Thursday, May 25, 2017

Today I Got Assaulted

Today, walking to lunch in Berkeley, I was shoved into a wall.

I'm fine, mostly. Some minor scrapes on my wrist and soreness in my shoulder (which took the brunt of the impact). And the lawyer in me needs to say that technically, it was a "battery" and not an "assault".

The man who attacked me was a member of the local homeless population, and I suspect has some form of mental illness (when I called my mom to tell her, her first thought was that it was a protester angry at something I had written on my blog. Leave it to a Jewish mother to instinctively assume that her son must be important enough to be targeted for violence. A nice career aspiration, I suppose.).

Anyway, we were walking past each other on the sidewalk -- me on the building-side, him street-side -- and as we passed he yelled something unintelligible at me and then kind of pushed/body checked me into the wall.

I was in a bit of shock, and didn't really know what to do, so I just kept walking. But looking over my shoulder, I saw him strike another pedestrian behind me, who was much more visibly upset than I was. And unlike me, he had a bunch of witnesses who urged him to contact the police (conveniently enough, all of this happened literally across the street from the UC-Berkeley Police). Once I saw him walk across the street to talk to the officers, I figured I might as well join him. Unfortunately, my co-victim said he had a final exam to take and quickly bolted, so I ended up being the only person to give a statement.

After quickly getting my information, the first thing they asked was whether I wanted to file a formal police report. Since no officer had witnessed the crime, they couldn't arrest the man (who claimed he was "tying his shoelaces" -- no, he wasn't) without a report. I asked what that would entail. One of the officers said that this was misdemeanor assault, and that in all likelihood he'd be cited, spend a few days in jail, and then be released. I asked if he was known to be violent -- if he was a known problem then that'd be one thing, but if this was a one-off I wasn't sure I wanted to make a big deal about it. One officer said he didn't know of any violent behavior the guy had done, but another said that he was on probation and that he was kind of day-to-day -- sometimes in a good mood and smiling, and other days ... more like this.

Ultimately, I decided to file the report (the decisive factor in my reasoning was that he had hit me and another guy). So I got to have my statement taken (along with pictures of my various scrapes and bruises), and chat with several officers in the process.

One of them was very invested in telling me that media coverage of police violence was completely overblown and that it overlooks all the circumstances or reasons why police use of force might be justified. That was academically a very interesting perspective to listen to, mostly because it was coming from a rank-and-file officer who giving his pretty unvarnished vantage (rather than something airbrushed through a PR office tailor-made to persuade liberal college students).

For example, one rationale one often hears from the "stop snitching" movement is that one shouldn't call the police on people because, when you do so, you're calling upon the tools of state violence which will impose that violence in quite predictable ways on vulnerable communities. And this (non-White, I should add) officer basically offered the same analysis -- except from the other side: he was upset that people call the police and then get angry that the police they call sometimes have to use force. "What did you think would happen," he said (my paraphrase), "if you call us, you're saying that the enforcement arm of the government needs to come in and act as enforcers! So don't act shocked and indignant when we do that!" He believed that the act of calling the police was an implicit license for whatever force was needed to protect the innocent, and thought that the public was two-faced in their desire for protection while disavowing the sorts of acts he felt were frequently necessary to facilitate that protection. Or at one point I thought I was being conciliatory and said something to the effect of "I know no officer thinks it's a good day when they have to use force ....", but he interrupted me and said that you don't become a police officer unless you like all aspects of the job, and there are days where he hopes some punk will give him a reason to take him down.

So again -- that was interesting.

Anyway, I asked what the next steps were, and the answer was "likely nothing" -- the case will almost certainly not go to trial, there will be a citation, a few days in prison, and then he'll be released. Which seems about right. This was not some violent superpredator who needs to be locked away for decades sort of deal.

I'll make one other comment, which may "cut against interest" so to speak. In the immediate aftermath, I was thinking that this was the first time I'd really been the victim of a semi-serious crime. But that made me think back further, and remember one time at Carleton where a bunch of bros (almost certainly drunk) were walking past me in a hall and did something very similar -- a sort of unprovoked push/body check as I was walking past. And my thought then wasn't "I've just been the victim of a crime", it was "wow, those guys are assholes!"

Which they were. Physically attacking other people is an assholish (or, potentially, congressional) thing to do. But the distinction does raise the question of why that event was coded as "assholishness" while this one was coded as "crime". And there are perfectly neutral reasons I could give: For one, the Carleton event didn't cause any cuts, scrapes or bruises. For two, I didn't see the Carleton guys do this to anyone else, whereas I did immediately see this guy attack another pedestrian. And for three, here several witnesses specifically urged the (other) victim to contact the police (who were literally within eyeshot) and he did so -- I just followed along to corroborate.

Still, it seems very likely that part of what explains the difference was the social construction or narrative of what constitutes "crime" or "criminal". When relatively privileged college students push someone around, that makes them dicks, bullies, or jerks. When a homeless person who speaks little English does it, that makes them a criminal. The fact is that two people at various points in my life did effectively identical things to me that violated the same formal criminal proscription, and only one of them now has an arrest record for it. And the reason for the divergence is, at least in some part, due to social positionality.

I don't have cutting commentary to add to this. Just an event that happened that I figured I should reflect upon.


Marni said...

It was strange to see this as your blog post today. Coincidentally, the other night a (white) dude was targeting distracted women who were walking their dogs to "ask for directions" and have a wank at them (this is Iowa. Asking for directions in a rural state where we're all hardwired to direct you to the gas station is really playing dirty). I was one of said women and the only one to file a report. This is a residential racially diverse--think a lot of young families--area in a wealthy suburb. The cops were more concerned than the other resident I spoke with. Speaking of patterns of behavior, the other resident failing to report led to this dolt hanging about the area and preying on me.

troll_dc2 said...

Yes. When criminal-type behavior occurs to you and you fail to report it, you leave it up to the next victim to do something. At the least, filing the report creates a record that can be useful in evaluating future incidents involving the attacker, even if your report does not lead to much this time.