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opinion | Betsy O’Donovan

Lessons in race and disparity, at gunpoint

Globe staff photo illustration

MY MUGGER AND I didn’t discuss matters.

He came toward me, I moved to pass him, he stepped into my path again, he pulled the gun out.

I held up my phone and wallet, and said, “What else do you need?” He grabbed the phone out of my hands and said, “What else have you got?”

“My wallet,” I said, pushing it closer. He grabbed it and ran to a car at the corner. I didn’t try to get a view of the license plate because I really didn’t want to get shot. It’s amazing how you don’t even have to think about how not to get shot. Step one: Don’t follow the guy with the gun.


Then I started trembling, and bolted toward the Savin Hill street where the mayor lives, first walking, then breaking into a run. A cruiser is always parked in front of his house; it’s a feature of the neighborhood. In the back of my head was the thought that I needed to calm down, to not startle a cop in the middle of the night, but then I ran into a couple who let me use their phone to call 911 (thanks, Samaritans). The mayor’s policewoman came around the corner. More police came. I told everyone everything twice, vibrating with adrenaline and perfect rage.

We did a GPS search for my phone, but it was offline, gone. I didn’t care about the phone, but I damn sure wanted those guys to be stopped and — you can laugh; it’s funny — scolded, ideally by me.

Here are the things I know about the kid who mugged me. He was a teenager, between 14 and 18 years old. He wore a dark-colored T-shirt, his hair was short and his lips and cheeks were full. He was black. He was fat and his shorts sagged in a way that exposed his boxers as he hustled to the crossover SUV that drove him from the corner of Maryland Street and Savin Hill Avenue.


A coincidence: It was the first anniversary of Michael Brown’s death on a street in Ferguson, Missouri, and I’d spent the day reading about all that had shifted in the national dialogue during our yearlong course in disparity and institutional racism. How much more vicious the conversation is in some places, more thoughtful in others.

The people I thought about when I looked down at the gun in his hand were, in order: his mother, my parents, and my Krav Maga instructor.

After the cop dropped me off at home, I turned on a lot of lights and decided there was no point in ruining everyone’s night discussing something that was already over. I cleaned the bathtub. My parents were driving from Omaha to Boston to visit, and I needed to scrub things while I thought about how I would tell them about the mugging, the charge for which is technically armed robbery.

I didn’t want to tell my mother about what happened.

I wanted to tell his mother.

In my Krav Maga beginners’ class, the instructor never described a weapon as “the knife” or “a gun.” Just “gun,” or “knife.”

“Today we’ll learn how to disarm knife,” he would say.

And what I saw when I looked down at that kid’s hand wasn’t a gun. It was gun.

It was black and seemed small in his grip. Then I took my instructor’s advice for bad situations, which is, “Just do what you must to get the hell out of there.”


Which brings us back to the kid.

To him, I think, it was just about the phone, the payday. He was efficient and seemed practiced, and maybe robbing women at gunpoint is a thing he’s doing to get the hell out of there, wherever there is, whatever it is.

Maybe the only point of universal agreement in post-Trayvon Martin, post-Michael Brown, post-Tamir Rice America is that this country is almost as uncomfortable with complexity as it is with black teenagers. I won’t compare my jerk mugger with those kids in any way except their age, race, and sex, but when those demographics collide with American culture and institutional racism, young, black manhood is destroyed in a stunning variety of ways.

I don’t know him. I don’t know his motives. I have no sympathy. He casually pointed a gun at my chest, the suggestion heavy in his hand that my life is worth less than an iPhone and some credit cards.

Still, I wonder, raging, what put him in that moment with me, what he did afterward, what he would have done if I said no, what happens to him now, and next.

I was inconvenienced for a few hours, forced into a conversation that terrified my mother, but that’s the end of it for me, plus or minus some thinking about mortality and the things I want and haven’t done yet, the people I care about and want to pull closer.


I’m sleeping just fine.

Maybe my mugger sleeps well too. But I can be furious in the aftermath and still wonder, on balance, which of us is luckier, which of us is safer, which of us is going to be OK, and which of us probably isn’t.

And I can want it to be different, to have always been different, for both of us.

Betsy O’Donovan works with a network of independent public media journalists, based in Fields Corner, and is an adjunct instructor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.


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