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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 6 of 6)

After a year of thought and no small amount of pain, this I believe:

I got bamboozled by Doris.

Larry probably lied as well.

Larry’s uncle had reason to be wary. Had he said, “I’m sorry, you might be the nicest guy in the world, but I don’t know you, I don’t trust you, and I’m not going to let Larry talk to you,” I’d have hung up the phone disappointed but thinking he was a reasonable man protecting his family. But that’s not what he said, and I haven’t words to describe his notion that Larry deserves to be paid. As I see it, Larry was paid. I chose diversion instead of a criminal charge. I invested in Larry. I got duped in the process, but the investment stands, and for all I know, it may have already paid off. The way justice for juveniles works in Cook County, I don’t think there’s any likelihood that he would have gone to jail, and in the end, it’s probably better for all concerned that he’s in a south suburban McDonald’s instead.

Was this a hate crime? Given the evidence collected, it was certainly not chargeable as one. Officer McCoy and Officer Robert know far more about the West Side than I ever will, and the crime fits certain patterns in the research on juvenile hate crimes (not just that it was done for a thrill, but also that it may have been done because of a perceived invasion of territory). But I think there’s a fine line here—that I may have been chosen for my race, but with such minimal thought that no hate was present.

Hate crime or boredom attack, my injuries are the same. One thing about being hated, though—you have an identity. You’re a member of a distinct class who is important to the attacker. If you are attacked without reason, you’re nobody— you’re of no importance whatever. Mulling this over makes me question the whole notion of prosecuting hate crimes. Why is a racist thug more dangerous than the man who just feels like beating someone—anyone—up? The racist might send a message to a large population, but the nonracist sends a message to an even larger group, a message that says, “You count for nothing” and “No one is safe.”

I’ve wondered what argument I’d be making if the situation were reversed, if a group of white kids had done the same to a black man without uttering a word. I doubt I’d be stepping into the public melee to say, “Wait a minute—maybe these kids were race neutral and they just happened to choose a black guy today.” And that’s clearly racism on my part, an unwillingness to see everyone as equal.

And what if I’d been attacked by whites? I think I’d have been more outraged, more quick to judge, less likely to look for some meaning in the act. I’d have desired stiffer punishment than Larry got, assuming, perhaps wrongly, that my assailants had had more advantages to start with and so had traveled a greater distance across the moral scale. Is that fair? No.

Deep down I’ve had an irrational and ridiculous sense of betrayal. As a fellow journalist put it when I tried to explain this to him, you pay into the karma bank, and you expect a certain protection in return. I was relieved to find I wasn’t alone in this reaction after speaking to David Hunwick, the Evanstonian threatened by white teenagers on the Fourth of July. He said he was bothered for a few months by the question of why, by bewilderment that this happened on his home turf, and by the fact that the teenagers were from the North Shore and from backgrounds similar to those of the kids he was working with in his job in a suburban school. Hunwick said that he eventually came to “chalk most of it up to teenage silliness,” that while the incident makes him “a little sad,” it hasn’t changed his day-to-day life or made him resent any group of people.

I’d say that’s partly true for me. I still ride through the West Side. I don’t resent a whole group of people. Teenage silliness, as Hunwick puts it, does figure at some level here. But there’s this knee that will never be the same, so my life has been altered forever, and I think Larry will be with me for a good long while. I wish I could say that the reverse will be true as well, but I doubt it.

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