I was robbed at gunpoint last Friday at 1:45 in the afternoon. A young man appeared out of nowhere on a sunny tree-lined street on Potrero Hill and abruptly pointed a large semi-automatic pistol at my head as he instructed me and the man I was walking with to hand over our cameras, wallets, and phones. We complied. At first it’s difficult to believe that it is real, but after the first shock I quickly adjusted to the probable fact that my life was being threatened if I didn’t hand over my property. As it happens, I was subjected to repeated robberies and some extremely violent attacks as an adolescent in the early 1970s. I learned then that resistance led to worse violence, so my ingrained resignation to the situation served me well last week. After handing over our things following the robber’s methodical instructions, we were instructed to turn around and walk back down the hill, which we did. We were not shot, pistol-whipped, or even physically touched, so you might say we got off easy.
We turned the corner and found an open office a block later and from there called 911. Within minutes squad cars were careening around the nearby streets. The police took our description of the assailant and what he took and in ten minutes there were reports of an arrest in the public housing projects over the hill a few blocks away. Each of us was brought separately to “cold” identity the suspect. Where we had been confronted with a wiry, 20-something 5’10” African-American guy with a thin mustache clad in a gray hoodie, the cops were now holding a guy who was wearing plaid pants, a strange partial black elastic band around his otherwise bare torso, and hatless; he had disheveled hair and very pointy ears! I could not tell if it was the same guy. It might have been. But probably not… I already have a very mistrustful relationship with the police, knowing too much about their lawless handling of young men in the Mission over the past years (and the apparent cold-blooded murder at their hands of Alex Nieto on Bernal Heights last March). The officers I was with were professional and did nothing to offend me, but the whole scene of having other officers holding this guy 80 feet up the hill while I sat in the back of a squad car trying to see if he was the same person who robbed us was disturbing.
Adrenaline kept me going for a few hours as we walked back and my friend got in his car to drive home. I went to my house and began the tedious process of cancelling all my credit and debit cards and getting new ones issued, new cards for insurance, public transit, etc. Two hours later when I had finished my journey through voice-menu hell, I went off to buy a replacement phone. Whenever my mind was not on the immediate tasks at hand, I felt a growing anxiety deep in my chest. “Jangly” was the word one friend used to describe how I would feel for a while when I posted the experience in brief to Facebook. (I was surprised to receive over 100 messages of great compassion and warmth from friends near and far, which was an unexpected silver lining to this experience.) Here’s what I posted:
Well, had to pay the tax today. I was held up at gunpoint by a young man on Carolina Street between 23rd and 22nd, west side of street not far from the stairway connecting the two sides… he got my wallet with cash, credit/debit cards, driver license, an uncashed check, etc… and my camera and my cellphone… lost about $1,000 in total, and of course my insurance has a $1k deductible… so it’s my tax payment to a world of gross inequality I guess… the gentleman I was walking with, helping him with his book project, lost a much nicer camera/lens kit and all his wallet and phone too, so our robber did awfully well at our expense… a crime of opportunity indeed…
Mostly the comments have been expressions of sorrow and solidarity and compassion, but some people talked about how they may have reacted quite differently with combinations of rage and shame, especially after the fact. A couple of folks took issue with my lack of anger towards the assailant, wanting to refocus me and everyone else on the personal guilt of the individual that no “context” can exonerate.
Truth is, given the rapid polarization of wealth we’re living through, it’s more surprising to me how little of this armed expropriation is going on. I don’t forgive this man for pointing a gun at me. It’s unacceptable to threaten someone’s life over anything, let alone a few hundred bucks (that he got higher value was just his good luck and our bad). I’d like to believe that the gun was unloaded and that this was just good theater, but actually it was probably loaded, and this guy might well have shot me in the face if we’d reacted with anything other than the calm compliance we did. It’s deeply unsettling to think my life could have been snuffed out at that moment, and a point of real happiness that I got to have a great time speaking with dozens of friends on Saturday at the first Howard Zinn bookfair, and then spend Sunday with Adriana, going for a hot tub and massage, and generally relaxing, and trying to let go of the looping thoughts that are still jumping around in my head.