The bikers I ran into after the incident all had cell phones, and they all wanted to call the police. I had no moisture left in my mouth so talking was difficult, but I’m not sure I would have been able to explain in that moment why I didn’t want to call the cops. Who deserves to go to jail? Who doesn’t deserve the money they need to live? I just said I didn’t want to and left them in a huddle to decide whether they’d bike on or turn around. And how to explain the sadness that overcame me these past few days? I feel so sad for the guy who robbed me, I keep thinking about him waiting anxiously in the middle of this bridge suspended over water, with a gun he seemed barely able to handle, waiting to rob people and apologize to them. I hope he got away, I hope he doesn’t get hurt. I feel sad because I walk around the city and everyone I see seems marked by the violence of poverty, and I wonder who will get hurt, who will hurt themselves.
It’s weird to have this really overdetermined, even trite, experience (“Faggot mugged in New York City!”) and have the available narratives feel so empty. A commitment to an abolishment of prisons and police, a commitment to social justice and anti-poverty work, means narrating our own encounters with violence and “crime” as counter-narratives, understanding that, though it felt scary and shitty, there is nothing wrong with robbing people. What’s wrong are the conditions of poverty and structures of alienation that produce desperation and hunger and violence.
I added my my personal journal entries to this dispatch to balance out what might seem like the cold reserve of my politics. I’m not a robot, and though my writings might unfortunately often sound dogmatic, I hope for a politics that won’t deny emotions, but will engage them. My affective responses have been, I think, what most anyone’s would be – upset and frightened – but I hope I can mobilize these feelings to upend the stagnant response of vengeance and punishment and keep my politics moving towards radical goals.
And I wanted to write this because I know I’m part of a demographic that reads Make: twentysomething white professional class people who have moved from the suburbs to the city. And in our social lives we construct stories about our encounters with a surprising urbanity, stories that can assist or interrupt racist, anti-poor politics of gentrification, or what a fellow tenant organizer calls “socio-economic cleansing.” I’m sure some people will read this and think that I'm just a naive rich white boy, and what happened to me is nothing. And I would nod and agree – my race and class protect me from exactly these experiences; and in the scheme of the world, this is nothing. I certainly expect that the person who robbed me lives a life so much harder and scarier than my own, and I know that throughout the city live people for whom guns have become mundane – the guns of cops, of family members, of strangers. But this is my life, it’s what I’ve got, and I think that something productive can come from these experiences of “waking up,” experiences that in my case interrupt the race and class privileges that ease through my days. Such moments can be used not to turn inward in self-pity and liberal individualism, but can be refracted out into the world. I’m reminded of what Arundhati Roy said in a talk I’d gone to earlier that night, in response to New Yorkers’ mourning after last September: “Welcome to the world.” And the remark was not meant to chastise or belittle the grief of people “waking up” to the reality of warfare that other people know too well. Rather, it was a sincere invitation, an opening up of empathic politics that resists the polarization and demonization of a “war on terrorism,” or in this case, a “war on crime.” Roy writes:
It must be hard for ordinary Americans, so recently bereaved, to look up at the world with their eyes full of tears and encounter what might appear to them to be indifference. It isn't indifference. It's just augury. An absence of surprise. The tired wisdom of knowing that what goes around eventually comes around. . . .
Sadness can be a beginning, not an end, to our politics. I’m glad I’ve felt so depressed. I’m even glad, if this had to happen, it happened to me. Over the past few days, the edges of my life have expanded, if just a bit. Mourning can be a powerful response to moments that confirm our worst feelings about the world, and connecting our sorrow to the world’s sorrow can keep our hearts alive when they beat too fast from fear, or too slowly from apathy.