Monday, July 21, 2008

Last night

I've been living in Bushwick for almost two years now and the first time I ended up with a knife at my ribs was in Berkeley, CA. Figures. The only time I was sort of mugged in Brooklyn it was by a hysterical middle-aged man who told me that if I didn't give him $5 for toilet paper, diapers, and milk he would stab me with a knife I doubt he really had. I offered to buy them for him on my credit card because I didn't have any cash, but my bus arrived while we were walking to the store so I apologized, handed him whatever change was in my pocket, and got on the bus.

I guess in a wealthy, progressive, mostly white college town that shares borders with a historically poor, violent ghetto it comes with the territory (not that the Oakland of 2008 quite compares with the Oakland of yesteryear). Still, I never thought I'd say I feel safer walking home from the Jefferson stop on the L, but I guess I kinda do. Walking home from the Ashby BART station I look for all the world like a rich college kid who won't put up much of a fight, and if you thought so you'd be at least a third right. Why wouldn't you hold me up for my iPod and the $25 in cash I'm carrying; my rich parents will probably feel sorry for me and buy me a new one. Unfortunately, I actually do work for a living, but it's an honest mistake.

I thought they were following me but there wasn't much I could do about it. All of a sudden there was an arm around my neck and the business end of a cheap switchblade poking me right above the kidney. He didn't look a day older than 15. Guy #2 came around in front of me and folded his arms in a poor attempt at appearing menacing. He looked a little older but no less nervous. I couldn't tell what either one said because I still had my headphones on (although I got the gist of it), so I took them off just as he told me to give him the iPod. Like I said, I'm not the type to put up much of a fight, although every time something like this happens I walk away wondering how much pain and risk my self-respect should be worth. This time, apparently, my middle-class instincts took over and I did as I was told without thinking about it first. Next he asked for my wallet. I told him he could have the whole $25 I was carrying but I didn't want to give him my ID or credit cards, since I would just be canceling them anyway. While I started pulling cards out, preparing to hand him a wallet with nothing in it but a Starbucks card with $8.67 on it, an expired rubber, and a few phone numbers, he asked what was in my bag. I told him, truthfully, that all I had was a couple of books and a half-eaten falafel sandwhich. Guy #2 opened it up as guy #1, seemingly losing his nerve, started to skip away, having forgotten about the useless wallet (he already had the cash), and then they both took off, yelling something about how I needed my books for class on Monday. I'm not sure if that was intended as sarcasm or nicety, but for some reason I felt compelled to correct them lest they go home thinking that they had judged me correctly, and with my one remaining shred of pride I yelled after them, "I'm not in school, I read those for fun!" Within moments I was running over scenarios in my head that involved fighting back, running, staring him in they eyes and telling him to fuck off, and telling him that if he was interested in continental philosophy or feminist theory he was welcome to my books but that otherwise he should forget about the bag. In retrospect, I wish he had stolen my copy of MacKinnon's Toward a Feminist Theory of the State and given it a read, since I only paid $6 for it at Myopic Books in Chicago anyway.

I could give a fuck about the iPod, and the fact that all I need to do is go on ebay, authorize the use of my credit card, and a brand new one arrives within days speaks to the complicated nature of inner-city politics and race relations. This wasn't a random act of violence, if anything it was probably (whether directly or indirectly) a response to social and institutional violence, for which I have inherited some of the responsibility.

This represents another event in a series of reminders that I am not, as my upbringing may have suggested, at the top of the food chain by virtue of intelligence and education. Despite the fact that I was mugged once when I was in high school (it's a long story, but suffice it to say that, relative to your average mugging, it wasn't particularly threatening) and that a certain amount of violent crime managed to spill over the borders that Takoma Park shares with PG county and NE DC, I feel that I was raised in the delusion state of belief that the "real" world is the world of bourgeois concerns, career goals, and enjoyable pastimes, and that the Hobbseian state of nature that exists beneath it all is a distant memory. It is a jarring experience to be confronted with the fact that all of that can be taken away, all of the Liberal Arts education, material goods, the hobbies, the emotional struggles, by someone who lives outside of that paradigm, but it is even more deeply unsettling to be reminded of the fact that most of the people on the earth live with the threat of immediate physical violence looming over their every action. But I'm not in the mood for polemics.

Other than some lingering questions about privilege and politics, the thing I've been left thinking about the most is how this sort of thing effects my sense of self-respect. The rational thing to do was certainly to hand over the money and electronics, and had I the presence of mind to carefully consider my options and do so, I probably would feel fine about it. But just like the time a schizophrenic threatened over and over to kill me - from a distance of no more than a a few inches - in retaliation for something he'd imagined that I'd done, and just like the time a truck-driver got out of his truck and grabbed me in the middle of traffic, I panicked and allowed someone to walk all over me, to own me. Maybe I could have taken them, maybe not. In this case, I'd say that the likelihood that if I managed not to get stabbed I still probably would have lost the fight and ended up losing my journal and cell phone as well as the iPod made compliance the smart move, but I didn't make it as a well-reasoned judgment, it was my gut reaction. To completely prostrate myself before anyone willing to make credible physical threats to my person. Cowardice. It's completely emasculating, and every time something like this happens my sense of self-respect dissolves. After the aforementioned incident with a trucker I was left thinking that with all those people around the worst that could have possibly happened would have been that I got hit a couple of times in the face, and I know my self-respect is worth at least that much to me. No matter how many fights I do get into or at least commit to (not that this happens all that often), or how many mirrors or windows I smash, something inside of me will always make me feel like less of a man because when push comes to shove my instinct is not to stand up for myself. How fucked up is that? I can read and debate all the feminist theory I want, but apparently I will always be controlled by the hegemonic concept of masculinity, and a part of me isn't so sure that's wrong. I believe that the state exists primarily to protect the property of the rich from the poor, and I'd be a lousy anarchist if I didn't have some faith that in a free society people would have more of an interest in helping than hurting each other, but unless you cede it to the relative monopoly of the use of force enjoyed by the police and military, self-defense is as much a natural right as anything else can be said to be (assuming that unlike me you believe in the concept of natural rights). Why shouldn't I value strength, so long as it's not at the expense of valuing compassion, why shouldn't I value the ability to assert oneself so long as it's not at the expense of considering the needs of others? I don't necesarily think that feminism asks of men (or women, or transpeople, for that matter) that we relinquish these values. Whatever, I guess I'm running out of steam.

Scared to death and scared to look
They shook...


Anonymous said...

in my life everything ultimately boils down to "it's me or them". pure selfishness is the only law i live by. however, this doesn't necessarily give me reason to fight everyone who crosses me. it has more to do with examining each individual situation and determining the best course of action for furthering myself. i would say it is a safe bet that those kids would have stabbed you, so you made the right decision. i've gathered it is always the younger ones that have something to prove, and wouldn't mind spilling your guts.

however, i rarely make the right decisions, and probably would have fought back, and probably would have gotten stabbed. c'est la vie.

come home, i don't have anyone to argue with here.


xDustinx said...

We're at our best when we're not doing what si called "thinking." Don't "think" about this too much, just emote it.

ian fucking shiver. said...

i want to name a band 'the business end'.

don't listen to david,
never go back!


Anonymous said...

One of the things that is stressed most in self defense training is to survive the attack. Waiting is always an option. If that means you have to fight back or wait it out, the end goal should always be to come out alive.

I'm proud of you (and I'm sure your mother is too) for not acting like an idiot and getting yourself hurt over a meaningless material item.
Fighting back is great in theory but is your life/health worth an ipod? Or in the case of the trucker, getting a point across?


Oh yeah, and we miss you here... already.

jen said...

jack, i don't have anything real special to say right now but i just wanted to let you know i finally caught up on your bike trip/traveling/etc over the past 1-1.5 hrs and thoroughly enjoyed it. not only were the stories interesting, but reading it also made me use my brain a little bit, which is something i really appreciate the opportunity to do while idly droning by on the computer at my job. thanks.

Anonymous said...

Haha stay in dc you toolbag

Lol the captcha is "jactom" seems relevant in more ways than one