Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Gunpoint

For friends who I haven't told about this experience, which are most of you, I apologize. I've been quite busy with school starting this week. I feel a need to share what happened to me on Saturday night, however. I wrote the following at about 4:30 a.m. Sunday morning:

I was held up at gunpoint tonight. It was the first time in my life that I had seen a handgun. I walked down the street – a familiar one – and through the alley toward my apartment. Halfway down I heard footsteps behind me. I saw a man walking quickly behind me. He saw that I saw him. He asked if I had any money. I said no. It was the truth. He showed me a silver handgun; he grabbed me by the sweatshirt; my heart started racing. The young man pulled me into a driveway and again showed me his gun: “I don’t believe you.” I told him he could look for himself. I put my hands up. With my back turned to him, he started rifling through my pockets. I told him all I had was a cell phone, a wallet, a pocket watch, and a pack of cigarettes. He kept searching through my pockets, hoping, I assume, to find something worthwhile.

The young man told me to lie down on the concrete. I obliged. I lay face down, hands by my head. Execution style, I thought. I felt the burn of a cold steel gun barrel against the back of my head. “I don’t believe you,” he said. With the gun to my head I heard him fumbling through my wallet. “I don’t believe you don’t have any money.” He asked me what my ATM pin number was. I couldn’t think; how could I with a gun pointed to the back of my skull? I blurted out random numbers. He asked, “How do I know that’s for real?” I said, “You don’t. You’ll have to trust me.” The pressure of the gun – which felt immeasurable, but was in reality probably quite gentle – left my head. His feet shuffled. I turned to see what he was doing. “Don’t look at me,” he said. The young man started walking away. Disobeying the order, I turned again and looked at him. Pointing the gun at me one more time, he said, “Don’t fucking look at me.” I dug my nose into the concrete and waited for what seemed to be an eternity until he fled.

Those are the facts, right? I guess so. That’s what I told the St. Paul police officers who arrived on the scene in an incredibly timely fashion. Three squad cars showed up and they even sent a K-9 unit up and down the alley. But what I can’t get out of my head is the in-between. What won’t escape me are the thoughts that rang through my brain, the one with a bullet less than six inches away.

My first thoughts – after my girlfriend who was waiting for me less than 100 yards away and my family in a small town far from where I was sprawled out – were of my future. I begin law school in one day, and I thought, “How could I defend this young man in court?” As one who believes in the sanctity of the Constitution, and one who is choosing a life meant to uphold the principles of that magnificent document, I couldn’t help but wonder how a minor thug like this – someone who didn’t appear to be desperate for money, someone who seemed like he had a home to return to – deserved zealous defense. After all, on the merits of this case alone, it’s seems quite possible that the perpetrator could be acquitted. I wouldn’t be able to identify him tomorrow, although I’d probably be able to make a good guess. But should justice really amount to good guessing?

The other predominant thought I had was more of a reflection actually. It was similar to one I had had after returning home a little less than a year ago, when I lived in Minneapolis, to find that two other young men had been shot to death in the alley behind my duplex during a drug deal gone fatally awry. At that time I was working in an AmeriCorps position with the University of Minnesota America Reads program, a literacy tutoring program that pairs college students up with primarily impoverished and underserved elementary students in Minneapolis and St. Paul. “What if we had gotten to this young man sooner?” I thought. Right now you may be sitting back in disbelief. How could I possibly be thinking such a thing as someone is pointing a gun to my head and threatening my life? That’s perfectly natural. But it’s perfectly natural to me to wonder about the way people act and the history behind those actions.

Don’t get me wrong; I make no excuses for the two-bit criminal that made me feel utterly powerless for a brown bi-fold wallet with nothing of real value in it. My only satisfaction is the fact that he can take no solace in what he stole from me. And if I could prosecute him myself – which, of course, is highly unlikely – I would hold nothing back from the distress he caused. However, in even the smallest acts of social disruption, the random hold-up in an ill-lit alley, there are larger social issues at play.

What if politicians made a serious, good faith effort to alleviate poverty? What if instead of having a doomed-to-fail and horribly inefficient War on Drugs, we focused on rehabilitation and psychiatric treatment? What if instead of repealing the estate tax and further entrenching regressive taxation in our society, we instead pushed for progressive taxation that would greatly benefit the largest amount of our population rather than the top five percent? What if the highest quality public education was a priority in our state and our nation, rather than a burden that some wish to eradicate? What if real gun control was enacted and enforced so as not to allow experiences such as mine to be repeated? What if…

I could go on, of course, but I won’t. I will say this, however; if any one of those things that I just mentioned were to come true – and you can call me na├»ve, you can call me liberal, you can even call me crazy – I guarantee I wouldn’t have had to experience what I did this evening.

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