Getting mugged made me reconsider the meaning of justice

Guest post by Erin K.L.G.

By: coco Hu - CC BY 2.0
By: coco HuCC BY 2.0
In 2003, I was mugged.

I lived in a Boston neighborhood undergoing gentrification (that’s the code word, of course, for what happens when privileged people move into poorer neighborhoods, forcing the rents up and the poor people out). One half of the neighborhood had already undergone the complete transformation — wide lawns, landscaping, happy families. The other half of the neighborhood struggled to catch up — dilapidated houses, homelessness, constant police presence.

I lived in the struggling half. By no accident, my part of the rent was a mere $525 a month. This was pittance for Boston.

The story of my mugging

Every day, I walked from the train station to my apartment along the main boulevard. Always busy, always peopled. After a few blocks, I would turn left onto my street and walk up a steep hill to the Victorian house at the top: one half of which was my apartment.

On this summer day, 6pm and still bright out, I passed three teenagers before turning left onto my block. I barely noticed them; they were three people of dozens that I passed. And as usual my mind was elsewhere — work, boyfriend, writing, what to make for dinner that night.

I made it halfway up the steep hill to my apartment before I heard three sets of footsteps run up behind me. One of them threw his arms around me in a sort of backward bear hug. Because I couldn’t see anything behind me, I thought it was one of my friends from the neighborhood.

I said, “What are you doing?” Bewildered, maybe a little amused.

They said nothing.

“Hey guys!” I said, playful. “Hey now.”

Nothing. I struggled up against the bear hug grip. Whoever it was grew stronger as I fought harder.

That silence. That silence said everything. They didn’t answer because they had a job to do. They didn’t answer because they weren’t there to talk to me. They didn’t answer because I wasn’t allowed to know them on that level. They didn’t answer because there was nothing to say. Then I knew. I knew I was being mugged when they said nothing.

First, there was the embarrassment. It seems strange to feel embarrassed at such a time, but there it was. Why did I feel such shame? I still don’t know. But I think it’s because I had let them in for a brief moment, equated them with friends, and then had been horribly wrong. How could I have thought they were my friends?

Then a sick coldness set in. Less of a panic and more of resolute helplessness. In the wild, I imagine this is what playing dead must be like. They had me, and there was nothing I could do. I shut down, stopped struggling. With this deadness came clarity of purpose. I knew what they wanted, so I let my purse fall to the ground. My purse contained a total of four dollars. They grabbed it and ran.

I turned as they ran away. One of them had cornrows. It’s the only detail I remember.

“I was robbed,” I whispered to no one. “Help.”

I ran, following after them. I’m not sure what I had hoped to accomplish. When I reached the main street, I stopped. They were too far ahead, had spread out. I sat down on the sidewalk. Cried.

A car slowed: two big guys with a Doberman Pinscher in the backseat. “Did those kids rob you?” I nodded. They handed me a cell phone. “Call the cops,” one of them said. “We’ll be back.” Then they took off after the kids in their car.

I dialed 9-1-1. The operator asked me to describe what happened, what my purse looked like.

“It had an… arm,” I faltered. “A long arm.”

“A strap?” she asked, gentle.

“Yes. I’m sorry. I can’t find the right thing. The right thing.” My mind had utterly shut down, almost every part of it.

“It’s okay. You’ve had some trauma. Do you remember anything about the person who robbed you?”

“There were three of them.”

“Men or women?”

“I don’t know. One man. Cornrows.”

This was as much as I could describe. By then, the cops had arrived. The men with the Doberman Pinscsher had returned. They didn’t find the kids, but they had seen them and could describe them to the police.

I handed the cell phone back to them. I thanked them but I’m not sure if, in my state, I could let them know how much I appreciated that they stopped. My hope is that they somehow knew. They were everything to me in that moment. But as much as I appreciated their help, I’m glad they never caught those kids. I don’t know what they were planning to do with them. I don’t want to know.

Later, after my roommate came home and I had calmed down a little, the cops called. They caught one, they said. Would I be willing to identify him?

They pulled up to the house, yanked him out of the car, almost lifting him by his scruff.

“This him?” the cop asked.

Through the door, I stared. He had cornrows and looked me straight in the eyes. An unreadable face. A silent face.

I wanted to say, “What are you doing? Why did you do this to me? To yourself? You have so much life to live.”

The cop prodded. “Can you identify him?”

After a long while, I told the truth. “I can’t identify him. I never saw their faces.”

I couldn’t in good conscience identify this kid as my mugger.

The cop was less than pleased, but he accepted it. He shoved the kid back in the car.

As it turned out, it didn’t matter anyway. They had enough evidence to book him. He had been running through a neighborhood, his pockets full of loose change and my debit card. His friends were never caught, nor did the kid implicate them. He was on his own.

Justice and the moral arc of the universe

The concept of justice is a strange one. It suggests not only that there’s a righteous order to the universe, but that it’s one we can enforce and make right if it ever goes off course. In the case of my mugger, I often wonder whether justice was really served. Not justice for me, but for him.

He was a mere 15 years old. It wasn’t his first offense, and getting caught a second time meant jail time for him. I know this because I was invited to his hearing, though I declined to go. I found out afterward that because he was so young, he was sentenced to juvenile detention until the age of 18. I also learned that he had two older brothers in jail.

I’m not suggesting that he shouldn’t have been held accountable because of his age. He should, and he was. For better or worse, he paid for what he did to me. And for a long time, I hated my muggers. I hated them for the fact that I jumped every time I heard footsteps behind me. I hated them for the mace I carried from the train station to my apartment every day afterward. I hated them for making me feel unsafe in my neighborhood. I hated them for touching me. I hated them for targeting me.

But as I got older, that anger was replaced with sadness.

Abolitionist Theodore Parker once wrote,

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

A century later, in 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. used similar words in a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

I want to believe that. I want to believe that justice isn’t simply a just consequence. That it’s something much more. It’s what’s right in the long run. It’s what’s moral beyond the scope of what immediately affects you and me, since our eyes reach “but little ways.”

This is why I wonder about him, wonder whether justice was ever really served. If there were real justice, my mugger’s parents would not have failed him, or their parents before them. If there were real justice, my mugger would not have grown up poor. If there were real justice, my mugger would have been engaged in school. If there were real justice, he wouldn’t have had so many disadvantages against him even before leaving the womb. If there were real justice, whatever circumstances led him to me that desperate summer evening would not have occurred. My mugging, terrible though it was, was just a blip compared to the long line of injustices dotting this kid’s life.

Two months after the mugging, I left the neighborhood altogether and moved in with my boyfriend. Because I could; I had the means to leave. In the years since, I’ve had many purses. And I’ve made back those four dollars and then some.

But what happened to him? It’s been over ten years. He’s a man now, if he’s still alive. Is he in jail? Does he have a family? Does he have a job? I sincerely hope, rather than believe, he has a chance of having a successful life. But I don’t know. I want to believe that whatever his crime against me, the moral arc of his universe is bending toward goodness for him.

Comments on Getting mugged made me reconsider the meaning of justice

  1. You know, this is why David Simon wrote the stories that eventually became the basis for the Wire. He saw the alternate realities that some people are dealing with especially in the larger East Coast towns and said, hey wait a minute. You’re right. I know here in TX it’s the same way but a different population with similar issues and circumstances. But what’s the solution? That’s what I’m always looking for, what’s the means to fix it.

  2. I am so glad you shared this.

    I think that a lot of times people view politics and justice in such black-and-white ways. I remember being raised in a church that was very “pro-life.” I was even told by one person that I should vote for candidates entirely because of how they stood on abortion. To me, that missed the bigger picture of “pro-life.” Shouldn’t “concern for life” also encompass concern for poverty, health care, education, the death penalty? I just couldn’t understand how that person’s view of “pro-life” could be so narrow as to see abortion and nothing else.

    All that to say: things aren’t always black or white, good or bad. Viewing them as such seems to make life simpler, but in the end it just doesn’t work.

  3. You’re lucky they didn’t want more than your purse. Not all attackers are so benign.

    I think it’s great that you’ve come to peace with it for you. Carrying around anger and hate isn’t healthy. But don’t make the mistake of blaming society for someone’s crimes. The people who mugged you had every chance not to do it. Mugging isn’t an accident that “circumstances led them to”; it’s an active choice. The injustice wasn’t done to him that day. It was done to you. Trying to flip it around in your head to serve some ideal is unfair to everyone.

    • I do hear you, and I get what you’re saying. People do make choices, good or bad. But I think what I’ve come to understand is that the choices are a lot more limited for some people than others.

      I’m a social worker. I work with people experiencing poverty, and while I’ve been privileged enough to not experience it myself, I’ve started to at least get some idea of its realities. Poverty limits your ability to afford to make “good” choices sometimes. For instance, if you didn’t go to a good school, weren’t prepared for the working world, and have trouble finding a job that pays more than minimum wage (and is accessible by public transit from the neighborhood you can afford)… what happens when you run out of money at the end of the month and your children are hungry? Might you feel more pressured than you would otherwise to steal some food, or perhaps sell your painkiller pills, or sleep with someone for a bit of money? Those things don’t just happen on TV. They are real-life choices people really need to make. Maybe you wouldn’t even think about making those choices if your kids weren’t whining that they’re hungry.

      I don’t mean to demean or stereotype people in poverty as incapable of making right choices. That’s absolutely not true. But I do think that we’re doing all of us some injustice if we don’t look at the structural, societal issues that give some people more choices than others, and the luxury to make the “right” (legal, whatever) choices without experiencing consequences like hunger, eviction, etc.

    • I’m not disagreeing with the fact that he made a poor choice. He paid for it, too, so my injustice was rectified — if anyone can say such a thing. And yes, I was lucky they didn’t physically hurt me.

      My writing about this issue was an attempt to explore the idea that justice goes beyond our own noses. He made a choice, paid for it. Consequence for action. Done and done. But is it? Does that really address the true injustice? The larger one that affects millions and gets repeated over and over again? Does that address the poverty? The lack of opportunity? Parents who can’t give needed attention? The lack of community engagement? My point is that there were likely a long line of injustices leading to that moment when he took my purse, none of which will truly be addressed by him going to jail.

  4. I identify with that feeling of fear, like they stole something more from you than just the $4 and a purse – they stole your sense of security. I had a different life experience, but I know that feeling very well of being robbed of something huge and intangible.

    But even moreso, I identify with the feeling of (in)justice going way farther than criminal convictions and the justice system itself. I deal with people through my work who are sometimes at the lowest part of their life, on welfare or worse, and sometimes, on my bleak days, it feels like there is no justice in the world for those people. It’s heartwrenchingly frustrating.

    Amazing article!

    • “…they stole your sense of security.”
      Yes, exactly. It’s hard to get back, and it takes a long time.

      Thank you for the work you do. You may not feel that there is any justice in the world, but your work shows there are those who still fight for it.

  5. I work as a post-conviction attorney, so I communicate with convicted criminals on a daily basis. So many of them have stories like that young man: has been in trouble a couple times at an early age, other family members are in jail, life circumstances have made them hard.
    Unfortunately there can’t be just one solution. Life circumstances that lead to crime are varied, whether it’s poverty, mental illness, abuse or neglect at home, peer-groups, family role models (or lack there of). And then we sweep up these people who are wholly insecure beings in the community, and put them all together where their problems breed, they’re not fixed.
    I have a cynical view of this, but unfortunately I predict that that young man has likely landed himself back in prison. If the OP knows his name, then she may be able to look on the Mass. offender tracking website, to satisfy curiosity. (Though I know this is totally the opposite of what this piece is getting at.)

    • “And then we sweep up these people who are wholly insecure beings in the community, and put them all together where their problems breed, they’re not fixed.”

      Yes. Sometimes it seems like criminalizing and locking up people who have committed crimes doesn’t actually get us anywhere. For instance, there’s a huge mental-illness problem in many jails. People with mental illness get worse while lingering in jail, not better. There’s usually not effective treatment available behind bars. So we lock them up, watch them get sicker, and then release them and expect them to be contributing, law-abiding members of society, often without sufficient support services, housing, education, or employment.

      That doesn’t serve anyone. It doesn’t make our neighborhoods safer in the end, because people are released without necessarily being rehabilitated. And we as taxpayers fund the whole cycle again and again.

  6. I know if I were ever mugged, it would take about 10 minutes to deactivate my debit card and phone, $20 to replace my ID and about the same to replace my phone. I never carry cash, I never wear jewelry valued at more than $5. I don’t even carry a purse. Would it be worth pressing charges? Going down a giant tunnel of hypotheticals tells me that after surveying the loot from robbing me, the robber would probably hit up someone else. Maybe that person wouldn’t be lucky as me, but then maybe that person might be armed and the robber wouldn’t be very lucky, either. Someone down the chain is going to press charges, so shouldn’t it be me before someone gets hurt? If I’m really so worried, shouldn’t I just tell my robber, “Look, lemmie give you a number to some really good people who can–” but then again, who needs to listen to that? I like to believe that it’s much rarer that people turn to crime for fun–they’re obviously doing it because they think it’s the best way, maybe the only way.
    I, too, have to believe that the arc of the moral universe is long. But, unfortunately, lives are short.

    • “I, too, have to believe that the arc of the moral universe is long. But, unfortunately, lives are short.”

      I think about this sometimes. Look how much progress we’ve made with human rights since, say, medieval times. It’s great, right? But many people lived and died without seeing change. I trust we human beings progress as we go, but who knows? And who knows if I’ll ever see in my lifetime things that still need fixing?

      I cancelled all of my credit cards, etc., right away. They were never used, in any event. And I now carry very little cash. It’s interesting but it definitely changed my habits.

  7. I don’t think there really is justice, and thinking about what I’ve seen of gentrification, it all just seems inevitable. My town in Silicon Valley is rapidly building condos and luxury apartments as fast as it can, and tearing down old car repair shops and a community services center to do so. 30 years ago our train stop was just a blip between San Jose and San Francisco, and now it’s a huge hub with company-run commuter shuttles constantly in and out. Right now our rent is low because we’re in a random side street across from a food pantry, but once those apartments are up I’m sure that will change.

    SF is getting hit especially hard. There just isn’t enough housing to contain all the young techies that companies are furiously hiring. Rent is shooting up like crazy, and neighborhoods like the Mission are full of tension between recent graduates trying to find something reasonable (even on a techie salary) and people who have lived there forever, whose landlords are trying to force them out so they can charge the new crowds way more (and get it). It got so bad that a few months ago protesters attacked the Google buses themselves, smashing windows and slashing tires.

    So what’s the solution? I don’t know. This kind of situation isn’t sustainable long-term. California has very strong renter protection, which is a good thing, but only does so much because leases run out eventually. Hopefully the companies can take some responsibility and move? At least spread out? I’m not sure. Foxconn-style dormitories aren’t the answer either, but I’m afraid that SF will turn into another NYC, where so few people can afford to live in most neighborhoods that everyone (except financial types) moves on and begins the process in a new place.

    It also hasn’t escaped me that I benefit from the gentrification too–those places on the verge are still decently affordable for someone like me, but the neighborhoods also become safer in the long run (even if tensions boil over every now and then). Complicated feels indeed.

  8. Thank you for writing this. You have succeeded in articulating through your experience how I feel about the Boston Marathon bombings. I live in Boston, so it was and is a very difficult thing for me to process. But as terrible as those events were, my heart is still heavy for Tsarnaev. All I can see when I look in his eyes is a scared young man who has been fundamentally failed by this world.

    So often we conflate acts of desperation with acts of malice. Though it is sometimes very difficult to tell the difference, I hope that we will try.

    [Editors – I don’t want to high-jack the thread, so I will understand if you decide not to post this.]

  9. I’ve had the same thoughts in my situation. When I was young, my mom was killed by a drunk driver. I found out as I got older that he was under 18. I never knew his name, or anything about him really, except he was charged as a juvenile. He was only held for a year or two until he was 18.
    For killing my mom.
    I had anger for so long, but as I’ve gotten older, my anger has changed. I’m still sad that my mom wasn’t there to see me get married, or be a grandmother. But the anger isn’t as sharp. I find myself wondering if he made it through the system intact, or if he ended up in a worse situation. Wondered if he had a family that would support him. I hope that he remembers what he did and has turned his life around. That would be a little justice- his acknowledgment that what he did was horrifying and the heartbreak he put everyone (his family included) through, and living a better life.
    But I know not everyone has those options.

    • I’m so sorry for what happened to your mother, and for what you’ve been though.


      “I hope that he remembers what he did and has turned his life around. That would be a little justice- his acknowledgment that what he did was horrifying and the heartbreak he put everyone (his family included) through, and living a better life.”

      … is a really commendable attitude and I can only stand back and admire it.

  10. I have struggled with this myself – largely because the one time something happened to me, my reaction was so much the opposite of yours. A man decided to grope me once on a train when I was coming home at night. He was behind me. My mother and some other instructors I’ve had taught me some methods of dealing with different kinds of attacks. Once you’ve practiced enough, you can develop this thing called muscle memory where your body responds automatically, without having to think much. I grabbed his wrist and twisted it while I tried to turn around to see him, and that was when I heard his arm break. I will never in my life forget that sound – or the look on his face. I punched him once in the nose (I found out later I broke that). The doors opened and he fell out onto the platform (where a transit cop was standing!). I started yelling at the cop what happened and that I was defending myself (I didn’t know at the time that the trains had security cameras, which would back me up anyway). I remember watching this guy – who looked homeless, but I never confirmed that – and telling the cop, “You don’t need to arrest him. I already got mine.”

    One thing that has surprised me is that people have asked me if I feel bad about it a while after. A part of me thinks I should be – I mean, I did some serious damage to this guy. But my overriding instinct is still “no.” Gropers (and others as well) prey on vulnerability. They prey on the presumption that people won’t fight back. Now, I don’t believe there is a duty to resist – that borders on victim blaming, to me. But it’s hard for me to feel bad for people who do wrong, because I see it as inherently predatory behavior. I try to find a happy medium of both – we can believe that circumstances that lead to crime can change while still upholding some level of responsibility for individuals. That’s a conversation worth having.

    • I think you did exactly what you needed to do. No one should ever be attacked like that, and you don’t have to feel bad for defending yourself. And I agree — people are responsible for their choices. No doubt. I just think we need to look at those choices in a broader context, taking a look at the societal structures that lead to them, and address larger injustices. Or those choices will continue to be made.

  11. I’m sorry this happened to you. I believe in relativism for helping us make societal changes and having general compassion for each other but that on an individual level, each person must be held accountable for the safety of others. So I am very glad he was prosecuted, and I am glad those other people came to your aid. I agree with the comments about jail making things worse–in a better world, intensive rehabilitation and effective transitional programs would probably do a lot more good than plain punishment. But also in a better world, victims would have a LOT more support and rehabilitation as well, to help them through trauma. If THAT happened more, some of these kids would not become perpetrators of violence and crime. I wish you the best, and I hope you got/get all the support you need.

    • “But also in a better world, victims would have a LOT more support and rehabilitation as well, to help them through trauma. If THAT happened more, some of these kids would not become perpetrators of violence and crime.”

      I so agree with this. So often victims become victimizers, and I don’t think enough is done to address that.

  12. Thank you so much for this article. I almost cried reading it, it spoke to me so much. I spent 5.5years working with offenders of all kinds in treatment, and hope to get back into it this year after a break. Well, not much of a break. I began working with the early end of it instead (childhood abuse and trauma).

    I get so angry with people who say “Lock them up and throw away the key!”, “They’re scumbags, low lives”, “They don’t deserve anything”. They have no idea where these people have come from or what their story is. New Zealand recently introduced the “3 strikes” law for violent crime, and it just makes me so upset. Prison is not a deterrent for violent offenders – it’s often a familiar place, run with gang laws they understand and are comfortable with, a place that’s fairly safe and they can get 3 meals a day, a place with structure and people that tell them what to do. The “real world” is chaotic and unfamiliar, and they often don’t have the necessary skills to deal with it.

    I’m not dismissing the anger, violation and fear that comes with being a victim, not at all. I totally understand it and validate it. Luckily I’ve only been a victim of theft, but I remember the feeling of horror and violation all too well. What I guess I’m saying is that, as a society, we need to understand how this crime happens so we can prevent it and make life better for people, rather than just wanting to lock them all up. All that creates is another generation of people who can’t cope the way society wants them to.

    We need to start looking at the countries whose reoffending rates have dropped significantly, and emulate what they’re doing (Scandinavian countries in particular). Enough with the “get tougher, take away everything” laws. It doesn’t work. Society and their lives and environments have already taken away everything. It’s time to GIVE them what they need.

  13. Great article.
    I don’t think our legal system is truly set up for “justice” so much as it is punishment, I think its important to point out that they aren’t the same thing.

    • I disagree to some extent. I work with criminals, prosecutors, and law enforcement on a daily basis in my job. I feel like I get to have this very unique look into the criminal punishment system in America. I think it does truly show the four philosophical theories on punishment: corrective justice, distributive justice, procedural justice, and retributive justice. However, in different locations, for different crimes, and for different kinds of offenders, the mix of “justice” is given in different proportions. Although that mix sometimes blatantly does little to rehabilitate people who have the greatest need (due to poverty, mental health, etc.)

      • I was married to a felon for a while. A sex offender, specifically. I visited the facilities he lived in, I went to the court-appointed therapy sessions with him, I dropped him at the groups that were part of his sentence.

        “That mix sometimes blatantly does little to rehabilitate people who have the greatest need” is so true. Some people within the system truly believe they are rehabilitating others, that their efforts really mean something, yet those providing the treatments are woefully undereducated or miseducated (ex. a court-ordered therapist stating- and adding to the official file- that an offender’s wife simply being bisexual will cause major problems in his recovery, not to mention the fact that the intake forms only list ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ as choices).

        Others working in the system, however, make it their personal mission to keep offenders off the streets permanently. This can involve lying to the offenders or even sabotaging a probation to get an offender back in prison.

        Unfortunately, the system is somewhat at the mercy of the interpretations of its enforcers. The system is also at the mercy of archaic designs and social beliefs. So yes, while some people who work in the legal system may be aiming for “punishment”, others really are “rehabilitation”-minded, but are limited in the scope of their help for offenders.

        Having experienced these things firsthand, I at one point made it my mission to change the system. However, as soon as I was free from its burden, I wanted to move my life as far away from the entire thing as possible. This type of jaded weariness is, I’m sure, common.

  14. Thank you, this is something I struggle with. I work in an urban city school district and always struggle between the idea of understanding what would be real justice for the students and the best for their outcomes, yet also, what are the appropriate consequences for something that ultimately, is wrong and a crime? There is no black and white on this topic, and it always frustrates me to see this issue being boiled down as such. Thank you for taking more time, even though what happened to you is absolutely frightening and wrong, to think deeply about this issue. Great article, and here is hoping that you do not have to experience something so frightening again!

  15. I had some mixed feelings about this post, so much so that I chose to leave it last night and come back and read it over again today. I have always been a firm believer in personal accountability. I live in an area where other people’s conscious decision to glorify a life of criminal behavior puts me and others that I love at risk, and it isn’t a matter of living in a certain neighborhood, it’s a matter of happening to chose to gas up your car at the wrong gas station in broad daylight. The city government is tearing their hair out trying to figure out what to do about it, and some of the things that they are trying to do are aimed at children like the one you are talking about who might be making those bad decisions because of factors in their lives that they might not have had control over. I do believe that addressing long term macro issues like poverty and lack of opportunity and bad parenting are an important part of ending these types of crimes.

    But I know people who have been victims of violent crime, and whose “justice” through the system is terribly laughable and insulting. (As in, the guy had someone pay his bail with cash, was out on the street again in 24 hours, and got barely a wrist slap from the courts; nothing that would really change the course of his already misspent life, just something to get him more “respect” on the streets.) I have lived in areas blighted by drug selling that the police and courts could not or would not do anything concrete about because the system was set up with so many loopholes that busting the crack house would essentially mean they’d lose a day’s worth of business but be right back operating within 24 hours. It’s a messed up system on many levels. Do I think that putting the teenaged purse snatcher in jail is going to fix him? No way. If anything, it probably did damage him further. And his friends who were never caught, they probably continued their behavior as well until they ended up in jail or worse. On a human level it’s deeply sad and there is injustice inherent in it for sure because you are mostly talking about kids who have committed acts that define the entire course of their lives before they’re really even old enough to understand what that means.

    But if you’re living your life in fear of being victimized by crime in your own hometown, it’s hard not to hold on to anger over it. Yes, there is injustice…but I didn’t do it, I can’t fix it by myself, and me making excuses for it isn’t going to make me any safer. If I tell my potential mugger that I’m sorry about his life situation, that probably isn’t going to make me not get mugged. I am glad that you lost your purse, four dollars and a bit of your sense of safety and not your life. There are kids younger than your assailant who have chosen to do much worse violence to strangers over small things like a purse. It’s frustrating to me to have no real answers as to how to stop it, and it was interesting reading your perspective on it.

    • “On a human level it’s deeply sad and there is injustice inherent in it for sure because you are mostly talking about kids who have committed acts that define the entire course of their lives before they’re really even old enough to understand what that means.”

      Yes. So much this.

  16. Erin, this is really well-written. I also had mixed feelings about this post, however, like some of the other commenters.

    While society as a whole does need to recognize the issues inherent in the system, I question the benefits of what I call “emotional tourism”. Erin’s story is a personal one, but is meant to illustrate overarching themes regarding justice and privilege. Yet most of us sit reading these posts in our safe living situations, using Wi-Fi we pay for, munching on food that isn’t from the garbage. We ooh and ahh and oh-isn’t-that-a-shame and something-should-really-be-done-about-that, and we go back to our lives.

    What stories like this need is concrete direction. OK, we all acknowledge that poverty is an issue, for many reasons, one of which is the criminal justice system. Then what? Even the commenters who work within the social work or criminal justice system have given us nothing to do as of yet. Let’s move; let’s do something. If there is a problem here (and obviously there is), let’s get into action. Let’s lobby our congresspersons or petition or donate those four dollars from our purses/pockets to…. what? Not even one potential solution has been discussed. Our simply reading about it doesn’t do anything for the people who are in the cycle of incarceration or who are hungry RIGHT NOW.

    So please, those of you who know more about it than I: what can I do? What can be done?

    • One cannot help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. Many of the people in “the system” don’t want help, or they wouldn’t accept it if it was offered. Help is often offered with strings attached, and distrust is taught early on.

      The best help I’ve ever seen is when one person helps one person, face to face. Big Brothers Big Sisters is a great program for that. Donate time to help show these kids a better way of life. Ask at your church (or wherever you worship) if there’s a family you can reach out to all year long. See if you have a neighbor who might benefit from carpooling to the grocery store with you or who might need someone to help them with their kids so they can save money on childcare while they work. Focus on relationships and consistency. If you help one person, you’re making a difference.

    • I didn’t write this as a solutions piece, merely a reflection on why getting mugged made me rethink the entire concept of justice. But I hear you: it can be frustrating to read something like this and not know what action to take. Now what?, you think.

      I don’t have any answers. I think it’s so huge; there are so many facets to consider. Even those who work in criminal justice are only one touch point in a long line, and often they’re seeing people who could have used the help long, long before.

      I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this. For my part, here’s what I think we can all do to help:
      –Fight for birth control rights and birth control education so that women can make informed family choices
      –Invest in and take an interest in education, even if you have no children. School is literally the one constant in many children’s lives and can wield the greatest influence, and the outcomes affect everyone.
      –Support politicians who want to end the for-profit prison system and bolster effective rehabilitation programs
      –Get involved in programs in your community, especially those that help underprivileged children and teens
      –Support programs that treat drug addiction like a disease and not a criminal offense
      –Urge your political leaders to support jobs bills and unemployment benefits

      And finally, I think it can start really small. Just be decent. That’s really the crux of it. Live by example so that every one who crosses your path experiences kindness.

      That’s all I’ve got.

  17. This is a great piece. I was robbed over the summer – I was road tripping across the US, giving away free pies for kindness and living off of donations, and someone scooped out of our donation jar while I was distracted. I was angry at first but when I thought about the conditions that would lead someone to steal from a donation jar my anger evaporated. I’ve tried to explain the experience and my feelings to a few people, but this story is much more eloquent than mine. Thank you.

  18. @Erin, Thank you so much for this post. You express such a beautiful sentiment, and I wish I saw things like this more often in my line of work. Thank you as well for your proposed solutions, everything you suggested was spot on.

    Thank you for your enthusiasm! You’re right there’s a ton you can do, and I appreciate the call to action!
    I have a background in social work, specifically in treatment of people on probation and parole, and I’m currently a grad student in public policy with a focus on criminology. So I figure I’ll take a stab at expanding on Erin’s fabulous suggestions.

    –Education is everything. I understand your frustration with “emotional tourism,” but words are powerful and shifting public opinion is an important first step to any movement. Erin says to be decent, and set an example in the way you live your life. That’s great, but I say take it one step further. Be vocal. Be an ally. Challenge yourself to see the injustice around you every day, and don’t let yourself observe it passively. Be the one to initiate conversations, constantly, with family, friends, and even strangers. Challenge assumptions, both your own and everyone else’s. This isn’t always easy (it can be downright uncomfortable and awkward) but activism takes work! Most people can’t/won’t invest the time to follow through on most of my other suggestions, but this is something anyone can do, and all it takes is a little passion and nerve.

    –Look into Restorative Justice. Join a local movement (or start one) to bring restorative justice practices into your local community, especially schools. Check out this website for some basic information, and lots of links to further resources:

    –Participate in state and local politics. I mean really pay attention. Get informed, work on campaigns. Work to elect representatives that support ending the so-called “war on drugs,” dismantling the prison industrial complex, and transitioning to a rehabilitative model of criminal justice.

    –What we really need right now are innovative, grassroots programs for rehabilitation. There isn’t one easy solution, and different things will work in different places. Reach out to your local agencies and see what they are doing and what resources they have! Volunteer your time and expertise in whatever you are good at.

    –I believe some of the best programs are the result of one individual taking initiative and making shit happen. Be that person. Break the monotony and be the organizer that starts a new program. You don’t have to be an expert to start something, just be a well-informed organizer and get the experts connected to the people in power.

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