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

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There are aspects of this for which I should be grateful: I am still alive to see this in type. My brain is intact, and my jaw, so sore that I couldn’t eat a carrot for several weeks, healed. No teeth were dislodged or cracked. Today, the scars on my face are invisible to everyone but me. Health insurance covered most (though not all) of the bills for the knee surgeon and physical therapist, whose excruciating sessions have left me with a range of motion that approaches normal, though there is pain where there was none before.

I’d gone downtown that day to talk to a man who had a dream of creating an agency of investigative journalists (a dream, but no funding), and I went to see him because I’m one of thousands of journalists who’ve lost their paychecks in the last two years. I was dismissed by the Chicago Reader in December 2007. (The New York Times noted the coincidence that I lost my job just as the Chicago City Council was set to approve a $19.8-million settlement for four African American men whose argument I’d ushered into public debate—that they’d been tortured by Chicago police under the command of Jon Burge.) Thus, as I scramble to make a living from freelance assignments, I should also be thankful that an editor solicited this story and kept the offer on the table until I overcame my reluctance. That editor was laid off while the contract was in the mail.

But it’s difficult to dress this in costume. I think of myself as a tolerant man, but that tolerance has been taxed by the pain and the consequence to my body and my life. At a moment when millions of Americans set race aside to vote for an African American presidential candidate, I’ve been forced by juveniles to look it square in the face. Last February, Attorney General Eric Holder said that we are a nation of cowards when it comes to addressing race. I plead guilty. There is no joy in writing this.

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On the evening of the incident, one of the police officers who had been at the scene stopped by the hospital to see how I was doing, and I learned that someone had been arrested. Charges against him depended in part on the damage done to me. (If I had died, for instance, the charge would have been murder.) The news that someone would be held responsible was welcome. What I really looked forward to, however, was hearing a reason for the attack.

I’d have been happy enough with robbery, but nothing was taken. Perhaps theft was thwarted when my Samaritans pulled over? Perhaps it was an initial desire for a bicycle, the idea abandoned because the bike was of poor quality? But six kids, one bike? Who’d get to ride while the others fled on foot?

Staff in the hospital emergency room, accustomed to treating the West Side wounded, speculated that I’d been the target of a gang initiation. Somehow that didn’t seem right to me. Who would get the credit? The initial striker or everyone on the corner?

I was willing to believe that this was just an example of the inexplicable teenage mind at work. Carolyn Frazier, a Northwestern law professor who often represents juveniles facing criminal charges, told me recently that her clients sometimes use the phrase “going on dummy” to describe doing something stupid, something bad, offering “a big ‘fuck you’ to society. . . . It’s that whole frontal cortex issue: They are just incredibly impulsive; they are not thinking about the higher consequences.” Of course, not every kid behaves that way, so there’s obviously more at work. “It’s peer pressure; it’s what you see in your neighborhood, what values you are being raised with; it’s all sorts of things.” Maybe, she said, “you got dummied.”

“Some people are just thugs,” an African American friend of mine said. And I thought there might be something to that. I just had the bad luck to run into one—they come in all colors—and perhaps mine was an equal opportunity thug. Maybe if I’d been black, I’d have hit the same piece of pavement.

In those days I was doing freelance work for Chicago Public Radio on a wrongful conviction case, and on Monday, three days after the attack, I covered the stitching over my lip with a Band-Aid and went to the courthouse for a scheduled hearing. “What happened to you?” asked the prosecutor. I gave a one-sentence description. “Riding on the West Side?” he asked, his eyebrows skyward, implying that any sane person would know better.

So in looking for a reason, perhaps I should look in the mirror? Was this in some way my fault, the equivalent of smoking cigarettes or driving without a seat belt?

An hour later I stopped by the 15th District police station, at 5701 West Madison Street, hoping to thank the officers who’d helped me. Looking for help in finding them, I asked for an acquaintance, T. C. McCoy, an African American officer who lives in the district and has worked there for 24 years. When he heard my story, he said, “It’s a hate crime.”

I wasn’t taking notes at the time, so I asked him recently to recall his reasoning. “When I looked at your face, I could see there was some serious thought behind doing this,” he said. “It ain’t like he just knocked you off your bike. He performed some very serious damage.” There was no provocation, no robbery, no familiarity between attacker and attacked. McCoy argued that it would be far more foolhardy to randomly attack a black man, because “you hit the wrong guy and it might be somebody’s dad or uncle or it might even be the chief who is riding a bike, and ain’t no police bein’ called. It’s an ambulance being called for your ass.

“It’s a bitter pill, but I’m gonna tell you. It was all racial.”

I’d given the hate crime idea little credence when the white fireman had raised it. But with an African American who had worked that turf for more than two decades saying the same thing, the notion started to nag.

Not long after, I was talking about the incident with my neighbor and fellow journalist Alex Kotlowitz, interpreter of racial maladies in There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River. I mentioned the coincidence of hearing the same thing from two such different sources. “I don’t think there is any question that it had to do with race,” Kotlowitz said. (Our initial conversation was over the fence, and I recently asked him to reconstruct his perception.) “There is some surmising here, but what other explanation is there for it? It is not like they had some animosity toward bikers.”

But he found the notion of a hate crime problematic. It presumes, he said, that the assailant acted out of racism, which by Kotlowitz’s definition requires a belief that one’s race is superior to another’s. “In this instance, I don’t think he felt superior. I think probably he felt diminished in some way and that was part of the lashing out.”

While not excusing the act in any way—in his view, what happened was “as ugly as it gets” and the perpetrator deserved punishment and psychological help—he speculated that some sort of territorial anger might be part of it. People who live in Chicago’s rougher neighborhoods, he said, see few whites on their streets except for police officers and schoolteachers who go straight from their cars into their schools. “And so there is this notion, ‘Okay, if we are not good enough for you, don’t bother to come.’ And here is this white guy who is coming through and you feel almost like someone is trespassing.”

David Hunwick, a 35-year-old African American resident of Evanston, suggested something similar. Hunwick was walking home from that city’s Fourth of July parade in 2005 when he was threatened by a carload of white teenagers. They began with the word “nigger” and ended with a verbal threat to run Hunwick over, and though Hunwick thought they were expressing hate based on his race, they were charged only with the threat. In my case on the West Side, “it might have been like, ‘Goofy white dude, what’s he doing here?’” Hunwick suggested. “Not necessarily, ‘We hate this guy.’”

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