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.