The celebrity treatment that conservatives are giving Kyle Rittenhouse, acquitted of all charges in the shooting deaths of two in Kenosha, Wis., in 2020, epitomizes the right’s long history of embracing vigilante violence. Rittenhouse has become a regular guest at events run by the conservative organization Turning Point USA, where he was most recently lionized as a desirable bachelor standing “strong in opposition from culture and evil.”
Vigilantes have long held such wide appeal to the right because they allow conservatives to stress their own victimization and cultivate a siege mentality, which rallies their troops to defeat political opponents. In the process, they dress racist arguments in a seemingly colorblind plea for armed self-defense. Nowhere was this clearer than in the 1984 case of Bernhard Goetz.
In the mid-to-late 1960s, many White Americans began to see liberals as the enemy. These voters were tired of rising crime rates, liberal courts that they believed let criminals off the hook and back onto the street, and a government that seemed indifferent to their own struggles in life. White men, especially, resented the liberal social transformations accomplished by the Black and women’s rights movements.
The state of cities contributed to this anger as crime increased, riots erupted and personal finances depleted during the late 1960s and 1970s.
New York City seemed to be at the epicenter of this urban decay. Faced with the two-headed monster of inflated social spending and dwindling local tax revenue and federal contributions, the city edged toward bankruptcy in 1975. Many conservatives blamed minorities, who they saw as undeserving and dependent on social services paid by their tax dollars. New York City’s failures, writes historian Kim Phillips-Fein, fueled “the antigovernment ethos that was already gaining momentum nationally during the 1970s.”
White Americans’ anger helped propel President Ronald Reagan into office, prevented ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and eventually spawned the war on drugs.
It was in this context that Goetz became a hero on the right. On Dec. 22, 1984, the 37-year-old White electronics engineer shot and severely injured four Black teenagers — Barry Allen, James Ramseur, Darrell Cabey and Troy Canty — on the New York City subway after one of them asked him for five dollars. With nowhere to escape, three of the four 18- to 19-year-olds were struck by Goetz’s Smith & Wesson .38. Goetz then approached Cabey, who was lying face down on the ground, and said, “You seem to be doing alright, here’s another,” before he fired his last shot into the teenager’s back, severing his spinal cord.
The shooting and trial hit a nerve with the White Americans who believed their safety and financial security were under siege. The perceived decrease of public safety, as well as the seemingly indifferent government, took center stage during Goetz’s trial and fanned his widespread support from the public.