SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2014 Personal Memory Ethnographies
Anatomy of an Assault
Moving has definitely been a very large chunk of my life for the past decade now. I’ve moved between Florida, Brooklyn, Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, and Phoenix. Sometimes the moves had a purpose, such as going to school or making life slightly easier. Sometimes they were decided on whims and since my major “occupation” was playing in a punk band, it was frankly pretty easy to move around, especially since I wasn’t really concerned where I was staying, be it a couch, bed, or floor. The move from Brooklyn to Seattle had to be one of my more definitive moves.
In Brooklyn, I had started working for a retail company. Not sales, but as a construction/maintenance worker. I would go into stores at night after they had closed and renovate them according to the specifications of a very particular CEO. A position had opened up in Seattle, so I had the opportunity to move there and took it.
I had bounced around apartments in Brooklyn, after moving from Florida with a longtime girlfriend and promptly breaking up. For a while I lived in Brownsville, near Bed Stuy. Neither of which was a very appealing neighborhood for a scrawny white kid. Bed Stuy was currently in the process of gentrification, something that I was not necessarily accustomed to from my upbringing in the south. Possibly because there is not a lot of migratory movement within most cities in the south, or because I am from a smaller city, neighborhoods tend to keep the same ethnic make up. After living in the middle of Brooklyn, I felt slightly more hardened to my initial fear of “bad neighborhoods.” Roughly three thousand miles away, experiences were different for someone entirely different than me.
The notice came stuck to our house last week. Rent’s going up again and Mom definitely can’t afford it. New people, mostly white kids, have been moving in more and more and the neighborhood doesn’t look like ours anymore. It gets tougher and tougher, there’s less money to go around since the last rent hike. It just gets so tough seeing everyone else with new stuff and I’m living on hand me downs.
My friends texted me and said they were coming over and we’re going to head to the park. Mom’s asleep, so she can’t say no, so I meet them outside by the street. As we’re walking, Bobby brings up all the white kids moving in and he sounds pissed. “This is our place, why should we have to leave? We’ve been here, we grew up here, where are we supposed to go?” Nobody’s hiring young black kids, so none of us even have money to go eat, we just walk. Bobby keeps talking. Everyone gets angrier.
After moving to Seattle, which at times seems almost bucolic compared to New York, I never really felt threatened by the community I was living in. I had been working late in a store and around 3:30 am began to make my way home, through a residential neighborhood. Before leaving New York, I had just gotten an iPhone and the telltale white headphones stuck out of my sweatshirt. Not paying attention to my surroundings, I hadn’t noticed about five teenagers making their way towards me, slightly encircling me. One boy began to shout in my face, and when my mind should have said, “run,” my mouth instead uttered “huh?” The boy responded with, “What the fuck are you doing here?” One kid behind me punched me right behind the ear and I fell. When I hit the ground, someone rifled through my pockets, taking my phone as others continued to kick me. They stopped as a car pulled up alongside the road.
I think it’s very easy to imagine a utopia where no one ever has to experience physical violence. The very notion of that depends on every person fully taking part in the social contract that no one does harm to another person in return for never having harm done to them. It’s very easy to imagine within a middle class, white upbringing. On the other hand, I can think of times that I have been so hurt not by someone’s actions, but for the simple fact that they didn’t even know what effect their actions had; I was such a nonperson that a detrimental result to my own person did not even register on a scale of humanity.
When I was assaulted, I was listening to an instrumental song. Sounds have long been very important to me. I remember specific songs for three events in my life. The most recent was at my wedding, before that I was listening to a specific song before I crashed my bike and woke up in the street not knowing how I got there. It wasn’t mellow, but it wasn’t abrasive. When the shouting started, I couldn’t feel the mood shift until I was struck.
I later found out that the neighborhood was just recently being gentrified and there had been a spike in similar crimes. It was the first time that I felt painfully aware of anger towards me as an invading agent. It definitely took me awhile to feel secure again, but never so much that I’m not paying attention.
If an entire culture was anthropomorphized, with a spectrum of thoughts and emotions individually kept yet forming as a fluid whole, one could only imagine the reaction of being treated as a criminal from conception. Such as the events of the beginning of stop and frisk and racial profiling in New York, it has to be considered at a certain point that individuals felt that if they were to be branded outlaws that they would become outlaws. Once that idea is discarded, the fear of punishment since punishment is almost inevitable, a person’s moral spectrum has to change completely. Assault is no longer just assault, but an act meant to show a base retaliation. That retaliation happens as two separate experiences randomly enter each other’s existence.
As we’re walking, I see some white dude walking on the same side of the street. Those stupid white headphones mean he’s at least listening to an iPod or something and he doesn’t seem to pay attention to us. Bobby starts walking towards him faster than before and he’s puffing his chest up and the next thing I know, Bobby’s yelling in his face and he looks real confused, Russell’s to the side of him. Bobby’s yelling in his face, “What the fuck are you doing here?” Before he can answer, Russell hits him on the side of his head and everyone’s kicking him. I can’t help but kick him too. I just reach into his pocket and take his phone, it’s the least he can give me. He took my neighborhood.
Being hit is a very odd feeling. I box now as a hobby, so I’m more accustomed to it. I know what it feels like recreationally. An ex has also struck me, so I know what it feels like from that too: to be hit suddenly by a stranger and to not fully know their intentions ranks as one of the most frightening experiences I think have ever had.
The emptiness of the street juxtaposed with the claustrophobia of being surrounded by assailants is really jarring as well. It felt like I could have been at sea, that’s how empty the street was. The next thing I knew I was breathing in someone else’s breath.
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