I watched an older man get mugged last night. A slightly graying evening sky hung over my friend and I as we were sitting at a red light, opposite a strip mall on the far corner. A young man was pulling on what looked like a wallet in the hands of an older man in front of one store. The younger man punched the older man in the face, took the wallet, and ran off. The old man fell to the ground, and we could not see if he was unconscious from where we were sitting. Someone finally got out of their car right next to the old man to help him. The light turned green, we drove passed, but the younger man had disappeared.
We continued on our way.
This all happened in a matter of seconds. My friend and I debated what we could do. Drive over there? Call the police? Chase after the mugger? By the time we could have done any of those things, it was long over.
In the immediate aftermath of the mugging, I surveyed the field. There were between 10 and 15 bystanders within short walking distance of where the mugging occurred. None of them budged. After considering pulling off and running over to help, a wary thought came to me:
Two white guys in central Baltimore getting out of their car to chase after a young black man who just mugged somebody would not have gone over well with the dozen or so apathetic bystanders.
Yes, the mugger was a young black man. And yes, that is significant, despite our politically correct voices screaming RACE DOESN’T MATTER, and I’ll tell you why. Picture the same scenario, except the mugger is a young white man. I know for a fact that I would have had no qualms about chasing him down, no fears of a backlash from the bystanders. The reality is that the mugger was black, and I did fear some sort of backlash from onlookers, who would have seen two white guys chase down and try to rough up a young black man who had just stolen an old man’s wallet.
Bear with me. I have no idea if that would have happened. There is no way for me to know how any of the other witnesses would have reacted had my friend and I tried to help the old man, or chased after the mugger. The point is that that stray thought was enough to convince me to stay out of it. Self-preservation.
Maybe had we been nearby we could have diffused the situation without starting a fight. Maybe we should have called the cops to give them an entirely vague description of the mugger (Tall black man in an orange jacket..? Good luck.). Or maybe it’s better for everyone that we kept moving.
I hate that I felt that way, but I don’t think it’s entirely irrational. It fucking sucks.
It also begs the question: is this the racial climate we live in? When two white guys agree to keep their heads down after witnessing a crime, simply because of the tensions that still permeate Baltimore one year after the riots?
Would we have felt more prepared to interfere had we been in Inner Harbor or Fells Point rather than Pulaski Highway? I think so, because those downtown neighborhoods are usually filled with more people; working professionals, tourists, baseball fans headed to the game — and a heavier police presence.
But in some random neighborhood we were only passing through, where half of the row homes are boarded up and which is notorious (fairly or not) for crime? Two white guys interfering with a black man in that situation might not have been welcomed as concerned citizens. And that is sad for us as individuals, but also for the politically correct climate we live in.
I’m not blaming the bystanders for my inaction. I read the situation and made a conscious choice. And I was immediately angry, first that this type of thing is apparently so common that people walking down the street don’t give a fuck, and then at myself for being unable (stuck across a busy intersection at a red light) and then unwilling to do anything about it.
I hate that I feel this way. I hate that part of me feels like a coward, while another part of me knows I’m not any kind of hero. I hate that so many of us just stood by and watched this all happen. I hate that I don’t actually know what happened to the old man. Is he okay? Did he dust himself off and make his way home, bruised and perhaps a little more cynical than before? Will this incident change the way he views young black men in the future?
Luckily, it has not changed my attitudes. I do not feel a sudden hatred or anger towards young black men; just that single asshole who ran off with an old man’s wallet. But I learned something about myself. I learned that I fear being called a racist if I try to confront a young black man when there are mostly other young black men nearby. I learned that despite my naive ideals of justice and courage, I still choose my own safety over that of an old man. And I learned that in the aftermath of witnessing a crime, my thoughts immediately turned decidedly violent. I just chose not to act on them.
Muggings happen. I get it. We can’t prevent every crime.
But shouldn’t we be able to do better than nothing? Shouldn’t I be able to do better?