When I hit the street my first thought was: they’re going to shoot me in the back of the head. Then, I stood up and four young men began circling me like sharks, punching me in the face. Beating me.
I heard one of them yell, “We’re gonna kill you, white boy!” and he stepped up and hit me again.
These young men were black and not even 18 years old. I lived in a mostly black neighborhood in San Francisco’s Western Addition just a block up Grove Street from the projects. I was a minority there.
My left arm was hanging from its socket and my bike was laying in the center of the street beyond the melee. The one thing I knew was not to fight back. If I did, I knew I’d be dead.
I had been biking home from band rehearsal when I saw a shadow run from my left. Then, I heard a very loud SMACK! I looked over my shoulder and a construction roadblock was laying behind me. I had enough time to think someone threw that at me and then I felt hands shove me from my right.
I went down hard on the asphalt and used my hands to prevent my face from grinding into the street. One arm was successful in protecting me. The other arm was dislocated.
My left shoulder had just healed a week before from breaking my collar bone in the Castro District biking home from my first HIV test. I had turned 22 years old the day before, I was negative, and I was celebrating by riding fast with a smile on my face.
A car pulled out in front of me, which caused me to weave into a tall curb. Hitting it propelled me into a stop sign and a tree. I landed in a bush. Broken.
My collarbone had snapped and I knocked all the wind out of myself. A crowd gathered around me and as I gasped for air in the hot August sun, I heard someone yell, “He’s punctured a lung!”
Two months later, the same left shoulder was hanging from its socket. The stranger had been wrong about my lung. It never punctured. Now both lungs were pumping hard and I was filled with adrenaline as I stared at the gang circling me in the dark.
It was 11:00 pm and the streets were filled with people but no one did anything to stop the attack. I stood and took my punishment.
Then, the men began running off like scared hyenas. One scattered into the projects, another toward lines of identical housing, and a third ran up the hill toward my house. But one remained. He was trying to put his feet into the bootstraps on the pedals of my bike. I owned no car; it was my only transportation.
I pleaded with him calmly as blood ran down my face and from my hands, “Please don’t take my bike. Please.”
“Stay back, motherfucker!” he yelled and rode off into the night.
I stood watching him, holding my left arm up with my right. He and my bike were gone.
A woman came out of the darkness, looked me in the face, and said bluntly, “You better get outta here before they come back and finish the job.”
I recognized her fear for me and then I remembered to be frightened.
This was not the first time I had been jumped by a gang. The first attack was by three young white men in downtown Saint Cloud, Minnesota.
I was 16 years old and my friends and I were throwing a frisbee in the street. Long-haired punk rock kids with nothing to do on a Midwest summer night.
A sports car pulled up between us and three big, college student-looking white guys got out.
“What’re are you doin’, ya fags!?” the smallest of the three yelled.
“Nothing you assholes,” my buddy Vinny retorted.
The three ran at him but instead of catching Vinny, they caught his brother. Paul was a Korean-American with very long, black hair. They grabbed his ponytail and began using it to slam his face into the sidewalk.
“You’re fuckin’ dead, chink,” one of them said as they bashed his face into the pavement again.
They intended to kill him so I ran across the street and pulled the big one off the top of Paul. Surprised, the bulky guy stood up, looming over me, and his two friends flanked him like mammoth soldiers.
One swung at me and missed. A second guy threw a fist and I put up my arm to block the punch. It connected with my right elbow, cracking and breaking it.
I spun on my heels and began to run. Staying would mean more cracked bones or worse. My feet sped on the street, a rabbit running from wolves. I was on the balls of my feet and I felt the giants directly behind me, reaching, fingers near my back, but not catching me. My body shot around a dumpster in an alley and I was able to lose them.
Paul had a concussion. I had a broken right arm and lived with a plaster cast for six weeks. No one ever learned who the three college-aged white men were.
Six years later, I was rapping hard on the window of my friend Dawn’s apartment in San Francisco. Not wanting to risk going the block to my home because I had seen one of the men run that way. I chose to walk two blocks to her place directly across the street from the projects.
She eyed me through the window, opened the door with shock on her face, called a cab, and took me to an emergency room. Doctors and nurses filled me full of painkillers and popped my arm back into its socket.
The police arrived to interview me about being jumped while I was still laying in the hospital bed. I did my best to explain what happened and Dawn filled in the details because I was not completely coherent.
Through my shock and smeared memory, I recall one police officer saying, “Kid, you should move. That’s a bad neighborhood. They don’t like guys like you there.”
I was leaving for Prague in two months and had nowhere else to go. That was my neighborhood. Each morning after the attack, I walked down the street and past the corner where I was jumped. It was my only route to get to the BART station where I’d take the train to UC Berkeley.
Walking with my left arm strapped to my body in a sling. My heart racing. Blood pumping. My fear swelling every day. Panicked and trauma-stricken.
Days before I packed up to move to the Czech Republic, Dawn and I were on her front stoop when an older, grandmotherly-looking black woman approached us.
She asked, “You waitin’ for the mail?” Before we could answer, she said, “You’re gonna be waitin’ a long time. They shot the mailman this afternoon. Five o’clock in the daylight. They didn’t even steal the mail. He was Chinese. Shot and killed him.”
Violence is blind to color. It sees no race. It’s an eyeless monster burning, rampaging, and destroying anything in its bloody path.
But violence is an act and it requires someone to commit the act. People are the ones who act using violence. People use violence because of ignorance and fear. Violence leaves a wake of pain, creating more fear and violence. A blind cycle of rage.
People are responsible for the continuous cycle of violence.
I’ve thought of those seven young men who attacked me often. I can’t blame them for their actions because I don’t know what happened to each of them. I don’t know what life experiences caused their acts of violence. Their past experience before attacking me is a mystery and their future afterward is a fantasy.
In my imagination, the white men now live in the Minneapolis suburbs, drink beer, and watch the Vikings play football on Sunday. Two of them are divorced and one had a heart attack. They have a friend who is married to an Asian woman; they tolerate her, but they do not like her.
The white men rarely see each other and it’s been years since they talked about the high school kids they jumped and tried to kill. In the past, when they did talk about it, they would laugh and laugh. Now, they hide it. I wonder if they’re ashamed? I wonder if they feel guilt?
In the fiction I’ve created, the black men fared much worse than the white men. It’s much harder to be black in America than white.
One of them is in prison and one is dead. Another did time for drug possession and is on parole in Oakland, and the fourth settled down in Modesto, married, and has two children.
The fourth black man is often scared for his children. One is a girl and one is a boy. He wonders if they will get attacked for the color of their skin.
I wonder if he remembers me? Does he believe in karma? Does his fear for his children stem from the fear he caused me?
What violence helped me do is recognize the importance of peace. To recognize the value of being a pacifist and to see human beings as good. No matter the color of our skin, we’re all good.
Peace requires action just like violence does. It’s also extremely powerful but its eyes are open. Peace sees that we have many differences and many similarities, too. It sees the brilliance of our differences and embraces them. It sees the similarities in us all being human. Peace creates, violence destroys.
I choose to create.