"In my next conscious moment, I was dimly aware that I was facedown on the pavement. There was blood in my mouth."
I was ambushed on the West Side last year, an attack that on its face made no sense. I’d never seen my assailant before; he’d never seen me; no words were exchanged; nothing was taken. Like many crime victims, I wanted the incident, which changed my life for the worse, to have some meaning. I’m white, he is black, and in time it was hard not to wonder if race had something to do with it.
The attack came at about 4:15 on May 9th, a sunny Friday afternoon. I had ridden my bike to the Loop for a meeting, and on my way back I took my usual route—Fulton west to the Garfield Park Conservatory, then over to Lake Street. As I neared the intersection of Lake and Laramie, I noticed a group of perhaps six teenagers on a corner.
Pedestrians on Lake Street are low on a cyclist’s list of potential hazards. The trestles supporting the Green Line, the behavior they inspire among drivers, and the condition of the pavement command more attention. The street here passes through an industrial strip, not an area where people hang out, and there was nothing sinister about this group. One kid with long hair looked my way, smiling broadly. Another stepped off the curb and paused, as if he had changed his mind about crossing the street in the heavy traffic, his body angled away from me as though he might now head back to the curb. I kept pedaling.
In my next conscious moment, I was dimly aware that I was facedown on the street. There was blood in my mouth. Someone was holding my arm, helping me up. I looked up to see that I was near the curb and my Good Samaritan was a middle-aged African American man. “Sit in my car,” he said.
“I’ll get blood in it,” I said. I was now on my feet, not feeling pain or any great emotion—on the planet, but not aware of my place in it yet. I bent over, resting my hands on my knees, and spat.
A second Samaritan appeared, a white man, middle-aged, with an athlete’s build. He had me straighten up so he could better assess the damage to my head. One of the two men speculated that I’d been hit with a pipe, and the white man told me that my front teeth had cut clean through my upper lip.
Police cars arrived. I was of little help. All I could recall was passing a group of teenagers and one stepping off the sidewalk, but I didn’t think he was close enough to reach me.
A fire truck pulled up, and a group of firemen gathered around. One with a first-aid kit began cleaning my face, starting around my right eye socket, where the skin had been ripped open. “What month is it?” he asked.
“March,” I said, but then caught myself. “May.”
“Say that they called you ‘honky,’” a fireman told me. If my attackers had indeed said that, they might be charged with a hate crime and face harsher punishments. The fireman called to the reporting officers, who were now about 15 feet away. “They called him ‘honky,’” he said. But I must have signaled differently, because nobody leaped at the bait.
One of the plainclothesmen offered to load my bike into the trunk of his unmarked car and deliver it to my house. The bike is nothing special: a black 12-speed, modest when I bought it in 1982, now dented and well chipped, worth perhaps $20 on the open market. But I like the bike, and I was grateful for the officer’s offer.
Around this time, paramedics arrived, and the African American Samaritan indicated he was going to leave. I shook his hand. “I can’t thank you enough for stopping,” I said.
“I’m a Christian,” he replied.
I was in the ambulance a second later and never got to thank my white Samaritan.
I was taken to West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park, where the emergency room doctor ordered CT scans to see if I’d suffered brain damage or fractures of the skull or face. I hadn’t (I’d been wearing a helmet). She stitched the cut below my nose and glued the jagged lacerations near my eye. “You’ve got road burn,” she told me, explaining that parts of the pavement were embedded in my face and would work their way out over the next week or two. My knee ached and my jaw hurt, but she assured me that no bones were broken. She gave me a prescription for a painkiller, and about six hours after leaving the Loop, I was sent home. My daughter took one look at my face and suggested that come Monday, she could walk to school by herself.
* * *
Illustration: Michelle Thompson/agoodson.com
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.
* * *
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.’”
* * *
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
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.”
* * *
The wounds have healed, but a deep sense of betrayal remains.
I decided to hold off the second meeting with Larry and Doris until after my knee surgery. This past January 19th, the surgeon cut. My new physical therapist, bless her, held me to a high standard, which meant that the rehab got more painful. Bending the knee until the pain was excruciating, and then holding it for a minute, had me thinking of Larry, and not charitably, twice a week.
On February 8th, I phoned Doris and she promised she’d call back the next day after she had a chance to look at her schedule. I have since become accustomed to her voice mail message, wishing callers mercy, peace, and love. Ten calls, one more promise, no interview.
I reached Larry in March, and he said he was about to leave town to visit his grandmother, but we could talk when he returned. When I next called, his aunt answered and was clearly hostile. “Larry,” I heard her say, “it’s the man you so-called beat up.” When Larry took the phone, I suggested a meeting after school the next day or on the weekend. He said he wasn’t in school, that he was working at McDonald’s. I proposed meeting him there. “I’ll have to check with my manager,” he said, and hung up without another word.
I called seven more times, trying at hours when I thought I might catch Larry but not his aunt, but had no success. Finally, I called on Memorial Day. Larry’s aunt answered and said her husband wanted to talk to me. “I don’t see what it is that you want to know,” he said. “You got mugged, he got in trouble. So what is it that you want to know?”
“I’d just like to know what is behind it, what happened that day.”
“So, what you writing—a book, a movie, or what?”
“No, I’m just trying to write a magazine article. I’m not using—”
He interrupted before I could explain I wasn’t going to use Larry’s name. “Oh, you just writing a magazine article? That means you gonna get paid.”
“So is he gonna get paid?”
“Okay, then he ain’t gonna do the interview. I am his uncle, and that’s the end of that. Thank you. Have a nice day.” He hung up.
* * *
So what happened here? When I told Kotlowitz how the story ended, he said, “They kind of got one over on you.”
Officer McCoy, the African American cop in District 15, took it further. “They were bullshitting you. They told that guy what to say. ‘To squash that shit, you better show some remorse.’ His mother was afraid they would put his young ass in the penitentiary. He intentionally tried to hurt you, and you let them get off the hook. Trust me, he attacked you because of the color of your skin.”
I reminded McCoy that Larry claimed he wasn’t the actual perpetrator. “He is a damn liar.” If he didn’t do it, McCoy said, why not clear his name and say who did? “If you say you know the guy but you don’t give me the guy, you are the guy.”
Not long after that conversation, I came upon the article “Youth Hate Crimes: Identification, Prevention, and Intervention” by Annie Steinberg, Jane Brooks, and Tariq Remtulla in The American Journal of Psychiatry’s May 2003 issue. Most hate crimes, the authors concluded, are committed by young males unaffiliated with organized hate groups. The authors cited one study that found that juveniles committed 70 percent of all hate crimes. Steinberg classified offenders into three categories: reactionists (people interested in protecting their resources from intruders); mission offenders (people who believe they “are appealing to a higher authority by eradicating an inferior group”); and thrill seekers (which “most often consists of youths and most often represents individuals who commit such crimes because of boredom, to have fun, and to feel strong”). Thrill seekers were the largest group.
The state’s attorney’s office had declined to provide police reports about my case because it involved a juvenile, but as presstime approached, I managed to secure some redacted documents from the Chicago Police Department after filing a Freedom of Information Act request. Although what I was given doesn’t provide a great deal of information, it listed a witness to the crime: the off-duty officer who stopped to help me. A 23-year veteran of the department who started his career on the West Side, he now works undercover. Since he was concerned about being exposed, I agreed to identify him only as Robert, his first name.
He said he was in backed-up traffic on Lake Street as I pedaled past, but he’d already noticed a group of eight to ten kids. One in particular was “acting goofy, screamin’ and hollerin’. . . . He was acting kind of obnoxious . . . and the next thing I know, I saw him wind up and basically coldcock you. You went right down. It almost was like the impact stopped your bike and you went right over. . . . I would have thought they were waiting for you and it was premeditated.”
In the police academy, he said, you’re instructed to tend to the injured first, and that’s what he did. When help arrived, Robert said, he cruised the neighborhood with other officers and spotted the group. “He didn’t run. They were all walking together. I can tell you the clothing he had on—that is how sure I was. He had on a very distinct jacket. I mean, if you showed me a photo spread of him right now, I could tell you who he was. No doubt in my mind.”
The investigating officers asked him if he heard the kids say anything before the attack—given the circumstances, he thought they might have expected something that could lead to a hate crime charge. “I said I didn’t hear it. My windows were up.”
The incident, he said, “really bothered me that night when I got home. . . . There was no reason for it.”
I wanted to confirm that Larry was required to call his probation officer only once every three months, but calls to Assistant State’s Attorney Carroll of the victims’ assistance program weren’t returned. A juvenile probation officer who spoke on condition of anonymity told me that such an arrangement was indeed possible. She said that in informal supervision, probation officers work very minimally with their clients. The officer might refer the kid for some social service if he needed it, but “it is all individualized; it’s not as if every kid is required to go through the same program. So maybe that kid didn’t have a lot of needs.”
* * *
Photograph: Matthew Conroy
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.