Monday, March 26, 2012

On violent crime and black men in hoodies

I have been the victim of violent crime.

In the Hyde Park neighborhood where University of Chicago is located on the south side of Chicago I was mugged at gun point in the early evening hours of June 2005. Fortunately I only had a cell phone and $2.35 stolen through quick talking and a sainted stranger who shouted down from his sixth story window, "Is everything okay?" I wasn't drunk but I did choose to enter the house from the alley (the front door lock was sticky and hard to turn) and I was listening to music and not paying attention to my surroundings.

My attacker was a 250-plus pound black man wearing a hoodie and a bandana over his face, obscuring all but his eyes. The Chicago city police took good care of me, but when I went to a precinct office to look at a mug shot book, I just hadn't seen enough of the man to make a decent ID of him. To this day I do not know if he was brought to justice. I lost any sense of security I had felt and spent most of the rest of my time in Chicago sleeping in the bathtub locked in the bathroom, the most secure place in the house.

In June of 2011 while biking home from work about 3 a.m. I was robbed and raped. I waited tables and bartended in the trendy CWE neighborhood of Saint Louis and had an hour-long bike ride home every night. I was tired, I had worked back to back shifts, and the slow steady hill of Russell wending its way through Shaw up to Grand was a part of my route home, and had been since March of that year when Grand bridge and Metrolink station was closed.

I had almost made it to the well-lit portion of Grand, and Shaw, where I had previously lived, was supposed to be a "safe" neighborhood. Much safer than the industrial park I biked through on Boyle, or the Grove, or that shady bit between the Grove and Shaw on Tower Grove Center Cross I passed through every night. I always chose to bike up Russell because of the steep hills approaching Grand, it was the least grueling. I wasn't paying careful attention. There had been a car behaving suspiciously through Tower Grove Center Cross, but I figured it was a dealer delivering drugs, and didn't pay it much heed. Didn't realize it was a car that had pulled ahead of me and then parked, while the man looped around behind where I was biking, to approach on foot from behind.

Everyone's air conditioning units were running, generating so much white noise that any sounds I made, from the screaming as he was chasing my bicycling to the sounds of the crash were obscured. I have never felt more failed by my exhausted body as when I was desperately trying to bike faster and faster up that dreadful incline but could get no more speed from muscles over-worked.

He was calling after me, pretending to ask for the time or something mundane while I screamed for him to get the fuck away from me. He was too close, within 15 feet, and I felt certain in that dream-like place that I wouldn't get away.

I was so lucky: when being thrown off of my bicycle I didn't break a hand or a wrist or a collar bone. My bike wasn't irreparably damaged and my glasses weren't broken. I was bruised and scraped but my helmet protected my head. I had only made about $40 in tips that night - it had been slow, so I lost maybe $90 to my assailant. Even luckier: he used a condom.

Not so lucky though: every time I started to look up he would hit me, so I have no idea what he looked like, between that and my glasses lying in the gravel. I was truly convinced that then and there, I was going to die. Either the beating he was going to administer, or an STD I would contract from him. I lied through my teeth telling him I had contracted an STD from an ex-boyfriend, so he shouldn't anally rape me, though he was threatening to. He had me down on all fours in the parking lot of a daycare where he had dragged me.

The man handed me my glasses ( I would have never been able to find them in the inky black ) and handed me my bicycle, making me promise I wouldn't tell, that I wouldn't contact the police. The police later wanted to know why I hadn't called them immediately after it had happened -- I was so scared of dying that my first priority was biking straight to my house, even if he could follow me there. At least behind that thick door, enclosed in those brick walls, I would be safe, right?

I have never before biked that stretch of Russell into Fox Park (I lived right near Jefferson & 44) so quickly. Adrenalin gave me wings as I raced downhill, pouring through Compton Heights/Tower Grove East/Fox Park. I flung myself and my bicycle up the steps to the house and through the front door, shaking with terror. I barged into my room mates' bedroom, begging for a ride to the ER, telling them what had just happened. I felt thirsty and dirty, but I knew better than to contaminate any evidence on my body.

The BJC ER, the SART volunteer, everyone I came in contact with throughout the process of the ER visit and the rape-kit process was amazing. When the cop who responded was a black man and learned what had happened, he offered to have a woman or a white officer sent. I told him I would be fine, and I was.

There are gradations of fine, though. I received rides from co-workers or my boss home, but not always. I picked a new bike route, taking Boyle to Choteau to Grand, well-lit, much traveled, even at 2 or 3 a.m. It was riskier in terms of the possibility of being hit by cars going between 40 and 60 mph, but it was a risk I was willing to take. It was the most terrifying thing I have ever done, and I did it 4 or 5 nights a week. I did buy a car, within 3 weeks. The swan dive I perfected from my car into the house was a high speed maneuver carefully coordinated.

I did eventually end up with a boyfriend, and going back to his place became standard. I realized later this was because in his company, I felt safe enough at night. I also didn't have to walk the 15 feet across the street, up the stairs, and into the house, all of a block where a woman, mere months later, had been abducted with a utility knife and raped in an abandoned house.

My boyfriend wouldn't even let me walk the 20 feet from my car to his front door unaccompanied. He would come out with taser at ready. He gifted me with pepper spray. One of my bar backs gave me a knife. I'm still not sure if my being armed would have saved me or made everything worse.

I'm looking forward to learning how to maintain and fire guns, and to getting my concealed carry permit. I refuse to be a victim, and I am not afraid to shoot to kill. I am not afraid to claim self-defense.

And I am so, so sorry, but if you are a black man approaching me after the sun has gone down when I am alone, I am going to shoot first and ask questions later.

I don't care if all you are carrying is a bag of Skittles and a can of tea. My assailant only had his hands, his height, and his strength the second time. I weigh about 115 pounds, and though I am strong for my size, I am still no match for most men. My martial arts training taught me one important thing: run. Avoid the conflict. Run. That I can't possibly defeat a man larger or taller than me -- it won't be a fair fight, and I will lose.

I refuse to die for the cash in my pockets or the technology in my purse. I refuse to be the victim of yet another rape, with possibly more dire and lethal consequences. I refuse.

I don't ride my bike anymore, not even by daylight. Especially not at night. Daylight is insufficient protection in this city according to my neuroses. I've found I am no good at walking to my car alone, even if it is only a block off the main drag. I have no shame. I will run into my car, into my house. Terror is what I feel when I am alone, in the house, in my car, walking to or from a store from a parking lot. Walking to a restaurant or coffee shop, even in a busy district. Nothing will keep me safe.

I live with fear, and no amount of care or planning or counseling will change the terror in my heart, and the concern for other women and men that I know, friends, loved ones, strangers.

I am terribly sorry for what happened to Trayvon Martin. I hope that justice is served and that his family can find some kind of peace. What occurred is unacceptable. However, a young black man in a hoodie is to me a terrible threat. I cannot imagine killing someone in cold blood, nor in taking vigilante justice into my own hands. When it comes to defending my home, my self, or my loved ones, however I do promise you that I will take all the steps necessary.

Trayvon Martin is a victim of a system of white privilege. So, however, am I. If I were a young black girl on a bicycle riding home would I still have been an appealing victim? I'll never know.

But innocence lost is never reclaimed.