There is something morbidly instructive about being beaten up by people who are obviously relishing your humiliation. To read about the pleasure people have taken in cruelty is not the same as experiencing it firsthand.
Before I was set upon, assaulted, and robbed, at roughly 9:15 PM, a half-block from my girlfriend A.’s building in Chelsea, December 17 had been a rather good day. I’d outlined one of the last chapters of my book on Frantz Fanon and felt a surge of adrenaline about the work ahead. Then I took a long, satisfying swim, hopped on the train to Manhattan, and had Mexican food and drinks with an old friend—an otherwise normal New York evening that, in this era, felt almost sublime. As I walked to A.’s building, I put on my headphones to listen to the rest of a podcast conversation with my friend Randall Kennedy, about his new book on race and civil rights, Say It Loud. Randy’s voice was the last thing I heard as I turned right on West Seventeenth Street and Ninth Avenue, where my attackers were lying in wait.
Once I noticed them, I knew something was awry. Suddenly, I was aware of being surrounded on all sides by other bodies that should not have been so close to mine. They were three young men, barely old enough to be called that—sixteen or seventeen, I would guess. Then, almost immediately, I was on the pavement.
I don’t know if I was jumped or if I was thrown to the ground. What I remember is a thud, the sound of my body meeting the concrete. As soon as I fell, they began to take turns kicking and punching me, in my stomach, my uppermost thigh, and the right side of my waist (an especially vulnerable place for me, since I have chronic lower back pain, and it had been flaring up in the previous few weeks).
They didn’t say anything; nothing, at any rate, that I can recall. What I do remember is their laughter. They were chuckling among themselves as I absorbed the blows. Their voices sounded youthful and immature, and they moved like gangling teenagers. But they knew something that had never occurred to me: that my prone, defenseless body could be the source of considerable entertainment. Two of my assailants were black; the third I barely saw. I think they were wearing masks, and they might have been wearing hats. One of them was tall but paunchy, as though his body hadn’t yet aligned with his height; the others were thinner. I would have a hard time identifying any of them in a line-up.
Later, it occurred to me that this random explosion was like a scene of carnal aggression out of A Clockwork Orange, or from one of Michael Haneke’s films. But while it was happening, there was nothing cinematic about it, no sense of a heightened reality. I just felt alone, as if no one existed apart from me and my attackers, whose motives were obscure and, I feared, perhaps lethal.
After a cascade of blows, one of them put his hand in my pocket, almost as an afterthought, feeling for my wallet. His hand was jittery, either because he was actually high or simply high on adrenaline. It made me think of a boy nervously copping a feel under a girl’s sweater. While he was trying to get my wallet, one of his associates brandished an object and seemed ready to stab me. I retreated into a place of resignation, calm, even serenity.
At precisely that moment, they dashed off. Either they had had enough and decided to stop, or they heard someone approaching. They’d taken neither my wallet nor my phone. All they had stolen was my knapsack, which contained nothing of value, except to the owner: a copy of the London Review of Books, the new issue of The Wire, an avant-garde music magazine; Abdelrazak Gurnah’s novel Paradise; an overnight bag with my swimming gear. I was surprised they’d left me with my valuables; perhaps the attack was an initiation into a gang that requires its members to prove their manhood by attacking people like me. Their mission—my brutalization—accomplished, they vanished, into the housing project just across from where the attack took place.
I struggled to stand up. Various parts of my body already hurt, especially my right side and lower back. My ear felt as if it had been crushed, and I assumed it was bleeding. In that moment, I remembered an earlier incident, a few years ago, in my own neighborhood in Brooklyn, when a group of youths had attacked me with stones and chased me on Lafayette Avenue. A man in a brownstone, taking out his garbage, noticed me and took me in until the threat had passed.
This time, no one was around. Seventeenth Street is often very desolate west of Ninth Avenue, but I’d walked along the same path countless times, and never in fear.
Now, afraid they’d return and start up again, I ran. And as I ran, I heard, or imagined that I heard, more of that laughter, that conspiratorial chuckling. Perhaps it was funny to see this middle-aged, middle-class white man running for his life after taking a beating. I suspect that I either heard someone else’s laughter, unrelated to the incident, or none at all, except in my mind. But the perception of being laughed at made me run faster, at first right past A.’s building, until I realized where I was, turned around, and walked inside.
She called 911 as soon as I arrived, and, after explaining to the dispatcher what had happened, handed me the phone. I spoke to someone whose accent was so impenetrable that A. and I both wondered whether emergency calls had been outsourced, like everything else, to a call center thousands of miles away. But the police arrived in the lobby of her building a few minutes later, apparently having just responded to another complaint in the neighborhood.
At first, they seemed confused. It turned out that the person I had reached on 911 thought he was dealing with a domestic dispute. We had to explain that neither of us had attacked the other. I went downstairs with one of the officers, a tall and imposing black man whose earnest, deliberate manner reassured me. We walked to the scene of the crime and were able to locate exactly where it had taken place because my headphones were still there, evidently of no more interest to my attackers than my wallet or phone.
We got into a police SUV, and a young woman in a hijab drove us slowly along Seventeenth Street and the neighboring streets. The officer asked me about my attackers: how many, what age, what race, were they wearing hats, etc. “Do you recognize anyone who might have attacked you,” he asked.
That morning, I had read a long story in The New York Times about Alice Sebold, who had been certain of the identity of her rapist, only to end up condemning an innocent black man to sixteen years of prison. Unlike Sebold, I couldn’t even claim to have seen the faces of my attackers. I didn’t want to make guesses from a moving car, and I expressed my doubts. “You might remember something,” he replied. He wasn’t about to be drawn into a conversation about the ethics of police identification, and why would he? He had a job to do, and he was working on my behalf.
As the adrenaline wore off, the pain began to grow. The police put me in an ambulance on Seventeenth Street, and I moved onto a stretcher. The EMTs looked me over: pulse fine, no head injuries. Remarkably, I had no visible bruises, possibly because I had been wearing two jackets. One of the EMTs, a Latin American guy in his thirties, told me that he’d had a similar experience, and warned that I’d be in much worse pain the next day (he was right). Then we were joined by Officer R., the lead investigator of the case, a soft-spoken white man in his fifties, and Officer B., a black man in his late thirties with an easygoing manner that, as I came to see, did little to conceal his hard-nosed view of policing. He complained about Mayor de Blasio (no friend of the police) and said things were better under Bloomberg and Giuliani, when the police had “more discretion.” Eric Adams, a former cop, was becoming mayor, but still, B. said, “he’s a politician, he’s not the commissioner of the police.” I wondered whether he thought the police commissioner should run the city, but kept my mouth shut. I was in no mood for an argument about politics—least of all with someone who was taking me to the emergency room.
I asked B. if I could make a call to my girlfriend. “Can you call your girlfriend? Tell her she can come along with us to the emergency room!” He said this as if the party was just getting started and she shouldn’t be left out. A few moments later, A. climbed inside the ambulance, and B. and R. began to ask me the same questions the other officer had, questions they had probably been asking of others all day. When I said, again, that I didn’t think I could identify my attackers, they didn’t press me further. (It’s possible that the presence of a black woman inhibited them—“They were trying to figure us out,” A. speculated afterward.) R. gave me his card when he left. “You might have more of an image of them in your mind a few days later.” There are surveillance cameras on Seventeenth Street, and there was a chance that the attack, or the getaway, was captured on video.
B. stuck around and spent more than an hour with us at the hospital on Thirteenth Street. I found I liked him, for all his talk about “discretion,” and I think he liked us. “You a writer? I’m a writer, too! I write up police reports.” He asked where A.’s people came from and was tickled that she had the same roots as he did: black on one side, Puerto Rican on the other, with some Taino ancestry, too. (When a nurse asked me for an emergency contact number, I hesitated for a moment, then asked A. for her mobile number. “Here we go, it’s happening right in front of us!” he declared, as if he were hosting a dating show.) His English-sounding last name, he said, could be traced back to the group of soldiers who had confined his Native American ancestors to a reservation in South Carolina. It wasn’t clear if hanging out with us was part of his job or a welcome distraction from it. He told us about his marriage to another police officer, expounded on his philosophy of aggressive policing (“I take action, I don’t just react,” he said, and I believed him), and blamed gang violence on hip-hop lyrics, even as he casually dropped into the conversation that he was friends with the Wu-Tang Clan and had recently hung out in the studio with them. (In New York, everyone is fifteen feet from fame.)
When he said that marijuana was a gateway drug to more dangerous narcotics, if not a life of crime, I remembered the edible that I had ingested a few hours before the attack, to enhance the pleasure of the jazz set my friend and I ended up not getting to, and hoped I wouldn’t have to take a drug test, wondering irrationally if I’d be blamed for what happened. In any case, by then I had already moved on to harder drugs: a nurse, a Filipino woman named Lisa, gave me a lovely dose of Percocet, which left me floating, the sharpest pain suppressed.
The hospital staff treated me with kindness, even tenderness, in a room that I had all to myself. Lisa, as she checked my blood pressure, joked that this was her first day working at the hospital (she was a veteran of twelve years). I remember, too, a wiry Egyptian technician, Khaled, who gave me my CT scan, but not before he had delivered an indignant speech about the horrors of the Sisi regime and the shameful backing it had received from the Western powers. “Why can’t they leave the nation alone,” he kept saying, as I waited for him to begin the procedure. I agreed entirely but somewhat regretted I’d mentioned my reporting on Egypt, since, as much as I wanted his nation to be left alone, I wanted even more to get my CT scan results and go home. The scan showing no damage, we left the hospital a little before 4 AM.
Crime is still low in New York, but it has been increasing since the pandemic, and there are more reports of attacks like mine. A few weeks ago, a resident in A.’s building walked out on the Sixteenth Street side—the “safer” side, near the Chelsea Market—and was punched by a stranger. Twelve blocks further uptown, the police stopped a rape in progress at a construction site. The subways feel more volatile than usual, more like the trains of the 1970s and 1980s. In early December, I was on the subway when a desperate-looking man walked up to a homeless man who was asleep, and brazenly began to pick his pocket. Two passengers, both black, rose to the victim’s defense, one of them yelling, “Get off the train, nigga!” I was listening to my headphones and only realized what had happened when the train stopped, and a fight seemed about to erupt. But I confess that I would probably have been too frightened to intervene. The victim was lucky that two civilians came to his rescue. It’s not likely that the police would have given him the kind of consideration that I received if he had suffered an attack similar to mine.
I have always taken pride in having overcome the fear of the streets that I had when I first arrived in the city in 1990, at the age of eighteen. I made New York my home, and the streets came to feel almost like an extension of my living room. I knew that bad things happened, but assumed that, of course, they would never happen to me. And I told myself that the physical strength I’d gained from decades of swimming would protect me. It did, to a point: my injuries would surely have been worse without it. But it could not prevent an attack like the one that occurred when I walked into the trap that had likely been set for anyone who happened to be walking by alone that Friday evening.
The place where I was attacked has lately become a scene of increasing race and class tension. Though they’re cheek by jowl, to go from the Fulton Houses to A.’s building is to travel from one world to another: from a vast, impersonal housing project to a luxury residence with twenty-four-hour door people and a plush lobby adorned with minimalist sculptures and abstract paintings. A. lives in effect between these worlds—in one of the building’s minority of apartments reserved as affordable housing for working-class renters. Although horrified by the attack, she was also troubled by the prospect of having to go through what she calls “the system”—meaning, primarily, the police—in order to protect her white boyfriend, in a case that could have serious legal repercussions for a group of young black men. Maybe, she mused, she could give my attackers a “good talking-to” and shame them. But as much as I like the image of this popular tribunal, with my girlfriend as chief interrogator, I am not sure they can be shamed.
“You, of all people,” a writer friend said to me after the attack, alluding to my writing on jazz and racial injustice, as if there were a cruel irony in the choice of target. But I don’t see much irony in being attacked: my writing was simply irrelevant in this situation. Oddly enough, perhaps, I don’t even feel attacked personally. The young men who brutalized me were not targeting me so much as a symbol they took me to represent.
The question is, what kind of symbol. At first, I puzzled over this, finding a kind of consolation in analytic detachment about my attackers’ possible motives. The morning of the attack, I had revisited Fanon’s famous essay on violence, in which he describes the “dreams of aggressive vitality” of men “penned in” by colonialism: their fantasies of revenge against their oppressors, of taking their places, sleeping with their wives.
I’m not inclined to see my attackers as the wretched of the earth, much less to glamorize their violence as a kind of misdirected resistance to oppression. What happened was an act of senseless cruelty, not of social protest. But in their eyes, I might have symbolized the white, middle-class world that excluded them, providing a convenient target for their anger. In any event, the desire to make oneself strong by making others feel weak, to act out “dreams of aggressive vitality” at someone else’s expense, this desire has to be incubated somewhere. We are not born with it, any more than we are born with a desire to shoot people in schools.
My attackers had escaped into the housing project on West Seventeenth, and the police seemed to think that they lived there. Perhaps, having known too much violence, alienation, and powerlessness in their own lives, they had found an exhilarating rush of power by lashing out at a perceived beneficiary of privilege whose vulnerability in that moment made him a soft target.
Or perhaps not. After all, the vast majority of people who grow up in such conditions do not turn to violence, and, in fact, are far more likely than people like me to become its victims. What is more, the urban poor have no monopoly over acts of arbitrary aggression, which may have less to do with social marginalization than with the violent nihilism and unhinged machismo that have become distressingly common in America generally, whether in the form of fraternity hazings, mass shootings, or invasions of the Capitol. As H. Rap Brown once said, “violence is as American as cherry pie.”
When Allen Ginsberg was mugged, in 1974, he “went down shouting Om Ah Hum,” then “rose from the cardboard mattress thinking Om Ah Hum/didn’t stop em enough.” My reflex is to turn for reassurance to sociology rather than Buddhism, but with equally disappointing results. I do not know my attackers any more than they know me; I can’t begin to judge why they chose me. Their attack is, in some sense, inexplicable.
Twelve days after the attack, Officer R. called to tell me of a break in my case. One of the attackers had been caught following me on a surveillance camera. An arrest had been made, the suspect had talked, and the police were closing in on two other suspects. I would have to stop by the station to look at some photographs and indicate if I could identify a group of young men whom I hardly saw and do not know but who have marked me in some lasting, perhaps even permanent, way. Friends have declared the arrest to be “great news,” but I don’t feel triumphant. While I don’t want anyone else to be victimized by my attackers, my mood isn’t vengeful or angry. If they can be rehabilitated eventually, so much the better.
I can judge their actions, however, and I believe that punishment of some kind is in order. I’m no abolitionist radical when it comes to tackling crimes of violence. And yet, as the days pass, I’m thinking less and less about them, and more about what happened to me, which cannot be changed even if they are punished. I’m thinking about the person I was before the attack, the person I might become in its aftermath, and how much control, if any, I have over this conversion.
My body is intact. Although I still wake up early in the morning with sharp pains in my back and side, I know these will subside, and I will be back to “normal.” I am swimming again, and oddly, my lower back even feels somewhat better than it did before the attack. But my body is now a body that has been assaulted. I look in the mirror more often, as if seeking confirmation that I am physically as strong, as inviolable, as I had thought. On the street, I already feel warier, more watchful; my body responds with jerky, sudden movements if I hear something behind me, or see a person who seems like a potential threat. But who is a potential threat? I’ve always thought I had a fair system in place for making these judgments, one that was reasonably free of bias, but my body may turn out to have a mind of its own; a different, more volatile system. I find myself longing for the old body, the one that felt assured and at ease on the street, like the soldier whose leg has been amputated and imagines a phantom limb.
It may have been an illusion to feel so comfortable, so safe, in New York as I had. But it was also a hard-won illusion that enabled me to move about the city with pleasure and ease, to feel that I was somehow immune, to become the New Yorker that I am. That assumption of security was reasonable enough for much of my life here, given the historic decline in violent crime in recent decades. But I can also see that self-assurance, today, as a naive sense of invulnerability, tied up with an image of manhood that I developed in my teens, both in opposition to the suburban paranoia that I had inherited about the city and its perils, and, I suspect, the bullying that I experienced as a child.
The attack I suffered would have been shattering to anyone. But for others, especially women but also people in poverty for whom paroxysms of street violence are an intimate reality, the nightmare scenario is distinctly more fathomable than it was to me. The illusion of safety is a luxury they’ve never been able to afford with the same blitheness. A former professor of mine, a black woman and a Marxist, told me she has always walked around at night with her German shepherd, and she advised me to get one. I’m giving it some thought.