Thursday, the district attorney’s office lowered the bail conditional upon his remaining in New York City. Mr. Alba surrendered his passport and is complying with electronic monitoring, as Goetz noted.

Mr. Alba’s case has been compared to Goetz’s. Both men have been held up as ordinary citizens who stepped up to defend themselves in a climate of increasing crime and ineffective policing and justice policies. 

In 1984, New Yorkers raised money for Goetz’s bail and legal expenses, long before internet crowdfunding simplified such fundraising drives. Supporters rallied for Goetz outside the courthouse.

Mr. Alba’s family has raised more than $99,000 to cover his legal fees. #FreeJoseAlba trended on Twitter last week before Mr. Alba had left Rikers.

New York today, however, is not nearly as dangerous as it was in the 1980s.

When Goetz shot his attackers on the subway, the city was still dealing with the aftermath of a 1975 fiscal crisis that led to severe cuts to public safety budgets. Crack cocaine had just arrived in New York City, with its attendant crime rates, and homelessness was on the rise. The violent crime rate had tripled over the previous 20 years.

“The trains terrify civilized people,” a New York Daily News columnist, William Reel, wrote in 1980, in a story headlined, “The Subway Savages.”

The late poet and writer Stanley Crouch described the mood following the shootings as one of “spiritual uplift,” as New Yorkers celebrated Goetz’s act as a reclamation of the subways from the reign of criminals.

The glow of Goetz’s heroism faded as more details emerged about the shooting and the shooter himself, however. One of the would-be muggers was paralyzed by the shooting.

“My intention was to murder them, to hurt them, to make them suffer as much as possible,” Goetz allegedly told a detective during the investigation.

“Would the gunman have fired and would people now be jubilant if the four had been white?” columnist Jimmy Breslin asked in the New York Daily News. He referred to the celebration of Goetz as “the sourest of all moments” for the city.

Goetz was found not guilty of all charges of attempted murder, assault, and reckless endangerment, due to his claims of self-defense, but was convicted of illegal handgun possesion, for which he served eight months in prison.

Mr. Alba awaits trial while several groups, including three representing bodega employees and owners, are trying to get the charges against him dropped.

The New York Sun

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