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Is Vigilantism Making a Comeback?

Some recent news stories, including a subway attack in New York City that left a man dead, are starting to indicate the bold old days of the 1980s are back. 

Taurus Judge. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Some recent news stories, including a subway attack in New York City that left a man dead, are starting to indicate the bold old days of the 1980s are back. 

With indications of rising crime, and a great deal of media coverage driving that perception, we probably should have known that we’d get another Bernie Goetz situation, sooner or later. And this one, like Goetz’s, happened on a New York City subway train. 

Goetz was the New York man who, in 1984, shot four young Black men on the New York City subway, claiming they had tried to rob him. Goetz was charged with attempted murder, assault, and reckless endangerment, as well as weapons charges, and soon emerged as a folk hero in some quarters and a villain in others. He was later, in a high-profile trial, convicted of one weapons charge but acquitted on all others. 

This week, on another New York subway train, a 30-year-old homeless man named Jordan Neely went on an “aggressive rant,” per the New York Post. 

“He started screaming in an aggressive manner,” one witness told the newspaper. “He said he had no food, he had no drink, that he was tired and doesn’t care if he goes to jail. He started screaming all these things, took off his jacket, a black jacket that he had, and threw it on the ground.”

At that point, a 24-year passenger grabbed Nealy in a chokehold, brought him to the ground, and held the chokehold for about 15 minutes, and Nealy died. Both videos and photos of the incident soon went viral on social media, amid reports that Neely is in the middle of a mental health episode. 

The man was taken into custody by police but later released without charges. Law enforcement also told the newspaper that Nealy had “numerous prior arrests.” 

The man’s death, and the lack of charges for the man whose actions appear to have resulted in that death, have led to widespread outrage. 

“Jordan Neely was murdered on an F train because a substantial number of New Yorkers have been conditioned by The Post and local TV news and Citizen to think every person on the subway not sitting there quietly and looking “normal” is going to kill them first. It’s infuriating,” one Twitter user said. 

There was another story in the news this week of someone taking the law into his own hands violently. 

KABC in California reported an incident in a T.J. Max story in Mira Loma, Calif. Video emerged of two women trying to quickly exit the store with several bags, and a man — who was not an employee of the store — physically attacking one of them. KABC, someone ludicrously described the man as “a Good Samaritan trying to stop two alleged thieves.” 

Most major retail chains do not authorize their employees to physically restrain or assault suspected thieves, much less bystanders who don’t work there.

That incident, in particular, shows the limits of the vigilante approach. 

There are debates about how much crime is rising, with most data showing that most major crimes are up from a couple of years ago, but down from the heights of the 1990s. 

But one thing that has changed is that most people have smartphones, allowing for viral videos of many more crimes than was the case previously. So even in areas that are not particularly dangerous, videos are going to surface of the worst of crime, which can give the impression that things are much worse than they are. 

Expertise and Experience:

 Stephen Silver is a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive. He is an award-winning journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.

Note: This piece has been updated with new information since posting. 

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist, essayist, and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review, and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.