Rodney King For Mayor, Anyone?
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The instant that New York City subway shooter Bernhard Goetz announced that he would toss his hat into the ring in New York's upcoming mayor's race the tongues wagged ferociously. Radio schlock jock Howard Stern cracked to listeners, "Let's give Bernie another shot." Much of the press predictably ridiculed the Goetz candidacy as a bizarre joke. And former mayor Ed Koch called him a has been.
But not everyone is laughing or ready to write Goetz's obituary. A TV poll found that 80 percent of New Yorkers thought that Bernie, as he's still affectionately called by many, should run.
Goetz who gives himself a zero chance to beat, or even seriously compete against, the big money boys has pounded out a platform, posted a website: bernieformayor.com and is making a big pitch for volunteers (not money) to help him get the required 7,500 signatures to get on the ballot as an independent.
Despite the put-downs, Goetz has two things going for him. The first is name recognition. He got it with one violent, and bloody act three days before Christmas in 1984 when he gunned down four black youths on a downtown subway train. He claimed that the four were trying to mug him. The four had police records, and three were carrying screw drivers. The youths claimed that they were panhandling and never threatened or touched him.
Goetz's trial for attempted murder drew massive press attention and triggered fierce public debate over black crime and vigilantism. Goetz was acquitted of the murder charge, but was convicted on minor gun charges, and served 8 months. One of the youths, paralyzed in the shooting, sued Goetz and got a $43 million judgment. He has not collected a penny.
The shooting easily might have been shrugged off as a reckless act by a troubled, young man against four equally reckless young men. But with public rage, and mounting fear over violent crime, and the growing belief that crime comes with a young, black face, the shooting instantly a became hot race issue. And this is the second thing Goetz has going for him. Many whites cheered him for doing what they feel that police, public officials, and judges and prosecutors refuse to do, and what they don't dare do. He struck back at the hordes of marauding, young blacks whom they have nightmarish visions of beating, robbing and killing them. He became and still remains their real-life incarnation of Dirty Harry and Death Wish's Charles Bronson.
But the shooting also stirred nightmarish visions in many blacks of lynch-prone, vigilante whites whom for decades beat, maimed, and killed them. The fact that many whites and blacks could reflexively identify with and defend his act, or denounce it and defend the youths was the first colossal danger sign that America's racial divide was as gaping as the Grand Canyon.
The Rodney King beating, the L.A. riots, the O.J. Simpson trial, the resurgence of assorted militia, Klan, and white hate groups, the James Byrd dragging murder in Texas, the racially-polarizing wars over affirmative action, and the Florida vote debacle confirmed that the Goetz shooting was no aberration. It was an ominous harbinger of the racial gulf.
That gulf has not closed. Two recent polls on racial attitudes show that it is as wide as ever. In a Harvard survey half of all black men said they are racially profiled by the police, and an astounding one out of four black women say the same. Many whites don't buy it. They believe that if more blacks than whites are stopped and arrested it's because they commit more crimes. in the second poll released on the eve of the NAACP's recent convention, a majority of blacks said that they were racially mistreated. A majority of whites said just the opposite, and were puzzled at why so many blacks felt that they are persecuted. After all, isn't there Colin Powell, Oprah, Bill Cosby, legions of high profile, well-heeled black athletes, and entertainers, political leaders, and businesspersons?
Then there's Goetz. He remains a tormenting symbol of that racial divide. He is unrepentant about the shooting. He calls his critics "stupid people," and has openly played the race card, vowing that if elected he will make termed out mayor Rudy Giuliani his deputy mayor and turn the city back over to him to run. Giuliani is much hated by many blacks for his border-line, racially-tinged tirades on crime. He is much applauded by many whites for backing those tirades up by giving police free rein to take back the streets.
If by some miracle Goetz gets on the ballot New York's top Democratic mayoral contenders will gang up and denounce him as a kook and racial polarizer. But the racial passions that he ignited on a subway car seventeen years ago his candidacy will almost certainly ignite again. Rodney King for mayor anyone?
Earl Ofari Hutchinson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a nationally syndicated columnist and the president of the National Alliance for Positive Action.