Maybe I don’t know and maybe it’s okay
More than ever, I’ve been mentally preoccupied with the threat of political polarization to American society. The last four years, I’ve seen exactly how much harm a president can do to standards of civility and discourse. I hope we can collectively choose to live in a world that’s less divided and more nuanced. The simple truth, I believe, is there usually is no simple truth. And we desperately need leaders who can hold space in their hearts and minds for the often contradictory experiences of others.
At the same time that the world is becoming more complex than ever, we’ve also seen the internet and its denizens become increasingly certain in the beliefs they express. Some are “trolling”, but many are sincere in their worries and concerns. As we spend more of our time online, our identities become increasingly tied to our beliefs. We are all Schrödinger’s cat, our undetermined states being resolved into black or white.
The creation of the internet was the opening of Pandora’s box. We can’t go back to the way things used to be, nor do we necessarily want to. Rather than looking backward, we should look forward at who we want to be as a people, who we need to be. I want to live in a culture that celebrates subtlety and forgives mistakes, that does not reward the loudest yelling with the largest platforms.
We hold beliefs, subconscious or not, we live complex experiences, and we reflect and update our beliefs imperfectly. Sometimes we fully turn our backs on our views, but mostly we add shading to them. Occasionally we stubbornly ignore overwhelming evidence, frustrating those around us. But faith and love stem from the same source, so can we be faulted for our irrationality?
I awoke to “Police!”. Dazed and confused, I muttered “good one” as my body fought to return to slumber. Without warning, my body lurched downward and I was dragged by my ankles to the living room, and plopped down on the couch. The year was 2011, I was a college sophomore living in an apartment near my college campus. Adrenaline coursing through my veins, the situation grew into sharp focus. Eight armed men of various uniforms were combing through our tiny two-bedroom apartment. I later learned they were a combination of university police, state police, and a couple of FBI officers.
As they searched the rooms, it seemed that they grew more comfortable with my presence, probably deciding I was not a risk to them and I was allowed to sit up. Still not understanding the situation , I asked one of the men if I could use the restroom. He thought for a moment, then had someone remove the razors and sharp objects from the bathroom before letting me go in.
Eventually the searching dwindled down and the number of men trickled down from eight to five to two. One of the men sat down across from me. He explained that he was FBI and began asking questions. What games did my roommate play (don’t know) and how could afford a PS2 or a nice laptop (he had a job). When he was satisfied that I knew nothing else, he explained that the FBI had received a warrant to search the apartment for evidence of internet credit-card fraud, which I knew nothing about and doubted my roommates did either. He asked me what I was studying (math) and told me he studied the same thing in school.
As a notorious back-talker, I threw in a jab and asked him why the FBI was wasting their time on some petty credit-card fraud. His face hardened, any camaraderie he felt evaporated, and he told me that potentially millions of dollars of damage had been done. He treated me icily after that.
All of our laptops were confiscated. I received mine back more than a year later. It did not come with an apology or an admission of error, and none of us was ever charged. The state had made a mistake, and the state does not apologize unless they are made to.
“Should we call the police?” I stood facing my three roommates in the kitchen, holding a tissue to my bleeding nose. It was 2017, and we had moved into our apartment in the SoMa neighborhood of San Francisco less than a year ago. We should have asked why the previous tenants moved out.
Our unit was connected to the two below it by two sets of common stairs, in the front and back of the apartment. Shortly after moving in, our downstairs neighbor introduced himself to us one early evening by screaming loudly at us as we walked up the front stairs, claiming our footsteps were too loud. Before we could respond, he slammed his door closed. Bewildered, we first thought about whether we had been too careless with our noise, but agreed that he could have asked more nicely.
As we continued adapting to city life, we would go months without hearing from him. But when we did, it was an eruption similar to the first one: the door swinging open wildly, loud, barely coherent profanity-laced tirade, followed by the door quickly slamming shut. My original empathy for him grew into anger.
One afternoon, a visiting friend was frightened by one of his tirades on the way up to our apartment. Incensed, I walked downstairs and rang his doorbell, repeatedly, intending to confront him. He did not open his door. Two days later, we received an envelope slipped under our door. Surprisingly, it was an apology from him. He claimed to have been under medication during the previous incident, and believed it to be the middle of the night rather than the middle of the afternoon. I thought maybe we had turned a corner and wouldn’t be hearing from him again.
A few months went by, and it happened again, my roommate was once-again verbally abused as he walked up the stairs again. Furious, I began forming a response for him that I could unload without thinking the next time I saw him.
The next weekend, I was taking out the trash during the middle of the day, walking up and down the back stairs. As I walked up the second time, I noticed a figure blocking my path. This was new, he had never shown himself outside his door, and never on the back stairs. He began, snidely but without raising his voice, “last night your friend stomped up the stairs…” (we had no guests the previous night). Seeing my chance to finally rebuke him, I interrupted him and began talking over him. “Since we moved in, you have been totally disrespectful to myself and my roommates. We’ve lived here for half a year and you’ve never had the common decency to even talk to us as people….”
As I unloaded on him, he started making louder guttural noises, as if to block out my words. I responded to him by yelling even louder. As we continued to escalate, I sensed that he had reached his maximum volume but was planning to escalate further. He then aggressively entered my space, pushed his forehead directly into mine and continued screaming at max volume into my face. I stopped ranting, pushed him away from me, bewildered. Physical touch crossed a line I was not prepared for.
When I pushed him away, I could tell something changed for him. His eyes looked crazed. He cocked back his arm, and in slow motion I saw his fist coming toward my face. My arms, never used before in a fight, remained at my side. Fist connected with soft face. I felt surprise more than pain. I raised my hand to my nose, felt blood dripping from it.
My roommates had heard the commotion, and at this point came to my aid. They pulled me up the stairs. As he tried to follow us up, they told him to back off and go back to his apartment. He seemed to return to his senses and slowly returned to his floor and closed his door.
We called the police. When they arrived, the neighbor claimed self-defense, that he felt threatened, and that I pushed him first. The policemen who arrived assessed the situation, noted my visible facial damage and the backstory that we explained, and decided our story was more plausible. A police report was filed, describing the situation as a clear one of aggressor and victim. The policemen asked if I wanted to file a restraining order against him, and I said yes.
The court date was set, and I thought it would be straightforward to obtain the police report as evidence. It was not. I visited the office three or four times, each time after they said the report would be ready, and each time there was a different reason it was not available (“the guy who does that is on vacation” or “we don’t know what happened”). The day before the court date I tried one last time, and the report was still unavailable. I wept, overcome with fear that I would not be able to disprove his claim of self-defense.
In court, my neighbor went before the judge and did not deny his actions, instead choosing to continue his rant about walking too loudly on the stairs which the judge entirely ignored. Strangely, this earned my respect; Despite his obvious character flaws, he was at least honest. We later surmised that he was probably bipolar or dealing with some severe anger issues. The judge easily awarded me my restraining order, given the lack of defense on his part. We moved out from that apartment a few months later.
“I cannot positively identify this man”. I was sitting in a cop car, headlights shining into the face of a young man being held on his knees. It’s 2019. Earlier that evening, I had been walking back from the gym to my apartment in the Mission neighborhood of SF. I’d walked this hundreds of times before, and never for a moment felt unsafe.
As I passed under a streetlamp, I saw a shadow lurching toward me. Before I could turn my head, I felt a pull on my backpack and heard loud voices. Instinctively, without turning, I slipped free of my backpack and ran, yelling at the top of my voice for help, hearing footsteps close behind. No one came. I slipped, and someone was on me.
He dragged me to the wall, held me from behind and pressed something sharp to my throat, drawing blood. In shock, I now understood that I was being robbed. “What do you want?” I yelled frantically. I was terrified. My wallet, my phone, and my phone password, he demanded. I also saw two men going through my backpack for valuables. I stuttered my phone password as he pocketed my phone. As they gathered my things, they seemed to be laughing. They walked slowly away from me, seemingly cocky that no one would stop them.
Before I could think, feel, somehow, improbably, a cop car turned onto the road. The officers saw me, and the three men. I immediately pointed at them and yelled, “They’ve stolen my things!”. The men took off running and the cop car peeled off after them. I was left to pick up my remaining belongings off the street.
I called 911 belatedly; they directed me to a pair of police cars a block away who took my statement. They heard updates over the radio, and told me I was incredibly lucky — my items had probably been recovered, and the men had been caught. I’d also suffered very minor injuries, a small cut on the neck. Could have been a lot worse. I felt immensely grateful to the cops.
They asked me repeatedly for details of the men who mugged me, but things happened so quickly. I remembered only that the men were African-American, but no other details. What were they wearing? I don’t know. How tall were they? I don’t know. How much did they weigh? Etc.
They asked if I’d be willing to do a “cold showing”. They’ve found three men who, they tell me as if reading from a script, may or may not be the men who mugged you. They wanted me to tell them if I could positively ID them — that is, if I could say with certainty that these men were the same ones who attacked me. I’d seen countless stories of African American men being falsely convicted on the basis of their skin, their only crime being in the vicinity of a crime. I promised myself that I would not add to that pain.
I sat in the police cruiser as we drove by each man. For each one, I repeated: “I cannot positively identify this man”. I could sense the disappointment in the cop’s face, but he said nothing. I apologized, and he told me not to apologize. But I had hope that my positive ID would not matter — the police chased these men down, right? They didn’t lose line of sight with them, did they?
I was told that these men would face trial, that they would be held in jail until the day of the trial. The police seemed confident that they would be convicted. My items were recovered. I marveled at my luck. It seemed that I managed to make it through physically uninjured, and with the perpetrators immediately caught. “Best mugging I’ve ever had”, I told the police officer with a smile.
That weekend I flew to visit some friends, and didn’t think much of the incident while I was gone. The day I flew back, I spent a half-day at the office, then walked home from work. Then it happened. A shadow passed behind me and my adrenaline spiked. Someone was way too close to me, I was going to get mugged again. I turned my head and it was a young woman, giving me a puzzled look. I waited for her to pass, and continued walking.
Thirty seconds pass, and a car headlight passed behind me. I freaked out again. For the rest of my trip home, I turned my head at every flickering shadow, at every unexpected noise. I arrived at home, heart pounding, and locked the door. For the rest of the week, I took an Uber home after work.
I made light of it at the time, but I had suffered some mental trauma. I feared not just for myself, but for the safety of my friends who take the same route every day. If I could be attacked in such a public area, how could anyone stay safe? I was, however, reassured by the quick action of the police. At least these men were caught immediately. Maybe that would prevent them and others like them from attempting to do the same again.
A man from SF Victim Services called to inform me that I would be subpoenaed for a preliminary trial. The DA believed my testimony would be crucial for the trial. I was set up on a phone call with the assistant DA. On the phone, the assistant DA informed me that because of the lack of a positive ID on my part, there was potentially insufficient evidence to convict these men.
I felt anger, then shame at my anger. Should I have positively ID’d the men? Didn’t the police maintain line of sight with them? Yes, with two of them, but they may have lost contact with the third. I run back through what I remember. The three men, the police car and I were all on the same street together. If they remained in line-of-sight with two of those men, and the third had known associations with them and was found nearby, what more evidence could be needed?
I met with the assistant DA in person, and shared my frustration and shame with her. She sympathized and revealed some information I hadn’t known — the young men were actually high-school students who drove in from another city. High schoolers? I thought back to the many poor decisions I made as a high schooler. But I never assaulted anyone.
She pressed on. It’s my decision whether to pursue prison time or restorative justice. Prison time is unlikely to help these young men choose a different path, or learn from past mistakes. I chose restorative justice, which she nodded approvingly at. She reminded me that the police were still collecting evidence, and there was a chance no trial would take place, but that she would fight on my behalf.
Months passed. The police continued to collect evidence. I was called to the station to submit my fingerprints. I received a letter specifying a court date, then a second one pushing back to a later date. Coronavirus reached the US, and I didn’t receive any more phone calls or updates. A new DA was elected, the assistant DA was let go or quit. The day of the trial came and I called the phone number on the letter to understand if the trial had been delayed due to quarantine, but no one picked up. I decided not to go, and nobody called me.
I’m not sure how to end this post. I don’t have a larger point I’m getting to, except that maybe sometimes there is no larger point to get to. Life happens, and it doesn’t always fall into a neat narrative. But it’s also still happening, and I’m still growing. I’m grateful for my most painful experiences, if only for giving me the gift of empathy. And if reading these stories has added some nuance to your life as well, then I’m grateful for that too.