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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After the assault, the author was taken to a hospital and treated for the wounds to his face. Damage to his knee would require surgery and a painful rehabilitation.

 

The Illinois legislature passed hate crime laws in 1990, essentially adding additional punishment to a criminal offense under the theory that the impact of the underlying crime is far greater—that many more people are affected than just the targeted victim. Loosely stated, a hate crime in Illinois is committed when the perpetrator is motivated by prejudice against a certain listed group. Thus, for prosecution, evidence of the state of mind of the perpetrator is paramount. (Those who object to hate crime laws often argue that they are designed to punish thought and expression and that criminal laws already on the books provide sufficient punishment for the underlying offense.) In 2007, Illinois reported 191 hate crime offenses, categorizing the bias as being based on race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, national origin, gender, age, or handicap. Of the crimes counted as racial, 86 were categorized as “anti-black” and 26 as “anti-white.” For all categories of hate crimes, 131 offenders were identified as white, 125 as black, one as “Asian/Pacific Islander,” and one as “unknown.” (Some of the crimes had more than one offender.)

I was interested in how the state’s attorney’s office was going to interpret my case. I expected I’d hear from a prosecutor, certainly by Monday or Tuesday after the attack. But the phone didn’t ring. A call to the state’s attorney’s press office would probably have netted a prompt reply—they’d know me, and might respond quickly to something that could make their office look good or bad in print. But I’d decided to see how the process would play out for a citizen who didn’t have a journalist’s influence. A week passed, and then two. My doctor removed the stitches from my face; the pieces of pavement worked their way out; the scabs healed.

I decided to wait three weeks, and on a Friday, 21 days after the beating, I called the Cook County state’s attorney’s Automated Victim Notification line. The operator said she couldn’t help me without the name of the suspect or a case number. She offered the phone number of the Cook County sheriff’s office. I told her the Chicago police handled the crime. She explained that she didn’t know the particulars regarding jurisdiction as she was located in Kentucky.

When I tried the police, a helpful detective at Area 5 dug around in the computer and found the case file. “The guy’s name is Larry Johnson.” (I’ve changed the name here because he is a juvenile.) “He’s 16. Let’s see when his court date is. May 30th. That’s today.” The matter was being handled in juvenile court, typical for a case of this sort committed by someone Larry’s age.

It never occurred to me that the case might play out without the victim. I quickly called the state’s attorney’s office in juvenile court, got the general voice mail, and left a message.

After the weekend, an assistant state’s attorney, Nicole Lucero, called back. She told me that West Side juvenile cases were her responsibility. “However, it takes a few weeks to get into our system and get to me,” she explained. She seemed surprised that nobody had come to take photos and was glad that my wife and son had.

She didn’t know what had taken place in court on the 30th—the first court date, she said, is to inform the offender of the charges against him—but a second date was set for June 20th.

She also gave me a little more information about the case. The white Samaritan was an off-duty cop who had witnessed the attack. Larry Johnson had punched me, Lucero said. I found that hard to believe. I’ve been knocked out with a punch twice, but both times it was in close quarters in a boxing ring by a guy whose feet were well planted. I couldn’t see a flying punch thrown at someone moving at speed on a bike having the same effect. But I let it pass.

As for what to do with Larry, she said, there were two alternatives. He could be charged with aggravated battery, I’d have to come to court to testify, and, if convicted, he would “probably be facing 12 months probation.” Or, because he had no previous convictions, he could be put into a diversion program, which would involve, among other things, admitting guilt, performing community service, and submitting to drug screening. If he completed the program, he’d have no criminal charge on his record. One advantage for me, Lucero said, was that I wouldn’t have to come to court.

Neither of these possibilities really spoke to what I wanted, which was to hear him explain why I’d been attacked. “Is there any way I could meet the kid?” I asked.

Lucero said that could be arranged, that the county had a restorative justice program in which victims and offenders came face to face. She said that he’d get to bring a representative to the meeting, that I could bring one too, and that a mediator would guide the discussion. “A lot of the time, the kid realizes there are consequences to what he did.”

I didn’t immediately jump on that option. I explained that in my search for a reason for what took place, the idea of a hate crime had been put to me from both sides of the racial divide.

She pointed out that she couldn’t claim this had been racially motivated since I’d heard no racial threats. “I think this is probably a case of robbery,” she said. “I think they were going to try to steal your bike, but there were witnesses who scared them off.”

“I don’t know why six or seven kids would try to steal one 25-year-old bike,” I said.

“I don’t know why either,” Lucero said. “I know that a lot of our victims have this question: Why did this happen? Why me?” Often, she said, “it is simply random. . . . Youth are stupid sometimes.” She added, “Because this was fairly violent, I want to caution you that I don’t know how that meeting will go between you and him. If he sits there and denies it, it could easily upset you and you would feel like you weren’t getting anywhere.”

I decided I’d risk it. Lucero thought Larry would have to complete all the requirements of the diversion program in addition to meeting me, but she wasn’t sure. But once we chose this option, she said, the case would leave her office and become the province of the probation department. With the die cast, she said I shouldn’t expect to hear anything until after June 20th.

* * *

Photograph: Colette Davison

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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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