A medieval European ventured outside his walled city warily, knowing that robbers lurked in the wilds beyond the reach of the feudal order. In late 20th-century America, we have turned this around—for most of us, it is only when we venture into the city that we concern ourselves with the lawless. They thrive there, provided for and protected by the liberal welfare state; without its indulgence, they would starve to death or be exterminated by the law-abiding majority. Like most people who can afford to, I live safely in the wilds outside a decaying city and enter it only when I have to, usually during daylight hours.
This time it was after dark. I entered the elevator in a downtown hotel, heading down to the parking lot. I was joined by three of what the newspapers refer to, benignly, as “youths.” They didn’t look theatrically menacing—I didn’t detect the “feral gleam” that Bernhard Goetz described in his assailants’ eyes. The impression they gave was of an overall droopiness: droopy pants, droopy posture, droopy eyes and lower lips. As the doors closed and we descended, the one standing by the control panel asked the others if he should press the emergency stop button, so that we might have a little more time to ourselves. I could barely understand his speech, or that of the others. This was their world and it was foreign to me.
I stood with my back to the wall opposite the control panel, watching the three of them. I was fascinated and, in a way, amused, because I had a secret. My right hand was in the pocket of my windbreaker gripping my revolver, my index finger curled lightly around its trigger. I have carried a Smith & Wesson airweight “Bodyguard” model .38 Special for some 20 years now. It has a cowling over the hammer which permits it to fire its five shots through the pocket of a coat without snagging on the cloth. Even if the three of them had 9 mm. automatics tucked somewhere under their baggy T-shirts, I doubted they would be able to get them out fast enough.
Back in the days when Hollywood heroes fought fair, they always taunted villains who got the drop on them with a contemptuous, “You wouldn’t be so tough without that gun in your hand.” Well, of course. Without the gun, I wouldn’t have a chance against three athletic young men, or even one. That’s why I carry it.
The fellow eyeing me from the back wall nixed the operation. As the doors opened on the ground floor, the one by the buttons suggested gleefully that they must have “scared the sh-t out of me.”
As the youths raucously made their way up the hallway to the back door to the parking lot, I followed behind them. This was probably unwise. Had anything happened, a D.A. might have suggested that I was being provocative—that I was looking for an excuse to shoot them— and a jury might have agreed. I might have been asked why I didn’t go back to my room at the first sign of trouble. I could only answer that I had intended to go to my car and didn’t see why I should change my plans. I don’t suppose it would have helped to bring up the example of Rosa Parks, who refused to sit at the back of the bus. That too might have been considered provocative. There are rules of engagement as we manage diversity.
We are not all equally free to assert our dignity. We are told that poor black youths resent the assumption that they are predators. I can understand that. As a middle-class white, I resent the assumption that I am prey. We often hear of their sense of powerlessness, yet in this situation they were confident of their power, reveling in the fear they thought they were inspiring. It was the same even if they were just pulling a prank, and I realize that may have been all they intended. An improvisation on a typical sitcom scenario where the white guy has to be taken down a peg, with all of us stereotypically cast. In either case, for real or for fun, I’m not willing to accept my assigned role.
I was glad I had the gun. It meant I had to surrender nothing. At the same time, I was glad I didn’t have to shoot, because then I would have had to surrender a great deal. The youths may not have had the power they thought they had, the power to control the situation, but they did have the power to create a situation with uncontrollable consequences. I’m not afraid of them, but I do fear an encounter with the system that is, in effect, their patron. Unlike the youths of the city, I do fear the law.