I wasn’t hurt, just shaken. I had my life, but not my iPod.
It wasn’t a mugging type of day. It was a weekday morning, not too early. I’d finished my run in Riverside Park and stopped at the foot of the steps at 120th street to catch my breath. It was sunny out. My endorphins were pumping. My newly-minted masters from Columbia was just a few days old. I remember I had a whole day to do whatever I wanted, a rare luxury. I put my hands on my knees and breathed deep. I felt good.
And then an unfamiliar arm swung around my chest and pinned my arms to my sides. I thought it was a joke. A friend, maybe. Then I saw black fingers pry my white fingers off of my iPod, which I clenched tightly. It wasn’t someone I knew. The arm let go, I turned around, and two boys stood feet away. Not men. Definitely boys. I looked one straight in the eye, and I was surprised to see he looked as terrified as I felt. I froze. By the time I told my feet to move, they’d already started sprinting, taking my iPod with them.
People in New York talk about being mugged like it’s a badge of honor, like it’s a right of passage. It seemed so cliche to be mugged, as if it gives people who move to New York fake street cred. It doesn’t. I didn’t fight back, I didn’t lose much. And even though they never found the guy, justice was on my side.
I ran to the campus security station, reported what had happened, and they were on it. I hopped in a police car and we canvassed the area where I’d just been running. They took me to the police station and I scrolled through pages and pages of faces that fit my description. Black males between the ages of 15-18. Pages and pages and pages of boys who had records, boys who looked like boys, boys who could’ve easily been my students when I taught 11th and 12th grade. A few times I thought I saw the face, but I wasn’t positive. “Are you sure?” the police asked me. “Are you really okay?”
Was I sure? Did it matter? Had I picked any one of those faces, the police would’ve believed me. I should’ve felt good about the fact I was getting a chance to identify my mugger, but I felt uncomfortable, on the right side of an inequality that felt wrong. In that moment, I wasn’t myself. I was a white woman mugged by two young black men.
The police knew nothing about me, yet I was automatically given a tremendous amount of power. My story was never questioned. I wondered what would’ve happened had I identified one of the boys. Sure, I wanted them to be found. I wanted my iPod back. I think they should’ve been held accountable. The justice system worked hard for me, but I know that doesn’t mean the system is working. It is strange to think I could’ve easily abused that power to create some kind of false closure to my story. But I had no desire to feel vindicated, no need to see justice served by nabbing the crooks. Justice was serving me well.
I don’t know what I can say about Trayvon Martin that hasn’t already been said. But maybe I can offer this anecdote of what happens to people like me, who experience a very different sort of justice. We have a lot of stories about injustice, but they become even more glaring juxtaposed against the light.