From the New York Review of Books:
My attackers came out of nowhere on a familiar street and didn’t even take my wallet. But they robbed me of something: a New Yorker’s self-assurance.
January 7, 2022
There is something morbidly instructive about being beaten up by people who are obviously relishing your humiliation. To read about the pleasure people have taken in cruelty is not the same as experiencing it firsthand.
Before I was set upon, assaulted, and robbed, at roughly 9:15 PM, a half-block from my girlfriend A.’s building in Chelsea, December 17 had been a rather good day. I’d outlined one of the last chapters of my book on Frantz Fanon [radical West Indian author of The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks] and felt a surge of adrenaline about the work ahead. … As I walked to A.’s building, I put on my headphones to listen to the rest of a podcast conversation with my friend Randall Kennedy, about his new book on race and civil rights, Say It Loud. Randy’s voice was the last thing I heard as I turned right on West Seventeenth Street and Ninth Avenue, where my attackers were lying in wait. …
They were three young men, barely old enough to be called that—sixteen or seventeen, I would guess. Then, almost immediately, I was on the pavement.
I don’t know if I was jumped or if I was thrown to the ground. What I remember is a thud, the sound of my body meeting the concrete. As soon as I fell, they began to take turns kicking and punching me, in my stomach, my uppermost thigh, and the right side of my waist (an especially vulnerable place for me, since I have chronic lower back pain, and it had been flaring up in the previous few weeks).
They didn’t say anything; nothing, at any rate, that I can recall. What I do remember is their laughter. They were chuckling among themselves as I absorbed the blows. Their voices sounded youthful and immature, and they moved like gangling teenagers. But they knew something that had never occurred to me: that my prone, defenseless body could be the source of considerable entertainment. Two of my assailants were black; the third I barely saw. I think they were wearing masks, and they might have been wearing hats.
And that’s about where the paywall blocks further reading, but good for the New York Review of Books for putting the paywall after the victim mentions the race of his attackers.
In general, society encouraging masked men to roam the streets at the same time society is also encouraging blacks to feel extremely aggrieved toward whites is a recipe for, well, this.
“You, of all people,” a writer friend said to me after the attack, alluding to my writing on jazz and racial injustice, as if there were a cruel irony in the choice of target. But I don’t see much irony in being attacked: my writing was simply irrelevant in this situation. Oddly enough, perhaps, I don’t even feel attacked personally. The young men who brutalized me were not targeting me so much as a symbol they took me to represent.
The question is, what kind of symbol.
Tough question … Just a guess, but judging from what I’ve been hearing on TV since May 25, 2020, maybe they view you as a symbol of Whiteness. Or of White Privilege. Or, who knows, of White Supremacy.
At first, I puzzled over this, finding a kind of consolation in analytic detachment about my attackers’ possible motives. The morning of the attack, I had revisited Fanon’s famous essay on violence, in which he describes the “dreams of aggressive vitality” of men “penned in” by colonialism: their fantasies of revenge against their oppressors, of taking their places, sleeping with their wives.
I’m not inclined to see my attackers as the wretched of the earth, much less to glamorize their violence as a kind of misdirected resistance to oppression. What happened was an act of senseless cruelty, not of social protest. But in their eyes, I might have symbolized the white, middle-class world that excluded them, providing a convenient target for their anger. In any event, the desire to make oneself strong by making others feel weak, to act out “dreams of aggressive vitality” at someone else’s expense, this desire has to be incubated somewhere. We are not born with it,
Sure we are not.
any more than we are born with a desire to shoot people in schools.
And we all know mass shootings are overwhelmingly a white male thing, so that’s even.
My attackers had escaped into the housing project on West Seventeenth, and the police seemed to think that they lived there. Perhaps, having known too much violence, alienation, and powerlessness in their own lives
Such as being forced to live in Chelsea in Lower Manhattan amongst all the economic desolation and lack of jobs.
, they had found an exhilarating rush of power by lashing out at a perceived beneficiary of privilege whose vulnerability in that moment made him a soft target.
Or perhaps not. After all, the vast majority of people who grow up in such conditions do not turn to violence, and, in fact, are far more likely than people like me to become its victims. What is more, the urban poor have no monopoly over acts of arbitrary aggression, which may have less to do with social marginalization than with the violent nihilism and unhinged machismo that have become distressingly common in America generally, whether in the form of fraternity hazings, mass shootings, or invasions of the Capitol. As H. Rap Brown once said, “violence is as American as cherry pie.”
When Allen Ginsberg was mugged, in 1974, he “went down shouting Om Ah Hum,” then “rose from the cardboard mattress thinking Om Ah Hum/didn’t stop em enough.” My reflex is to turn for reassurance to sociology rather than Buddhism, but with equally disappointing results. I do not know my attackers any more than they know me; I can’t begin to judge why they chose me. Their attack is, in some sense, inexplicable.
Middle-aged white man is beaten up black youths who laugh uproariously. Sociology is completely baffled by this inexplicable event.
Twelve days after the attack, Officer R. called to tell me of a break in my case. One of the attackers had been caught following me on a surveillance camera. An arrest had been made, the suspect had talked, and the police were closing in on two other suspects. I would have to stop by the station to look at some photographs and indicate if I could identify a group of young men whom I hardly saw and do not know but who have marked me in some lasting, perhaps even permanent, way. Friends have declared the arrest to be “great news,” but I don’t feel triumphant. While I don’t want anyone else to be victimized by my attackers, my mood isn’t vengeful or angry. If they can be rehabilitated eventually, so much the better.
I can judge their actions, however, and I believe that punishment of some kind is in order. I’m no abolitionist radical when it comes to tackling crimes of violence. And yet, as the days pass, I’m thinking less and less about them, and more about what happened to me, which cannot be changed even if they are punished.
That was clever rhetorical ploy intended to confuse the conventional BLM-supporting NYRoB subscribers. He now wants to talk about how psychologically damaged he remains by the crime against him, so he frames it in terms of “What’s the use of punishment?”
I’m thinking about the person I was before the attack, the person I might become in its aftermath, and how much control, if any, I have over this conversion.
My body is intact. Although I still wake up early in the morning with sharp pains in my back and side, I know these will subside, and I will be back to “normal.”
Don’t count on it. As you get middle-aged, much less old, you don’t spring back 100% from every physical trauma anymore.
I am swimming again, and oddly, my lower back even feels somewhat better than it did before the attack. But my body is now a body that has been assaulted. I look in the mirror more often, as if seeking confirmation that I am physically as strong, as inviolable, as I had thought. On the street, I already feel warier, more watchful; my body responds with jerky, sudden movements if I hear something behind me, or see a person who seems like a potential threat. But who is a potential threat? I’ve always thought I had a fair system in place for making these judgments, one that was reasonably free of bias, but my body may turn out to have a mind of its own; a different, more volatile system.
In other words, don’t blame me for being prejudiced against black youths, blame my beaten up body.
A former professor of mine, a black woman and a Marxist, told me she has always walked around at night with her German shepherd, and she advised me to get one. I’m giving it some thought.
So, bottom line is … yes, he did get mugged by reality and he kind of knows it.