A Mugging on Lake Street

FROM SEPTEMBER 2009: A veteran investigative reporter looks into his own beating and finds himself confronting harsh and lingering questions of race

(page 4 of 6)

As weeks passed, I had plenty of other things on my mind. My knee still throbbed, and I started physical therapy, the willful self-infliction of pain in hope of recovery. Hockey season approached—I had been playing nine months a year in a no-checking, no-slap-shots game—and I hoped I’d be back on the ice in the autumn. But recovery proved slow. When the rink opened, I discovered I could skate, but if I went down, I could hardly get up. The pain from bending the knee to stand made my eyes water. It wasn’t the first time that I hated Larry and wished to inflict similar pain on him.

By late August, I’d heard nothing about a meeting. In response to my query, I got a call on September 3rd from Dee Carroll, an assistant state’s attorney serving in the victims’ assistance program. She told me that Larry and his mother had come to see a probation officer on August 11th and they’d reported that Larry had moved to a distant southern suburb. The probation officer, knowing that there was no mediation center nearby, had simply changed the original order, giving Larry “informal supervision.” Carroll told me that she’d told the probation department that this was not good enough, that sitting down with me was a condition of Larry’s diversion. She assured me that I’d be hearing about that soon.

* * *

The mediation was set for 9:30 a.m. on October 21st at the Center for Conflict Resolution, a not-for-profit organization in the Loop. As the date approached, I asked various friends what they’d say to Larry. “What the hell were you thinking?” was a common theme. One of my fellow hockey players, a Baptist minister named Dave Steinhart, had a different take. “It depends on how much you’re willing to invest in this kid,” he said. I told him I wasn’t there yet. I felt robbed, hobbled, and wronged—forgiveness wasn’t high on my agenda and investment hadn’t even occurred to me.

 At the appointed hour, the mediator, Daniel Aaronson, an attorney, met me in the center’s outer office and walked me into a small meeting room, where Larry and his mother were sitting at a table. Larry was about six feet two, 175 pounds—my height but a little heavier—short haired, clean-shaven, casually dressed. He wore a black jacket with white sleeves, the front emblazoned with hockey sticks (I thought we might have the sport in common, but he later told me that the coat was simply in fashion). I had no flash of recognition, no internal voice that said, “This is one of the kids from that street corner.” His mother, whom I’ll call Doris to protect her son’s identity, wore a black leather jacket and looked to be in her mid- to late 30s. I was tense, having lost a great deal of enthusiasm for the meeting the closer it got.

Aaronson asked me to explain why we were here. I described what had happened on Lake Street and at the hospital, and my daughter’s reaction to my face. I pulled out the photographs and described the problem with my knee, which, it had now been determined, would need surgery. I explained what I did for a living, hoping to impress on Larry that if he ended up in prison someday for a crime he didn’t commit, people like me might help get him out. I told how the fireman had urged me to lie, and others, black and white, suggested I’d been attacked because of my race.

Larry sat still for all of this, his eyes downcast. Aaronson asked him to reply. “Wasn’t no motive,” he said quietly, his voice hardly carrying to Aaronson’s end of the table. “Nothin’ like that.” He was hesitant, didn’t seem to be able to look at me directly, and there was no trace of cockiness or street toughness. “We was playing basketball at school, and then we got off the train, and one of the guys said, ‘Let’s do somethin’.’ ‘Like what?’ ‘Like beat up somebody.’ Thirty seconds later you came riding by on your bike.”

Larry maintained that he wasn’t the guy who’d hit me. He said that he hadn’t objected to the plan, and that afterward he had just run away with the others. “Seeing the way it happened, I had no feeling. Didn’t know what to feel.” The whole thing had nothing to do with race, he said. “If it was any other person in that state of mind we was in as a group, it would have happened to anyone. . . . Really wasn’t no reason. Just kids doing kids.”

“Why didn’t you steal anything?” I asked.

“Wasn’t part of the plan.”

Larry said that when the group was standing around afterward, a few blocks away, two police cars suddenly pulled up. He said he was arrested because he was the only one of the group who ran.

Doris said she was at the beauty parlor when the police called. Like my African American Samaritan, she said she was a Christian. She said she didn’t divide humanity by race and hadn’t raised her son to do anything like this. She said she’d sent him to live with his uncle in a south suburb in order to get him away from his gang-ridden neighborhood and the kids he was hanging out with.

I asked Larry about his sentence. Because there is no diversion program in his town, he said, the probation officer “gave me like probation. Said I had to call in every three months.”

Aaronson next met privately with each side. In order to close the case, he said, we all had to work out a resolution to submit to the state’s attorney’s office. If Larry later reneged, the prosecutor’s office could reopen his case.

“Do you want money?” Aaronson asked when we were alone. I could have used some, but I didn’t think it was going to come from Larry, and asking a West Side mom for reimbursement didn’t seem right. An editor at this magazine had already called, suggesting an article, and I’d also considered doing something for the radio, so I said that what I’d like to get would be tape-recorded interviews with Larry and his mother.

When we reconvened, I explained that I wouldn’t use their real names in whatever I did, and I wouldn’t make those interviews a requirement of closing the case because imposing that requirement in the report to the state’s attorney would mean the interviews were coerced. I asked Larry to look into his heart, see if he could do this, and, if so, give me his word as a man that he’d follow through. He did, and also promised to help connect me with the guy he claimed had knocked me out. Doris gave her word that she’d be interviewed. Both agreed to work with me to get the police documents (otherwise unavailable because it was a juvenile matter), and that was the sole piece of business we entered on the resolution form.

We exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses and shook hands. Then Doris stunned me by asking if she could keep the two photos I’d laid on the table. I handed them over, imagining them posted on her refrigerator as a reminder to Larry of what he’d done. Doris, I thought, really understood, and she’d make him take it in.

I left feeling somewhat whole. During the session, Larry had yawned, stretched, and cleaned his fingernails with a pen, but he’d also said he regretted being part of the incident. I thought he had learned something. When his mother had asked him how he’d feel in my shoes, he’d said, “I’d be filled with hate.” I’d asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I want to play in the NBA,” he said. I later learned that in his two years of high school he’d passed a total of one class. Clearly I was better off, even unemployed, than he was or might ever be.

A friend of mine, a retired Chicago police officer, ripped into me when I told him all this. Larry, he wrote in an e-mail, was “most likely NOT sorry. Remorse after arrest is an affect. Cops see it all the time, and it infuriates them, particularly when good people try to see good in the very people who victimize them.”

* * *

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5 years ago
Posted by Mr. P

I feel like this article made me think a lot more than one that would have been resolved with Larry's interview. It's very disturbing to think that this single act of aggression has added so much pain to your life while not really affecting his substantially. I guess he's in a different place, but maybe not that different a person than he would have been.

It seems like violence can so easily make the world a worse place while there isn't as powerful a positive force to counteract it. Is there some positive thing that could have happened to Larry that would have affected him as deeply? Could he have been randomly hit in the face with kindness? Kind of laughable to think so.

5 years ago
Posted by Some guy

The world might be a better place without people like Larry.

5 years ago
Posted by charlieblaze

I wish that I could say this directly to the author. There are trashy people in the 'hood and there are good people in the 'hood. I'm African-American myself, and my first apartment was around 63 and Western. I was mugged by 2 young wannabe thugs, just because during my first 2 months. They just wanted to fight someone and thought that I was a good target. I applaud you for your introspective reflection and, more importantly, for not being bitter and succumbing to racism. But some people live their lives like bandits, and you just have to be aware just like you would with someone of your own race.

Your story reminds me of the incidents that have been happening in Lincoln Park. To other white people that may be surprised about assaults from young black people, do what the rest of us do that have lived in rough areas. Be alert, look tough, and don't show fear.

5 years ago
Posted by vertigo

What surprises me is that people are quick to slap a racism tag on everything. When really it's about money. If you look like a poor white person in a black community, you don't get hassled as much as a well-to-do white person would. So much of a neighborhood's stigma, identity and ultimately, pride, is related to wealth more than anything else.

5 years ago
Posted by vertigo

What surprises me is that people are quick to slap a racism tag on everything. When really it's about money. If you look like a poor white person in a black community, you don't get hassled as much as a well-to-do white person would. So much of a neighborhood's stigma, identity and ultimately, pride, is related to wealth more than anything else.

5 years ago
Posted by ModernNomad

John,

After reading your personal reflection. I don't know how I feel about this. I was surprised you wanted to talk to Larry. But I wasn't surprised his uncle asked for compensation. As a recent Chicago transplant from Seattle, I was also a victim of a mugging in Wicker Park. The perp was Hispanic and I'm black. For days I questioned why I was a victim, why me? I'm black, poor and also a struggling journalist. I was bitter and feelings of racism creeped up. I remember walking around seeing some young Hispanic men wondering if one of them did it. But I had to quickly squash these thoughts. I'm glad to be alive, the only thing bruised was my psyche. It makes me angry that people can be so heartless. But for many young black men-- this is their reality. Or as one West Garfield resident told me "Chicago is a fucked up place." And he's right.

5 years ago
Posted by Al

I was thinking about a few angles to approach this, but I'm settling on one: "Well, duh."

5 years ago
Posted by landis2615

Here's the lick...

It was a bigger deal to you, than it was to Larry and his friends. You were just another punk (an older punk, but punk just the same). Cracking you in the head and watching you go down was like a 3-D video game to them.

I know the area you live in. I know other white professionals that live there, drawn by the architecture. One female that's a friend of a friend, was brutally mugged in her own building - probably by the other Larry in the hood. See, the Larrys and his pals come with that neighborhood. It's like ordering a hamburger deluxe, you get fries, and coleslaw with it. Even if you don't want the coleslaw, you get it.

Hey man, this is America and you have the right to live where you please. That goes for anybody. But like the white settlers that died at the hands of Native Americans, taming the west. You're just gonna have to battle some natives. So buy a gun, or move. NOW.

Larrys 1 White Dude 0

p.s. glad to see you are okay. Truly.

5 years ago
Posted by Zoso

Well I have nothing really to say. It was a good story and the outcome could've been a lot worse. The system seems to have done an adequate job (for a chance).

I guess all I want to say is that there are a lot of scumbags in the city and I wish they'd just go away. There's no need for them to occupy the wonderful city and waste the benefits it could provide to people who are willing - and capable - to use them. To the burbs with them. Let gentrification prosper.

5 years ago
Posted by vishu

I would like to hear from the pastor at Doris's church.

To me this article describes a failure of the community to deal with the destructive behavior of an adolescent boy. Clearly his aunt and uncle are not grasping the seriousness of his actions. It sounds from the face-to-face like Doris may have had good intentions but not the resources to back them up.

On the other hand, as you say, perhaps Larry's working at a south suburban McDonald's is the best possible outcome.

5 years ago
Posted by MPsully

The author has a nice life: family, education, friends and neighbors, professional standing, and an open heart that allows him to bike through sketchy neighborhoods and trust others. On the other hand Larry couldn't even hack it at a high school where standards were likely very low, and he is now dragging his shiftless ass around a circular road of poverty, bitterness and "why me?" trouble. Larry gets paid, justice gets served, and yes, I would like fries with that.

5 years ago
Posted by skafiend

More than anything else, I think this is a product of the times, not racism. There is a disconnect between teenagers/younger adults when it comes to the consequences of their actions than I've ever seen before (I'm an African American male in my late 40s.) Had this been, oh, 20 years ago, the most you might have gotten is a "get out of our neighborhood, white man" comment because the idea that committing a crime against a white person would result in swifter and harsher punishment was prevalent (and backed up by statistics). But today, there's a "get out of my way" and "I gotta get mine, you gotta get your" mentality that seems to fuel this feeling of impunity (and I don't think it's any coincidence that those two lines of thinking are also from rap songs). Sure, it may seem like racism because, as you said, they'd more likely attack a white person who they can be SURE isn't related to someone a little more influential in the neighborhood, but trust me, if they were sure the potential victim was a "nobody", white or black, they would have pounced. As for the reaction of Larry's family, they realized they dodged a bullet. They'll bow and scrape and wear a suit to court and do whatever is necessary to escape with the fewest amount of bruises. But once they're in the clear, it's back to the swagger and "get out the way" mentality. I had an incident recently where I was driving and a young black kid, probably no more than 10, took his time crossing the street in front of me and flipped me off. I saw him in the side mirror and stopped my car. He immediately got a look of panic on his face, not knowing what I was going to do (get out? pull a gun?) I started driving again and he regained his swagger and yelled something at me I didn't hear. I was amazed that after a potentially deadly incident (considering how quickly guns are used here and for the most minor of reasons), he realized he had made it through and didn't realize the potential consequences 0f his actions. Granted, he was 10ish, but still...

I just feel sorry for Larry's next victim, because he's going to do it again. I suggest you use whatever resources you have to keep tabs on his future arrest. Let him and his mother see that you tried to give them a chance to fix this.

5 years ago
Posted by ekang

Call me naive, but I think what the author did in showing mercy — while it may have resulted in a less-than-satisfying "ending" for readers — is better for all parties involved in the long run. Conroy, reputedly an extremely kind and compassionate writer and person, is better off moving forward, producing great work and not wasting his time dragging this case through the courts. It's difficult to say what ending Larry deserves because it's not our call. The tough life he has lived — and still has ahead of him — perhaps is judgment enough.

Also, as for the "Christian" debate, sure, many use it as a cloak, but we don't know Doris' circumstances or why she did what she did. And we see another Christian in the story: the Good Samaritan whose faith was his very reason for not turning a blind eye.

In any case, I'm grateful that Conroy wrote this story. Its complexities and shades of gray are so true to life.

5 years ago
Posted by marsh_monster

Just wait till Larry's dad gets a hold of him....
wait, where is he? These kids have a simple life equation:
(no one showing them the right way to live) +
(nothing stopping them) = we all lose. These kids have single parents working all the time, or even worse crackhead parents. No one's around to supervise and they run the streets like feral dogs.
What's to be done?

5 years ago
Posted by joelambert13

Like John, I've had a number of racially motivated experiences while living in this city over the past decade. Each time I've gone through the same process of justification that he's described. In the end, I've realized racial issues in this city run deep and they run both ways.

As I was walking down Chicago ave by the brown line one afternoon, I had a group of kids mob me and try to pick my pockets clean. A passing cop saved the day.

I've been in a restaurant in a black neighborhood that refused to serve me. I was the only white person there. I left and ate somewhere else.

When I lived in a gentrifying neighborhood where old public housing was being demolished, I would experience almost daily attempts to intimidate me by a small number of people because I was white. I got the "you people" treatment on more than one occasion there.

Its strange to think that these sorts of things still happen. It would be nice to believe that we're on our way to a more equitable society, but we're still far short on both sides. Overall, you shouldn't let racial thinking cloud your judgment of people, but if you're out of your element and see someone acting strange, save yourself some trouble and steer clear.

5 years ago
Posted by megancottrell

Hi John - thanks for this incredible article. I really appreciated how honest you were and how much you thought this incident through, instead of just reacting.

I'm a reporter too, although I don't nearly have your experience. I cover public housing in Chicago, so I spend time in lots of neighborhoods where I "don't belong." To be honest, I almost always feel nervous. And I almost expect that, one day, something like this will happen to me.

I was thinking about your words near the end - about your "karma bank." It's hard to think about, because when something like this happens, it's Larry hitting John, not blacks hitting whites. But I think a certain amount of our collective karma does catch up with us sometimes. For the two hundred years of slavery, of lynchings, of making a intellectual justification for subjugating a group of people, of white flight, of Jim Crow - maybe you didn't get what you deserve, but maybe you got what has been coming to us.

I certainly don't support any sort of physical violence as a way to solve problems. And it's terrible that this happened to such a great, engaged, thoughtful person. I can't imagine how horrible the pain that you've been through, both physical and mental, has been.

Is it wrong to say though that, if this had to happen, I'm glad it could happen to someone who would then use the experience to share it with others and make people think?

Anyway, thanks for writing. Your work is an inspiration.

5 years ago
Posted by Sharon Woodhouse

John, Thank you for a moving, complicated article. I’ve returned to leave a comment, a few hours after first reading it, because it’s still on my mind. I’m saddened, sort of horrified even, at the lingering maybe lifelong costs to you of this random act of violence. My feelings are similar when considering all the equivocating, mitigating, and qualifying that appear in the article, in the comments, and in our society around the issues you ruminate on when candidly sharing your experience. Who knows what the best societal response to Larry’s behavior is—restorative justice, juvenile probation, compassionate rehabilitation, adult lockup—but let’s just say as an advanced (?), civilized (?), leading (?) culture that brutally attacking others for the heck of it and leaving them with permanent injuries is wrong, period. It doesn’t matter the age, race, upbringing, proclivity to boredom and stupidity of the perpetrator. Let’s also say that individuals who commit such vicious acts should be accountable for their behavior, period. Again, whatever that means…but accountable. Let’s also say that those of us that want to live in a harmonious society are accountable for maximizing the options for such, including calling out those who violate our standards of decency. That goes for Christian mothers who collude in letting their children escape responsibility. And let’s just say it’s okay for all of us to have such expectations of civilized conduct. I kinda want to say that it doesn’t take much…you don’t need a middle-class life, a father figure, constructive after-school activities, or the absence of video games in your life to know that you shouldn’t thuggishly be knocking strangers off of bicycles. If you have the wherewithal to work at McDonald’s, you can be expected to know that, even if you don’t have the good sense to not do it. On the off, off chance you thought it was a fine thing to do, this appears to have been the missed opportunity for the entire system—parent(s), community/relatives, juvenile justice—to instill the definitive message in you otherwise. Good luck with your healing!

5 years ago
Posted by dignam

Extremely moved by your story and in great admiration that you filed it. I lived in Chicago for seven years and worked for the alt press in Chicago and this is a saga that has moved me as much as any novel.

I do think this should be ultimately regarded as a hate crime. The problem is that there's no way to prove it. I think there's an instantaneous, weird flash in the mind that says "let's get the vulnerable whitey" and suddenly you're lying bloody on the street. And there's no good answer to such a thing: is the world better served by him being locked up? Is the world better served by the guilt you insisted upon dealing to him (to your credit, if not to any effect)?

All I can say is that I wish you well; I hope that you continue to write as compelling (though certainly not as painful) stories as this one; and that you seek further.

Best wishes and thank you.

5 years ago
Posted by lulub

{A friend of mine, a retired Chicago police officer, ripped into me when I told him all this. Larry, he wrote in an e-mail, was “most likely NOT sorry. Remorse after arrest is an affect. Cops see it all the time, and it infuriates them, particularly when good people try to see good in the very people who victimize them.”}

But what is the alternative? To see only the bad? I taught in the CPS for several years, and this was one of the biggest difficulties for me. I want to see the good in people, I want to trust people and assume that they learn from their mistakes, but at the same time, I don't want to be a chump. I know I was bamboozled by numerous kids who swore that they had learned a lesson, but were really playing me. And frequently, their parents were playing me too. Eventually you become like the cop quoted above and pretty much assume it is all affect and that no one is remorseful about their actions. And really, who wants to be that person?

This was an amazing article, thank you so much for sharing your experience with us.

5 years ago
Posted by TedG

I am happy you've mostly recovered, and weren't even more seriously hurt.

I am also happy to see you're again being paid to write. I thought the Reader sacking was terrible, however this event puts a little more perspective to .

I really appreciate the honesty and thoroughness of your article. I wish our media were more populated with people of your abilities, heart, and devotion to the factual truths rather than so many memes.
Maximum respect to you, sir, and may your recovery continue, as you move through life with enviable integrity.

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