The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Vigilantism, the Cops, or Organized Self-defense?

Mar 31, 1985

On December 22, Bernhard Goetz shot four young black men in a New York City subway, and the shooting dominated the news. It also dominated the concerns of the working class in the country. Unlike so many so-called news items, which seemingly have nothing to do with the workers, and to which the workers pay little attention, this incident was taken up by the working class, discussed, debated.

The left responded to the Goetz shootings essentially on the moral level. They denounced the racist overtones of the news media’s coverage of the events and the glorification of a man who shot four people over the question of five dollars. They warned of the vigilante-style justice being advocated by the more reactionary elements of the establishment. And they used the problem of crime in order to denounce its cause, the poverty and human suffering brought on by the capitalist system.

When the Left Avoids the Problem of Crime

No matter how much all these things were valid, there was another aspect to the Goetz shootings, that went beyond the particular facts of the case. What should be done about crime? How should people defend themselves? This was the real concern of large numbers of workers and other poor people. The two large groups on the left responded in different fashions to this question.

In the January 31 issue of the Daily World, Gus Hall wrote: “This is not to say that street crime – assaults on the property and persons of working and poor people is not a serious problem. But it cannot be countered, controlled, or stopped by officially sanctioned, premeditated armed attacks.”

Certainly there are no individual solutions to the problem of crime. So what solution does he propose?

“First we must begin now to build a coalition against the re-election of Koch.

“Second, we must demand a reversal of the New York Grand Jury decision charging Goetz with gun possession to also indict him for attempted murder.

“Third we must join in the call for a federal probe into the crime.”

Under the guise of opposing vigilante justice, Hall argues against people taking matters into their own hands. The only alternative Hall gives is the typical liberal argument: a better city government by getting a new mayor, a fair prosecutor and a federal probe. The problem of crime is left in the hands of the police: the typical liberal response.

The SWP on the other hand in its editorial of January 11, condemns Goetz and the New York City administration for racist brutality, and analyzes the cause of crime as coming from the whole system. It says,

“Working people should reject reactionary ‘law and order’ campaigns. We should mobilize our potential power against the real criminals: the bosses and their government. In such a fight we will weld together the bonds of solidarity that can build a new society free of crime and violence by eliminating the root – class exploitation.”

Certainly the cause of crime is class exploitation. But when the problem is left at this level – as it is by the SWP – the implication is that people have no choice but to defer doing anything about their problems until after the revolution. In fact, revolutionaries are precisely those who have a view that another society is possible, and because they do, they have an answer to the social problems of this society.

The problem that the left did not address was that most workers and poor people applauded Bernhard Goetz. This was true even with large numbers of black workers, despite the way the news media used the shootings to foster racist propaganda. Their reaction was a reflection of the enormous problem of crime confronting the workers and other poor layers of the population.

Caught in the Crime Wave

Since the early 1960s, the U.S. has been in the grip of a crime wave of epic proportions. This crime wave peaked with the end of the last recession in 1981 and has leveled off – for the moment. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, the chance of being a victim of a violent crime – such as murder, rape, robbery or aggravated assault – nearly tripled between 1960 and 1976; so did the probability of being the victim of a serious violent crime, such as burglary, purse snatching and auto theft. If recent rates continue, at least three people in every hundred will be the victim of a violent crime this year, and one household in ten will be burglarized. Those figures are for the U.S. as a whole. The crime rate is much higher in the urban areas and more than twice as high in cities than suburbs.

To give an example of what this increase means – the murder rate in the 50 largest cities nearly doubled between 1963 and 1971. The results are chilling: if the murder rate held constant at the 1971 level, then a child born in 1974 in Detroit and living there all his life had a one in 35 chance of being murdered. If the murder rate continues to increase at its 1970s pace, his chance of meeting a violent end will increase to one in 14. At 1970s levels, a typical baby born and remaining in a large American city was more likely to die of murder than was a U.S. soldier in World War II to die in combat.

In some ways, the crime statistics understate what has happened, for they say nothing about the nature of crime itself. The chance of being robbed has more than tripled since the early 1960s, a larger increase than that registered for any other major crime. On top of this, robberies are more violent than they used to be. In 1967, one in five robbery victims was injured. Ten years later, there was a one in three chance of being injured. And it is estimated that robbery killings have increased four or five times since the early 1960s.

In fact, the scope of the crime problem is so pervasive and gigantic, and the growth in the crime rate is so great since the 1960s, it would be surprising if there weren’t a preoccupation and concern over what to do, especially among those in the working class, those most threatened by it. And so, when a big deal was made about someone defending himself, no matter how ambiguous the circumstances, many people – poor and workers especially – agreed. It was exactly the appeal of a Goetz. He had been victimized by crime once before. He had gotten mugged, and he wasn’t going to let it happen again. This time he was prepared to fight back. He had the gun. He reacted first and went on the offensive. People could understand it because Goetz did what they wanted to do – and often did.

In the weeks following the Goetz incident there were three separate shootings in Detroit in which people in working class areas killed someone committing a crime. In two cases, people shot someone breaking into their homes, while they were inside. In the third, a young man broke into a car. When the person who owned the car came out with a gun, the thief tried to flee, but was shot to death. Goetz was not unique. His case, with the racist tone of the media accounts, simply got more publicity than did cases like those in Detroit, where both those killed and those doing the killing were black.

Vigilante or Police?

The left didn’t directly address people’s concerns and fears about crime. But the bourgeoisie’s representatives did.

The news media glamorized Goetz, making it seem like his was some kind of individual solution to crime. Suddenly criminals were supposed to be afraid to walk the streets because they didn’t know if they would confront another Goetz. At best this kind of treatment gives the illusion that all we need is some more Charles Bronson types. At worst this kind of incident can be turned against the workers and poor. It can be used to establish as acceptable vigilante, lynch justice. It can be used to whip up racism and play people off against each other. It can be used to make it seem that the biggest threats in society are those who are the biggest victims of the society, the very poorest, the most oppressed, the unemployed. An example of the logic of this mentality is what Joseph Sobran, syndicated columnist and senior editor of the right-wing National Review wrote in his magazine, “Maybe we should give vigilante action a chance to restore the balance of nature a bit.”

The other side of the coin to vigilante justice is the liberal view that says that people shouldn’t take the law into their own hands, that when they do, there can be only “mob rule”, the view that says it is much safer to leave the whole matter in the hands of the proper authorities, the police, the courts, the prisons, the law. Of course, these authorities have never been a solution or protection against crime for workers and poor people. Anybody who has to live under the threat of crime knows this.

Moreover, the police themselves are a threat against the community, against young people, against black people. Between 1974 and 1982 there were 321 murders in New York City committed by cops, of which 265 were against black and Hispanic people. The cops’ purpose is to protect this society of exploitation, to oppress all those who would rebel against their oppression. It is why not only is the law not a protection for the workers; it is also violence organized from the outside, used against all the exploited layers of society.

Organized Community Self-defense

The only defense people have against crime is to organize themselves, their block, their community. People have to take the law into their own hands, but not as atomized, isolated individuals, themselves and their guns facing a hostile world, but as a collective, as a community.

In an immediate sense, organized self-defense means that the community relies on itself to deal with its crime problem. Certainly the number of people far, far outweighs the number of criminals. Many people are already armed. They are not trained as a group. But they can certainly find the means to do that. People have the advantage of knowing not only each other, but also who the criminals are. Those who mug and rob are known and can be forced by the people in the community to suffer the consequences. If the criminals don’t stop their activities, they can be forced out of the community.

When people in a community organize, they have the possibility of winning over many of those young people who could be attracted to crime. They can give those young people something to live for, something to fight for and something to fight against. The broader the social movement, the more they have the opportunity to do this.

The proof that this is possible; that young people who come out of the same milieus that breed crime can want to do something about it; that they will train, discipline and risk themselves to fight against what they consider a threat against their community, is proven by the growth of the Guardian Angels a few years ago. The Guardian Angels recruited hundreds and then thousands of young people to fight against crime. The problem in its evolution was that its goal was not to organize the community and submit itself to the control of the community. It was organized independent of the community. Under the pressure and attacks of the police it began to depend more and more on the sanction of the police and became an auxiliary police force. Curtis Sliwa’s reaction to the Goetz incident, trying to ride the wave of vigilante sentiment, confirmed the reactionary direction of his organization. But this evolution does not preclude the initial appeal of a group like the Guardian Angels for a whole layer of young people.

The Logic of Organized Self-defense

The reaction to the Goetz incident shows that people have no confidence that the police will protect them. It shows that people were happy when they saw someone defend himself; and that they can feel that maybe there is a solution in this direction. It is the left’s duty to respond to this reaction.

Of course, the left must warn the workers and poor that they can’t get anywhere by applauding someone like Goetz, who is being built up to be used by their enemies against them. But the left must respond to this desire in the population to defend themselves, showing how in fact it is possible for the workers and poor to defend themselves against crime – if they do it in a collective fashion.

This is not to paper over the dangers, the mistakes and problems that will occur when people take matters into their own hands. It’s true that people may sometimes react excessively. Organized self-defense – that is, when people themselves take control and responsibility over the policing of their community – will still reflect the deformations in the consciousness of the people. It will not eliminate racism, and this will come out. It will not eliminate the desire for individual or personal revenge. But there is much more chance that an organized community can control and limit individual excesses. People can be held accountable by their community for what they do. And when people are no longer isolated, when their defense does not merely depend on them as isolated individuals, then there will be less of a recourse to excesses in their attempts to protect themselves against crime.

Certainly crime won’t go away just because people organize against it. But it can be the beginning of a broader fight. When people themselves implement their solutions to one problem, they can begin to learn that they are not powerless, that they have power when they organize together. If they can organize to deal with crime, they could organize to fight the cause of crime, that is, the capitalist system.

Today, in most places, the left is too weak and too small to start to organize people against crime. But this is no reason to completely abstain from giving any answer to the immediate problem of crime, nor to take some miserable liberal stance. When the left doesn’t have any answer to the real problems that the workers and poor face, it has no chance of starting to attract the workers and the poor.

Worse still, the left allows the right-wing reactionaries to appear unchallenged as the only ones with a proposal for fighting crime. Of course, these proposals have nothing to do with stopping crime. They are merely ill-disguised excuses for attacking the workers and poor. Unfortunately, the left helps leave the workers susceptible to following the right.