This past week I arrived in Chicago to spend one month attending the Linguistic Society of America’s 2015 Summer Linguistics Institute hosted at the University of Chicago. I have just two weeks left to go before I return to Philadelphia, but I have learned more about guns than grammar per se on this trip.
Classes at the institute have been incredibly stimulating and I am happy to have this opportunity to pursue my interest in language. But, last Thursday I experienced something that can never be recreated in a lesson plan – two men robbed me at gunpoint as I was entering my home.
At 9pm I began walking home from campus with a fellow graduate student and friend. We parted ways at her house and I walked the next block alone to my house. Thinking of my husband I took out my cell phone to call him and say good night. When I reached the door and put my key in the lock a noise came from behind me. Turning around I found two men on my steps and myself in complete shock. The only thing that registered on my mind was the large revolver being held by the first man. After a few seconds I realized they were trying to steal my phone and my purse and possibly kill me.
The man with gun said, “don’t scream.” I screamed uncontrollably as loud as possible “STOP!” I screamed this over and over as the first man with the gun grabbed my phone and ripped my over-the-shoulder bag from my body. My screams drew some of the neighbors from their homes and the men took off. I continued to make loud cries of “SORRY!” as tears flowed unstoppably. I was sorry to have been so stupid to not see them coming, to think it was safer to call someone as I walked the block to my home than walk alone, and sorry to know I had caused such a scene in public.
Neighbors across the street called out to me and I stumbled to their porch as they called the police. Immediately I asked to borrow their phone and call my poor husband who heard everything on the phone from our apartment back in Philadelphia. The police arrived just as I finished explaining to him what happened and promised to call him again as soon as I possibly could.
My screams had also awoken my roommates who were waiting in the house as the police and I returned to the house. 30 minutes or so passed as they completed the police report and I worked to control my sobbing. I explained to the police officers how I came to be at my porch, that the men who attacked me were dark skinned, African-American males somewhere between 20 and 25 years old and just under 6 feet tall. They wore hats, hoodies, and dark clothes. I reported that my purse, wallet, cash, identification, iPhone, iPad, headphones, and a few other miscellaneous items had been stolen.
By this time another fellow graduate student and friend arrived by coincidence. He had planned to stop by and hang out with a mutual friend of my roommates. Seeing the face of this good friend lightened my state of being quite a bit. Soon after the police left and I began the process of recovering myself.
My friend lent me his phone to call my husband and my bank to cancel my debit card. He gave me the phone to borrow the rest of the night and the following day. He hugged me goodnight and I went to my room ready to lie down. Several hours passed before I feel asleep.
I spent the rest of the next day going through the long, slow, and expensive task of getting back the possessions taken from me, possessions that had taken great amounts of work and sacrifice to earn. Yet, I know it will take even longer to get back what has really been lost in this event – my view of the world I inhabit.
For the longest time I have been acting from a rather naïve perspective. Not always paying attention to my surroundings and not truly recognizing that violence is a threat present even in the spaces I feel most comfortable. I am fortunate that this realization comes when I am 24 years old and that I did not grow up in a violent household, neighborhood, or city where I may have needed to learn this lesson at a younger more impressionable age. However, since seeing that gun pointed directly at me I now have a greater appreciation for the sense of safety that I have for so long taken for granted.
I also have a greater appreciation for anthropology and the empowerment of intellectualizing a problem. I know that the University of Chicago in the neighborhood of Hyde Park is a gentrifying force that continues to encroach upon the space of the community of the men who attacked me. (See this link on the definition of gentrification if you aren’t already familiar with the concept.) I know these men experience a daily racial oppression that comes from being a person of color in the U.S. And perhaps it was these and other circumstances beyond their control that lead them to threaten my life with a gun and steal from me. So as traumatizing as my individual incident was I can see how something so big and dramatic in my immediate realm of experience is really quite small in the larger spectrum of collective experiences that we shape and that shape us.
Yet, even though intellectualization and anthropology have provided me a broader perspective I still cringe at the thought of that gun staring straight at me. I still feel cautious walking around the campus at University of Chicago and on the streets in Hyde Park. I still feel anxious at times knowing that someone at any time could try to kill me again.
So, my questions remains, can intellectualizing a personal problem or situation actually resolve feelings? Will my understanding of the ways that those two men are systematically and institutionally mistreated, misunderstood, and misrepresented eventually make me feel differently about what they did to me?
Perhaps yes. Perhaps no. Only time can tell.
But for now, I take comfort in the fact that I am still alive and that I have family, friends, colleagues and an amazing husband to support me.
I also seek relief from the inner feelings of confusion and betrayal in the thought of forgiveness – something we all deserve no matter our crime.