There Are No Bad People

I’d like to someday understand violence. It is, at its core, an illogical, chaotic force, but also one as old as humanity itself. I look upon the examples of non-violent heroes such as Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, among others, and I’m inspired. On the other hand, as a rather emotional human with a Y chromosome, I’m familiar with the aggressive tendencies that come along with testosterone. I see it in my toddler son as he winds up to hit me while upset. Years ago a friend, transitioning from female to male, recounted how unnervingly aggressive the testosterone made him feel. Like most of us, I would much prefer a world without violence, and find its inescapability guiling.

At the turn of the most recent century, I lived in a home in Minneapolis’ East Phillips neighborhood. The neighborhood was blighted, to say the least. A pimp named Yellow lived two doors down, and it was unclear what else was going on in that house. Even so, my roommates and I were all fairly idealistic, all under twenty-five, and somehow established a détente with Yellow. I mostly felt safe walking around that neighborhood at any time of the night or day.

Eventually I moved to Chicago and got married. My wife and I lived in Pilsen, a neighborhood groaning from the early stages of gentrification. Still fearless, I walked with impunity, my biggest concern the role my white skin might be playing (or seem to be playing) in the shifting of the traditionally Chicano neighborhood (“but my wife is half-Mexican!” I imagined myself explaining).

Parking in Chicago can be an interesting experience. Beginning at our apartment, I would drive in concentric circles, taking the closest parking spot I could find, often blocks away. Such was the case late one night when I was coming home from work. I quickly discerned that I had positioned myself between some gang members (possibly the very same who lived in our building) and the police from whom they fled. I wondered what would happen if one group started shooting.

Eventually a variety of factors brought us back to Minneapolis, where we rented an apartment in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood, just south of East Phillips. I remember taking long walks into the Powderhorn neighborhood years before, marveling at how much safer and more stable it seemed, how much more beautiful and well-maintained the houses were. Powderhorn had been the dream, and now we were there.

One night we were returning DVDs to the Hosmer library. It was a warm autumn night, maybe ten o’clock or so, a time we often walked the neighborhood to talk about our dreams and aspirations.

Chalk it up to the nice weather, but things seemed kind of electric that evening. That’s a difficult thing to explain. I’ve worked in public education for ten years, and know that things often feel electric in a building right before a big incident like a fight. It’s maybe a skill that is cultivated over time, like a dog that can be trained to recognize a seizure before it starts. Mine was not yet cultivated.

On the way there we passed by two kids, one on a bike and one on foot, making their way somewhat aimlessly through the neighborhood. At one point they stopped to ask if we had a light. We didn’t, and I didn’t think anything of it.

On the way back, those same kids appeared again, and however uncultivated my senses may have been, I could tell that something wasn’t quite right. Even so, we were closing in on our block, and so felt pretty safe.

Once on our street, I heard, “on your left.” It was The Kid On The Bike. I moved over just in time to receive a punch to the jaw that knocked me down. Before I could figure out what was happening, The Other Kid ran up, talking to his friend about the “burner” (gun) under his shirt. They demanded my wallet, which I freely gave. For my troubles, I was punched again, in the exact same spot, and they were gone. We were about three quarters of a block from home.

It’s worth noting that my wife, threatening as ever in a cute sundress and just under five feet (a point she’ll contest), talked all kinds of shit during the entire altercation. Luckily, she was completely ignored.

We called the police, received one of the blue cards that they give to victims of crimes, and waited. In the end, nothing happened.

Except for this little wrinkle: I was working as a paraprofessional at the time at a school for students with severe emotional/behavioral disorders (E/BD). I worked as a bus aide, too, riding to and from school with the students. I had moved since then, but the route was the same I’d had before, and mostly hit the same neighborhood.

One day about a year later, driving down Chicago Avenue, I noticed just how familiar the kid sitting across the aisle looked, and I put it together. He had been The Kid On The Bike, which meant that he had also been younger than I’d realized. Even so, his two punches had been enough to knock me off my feet, twice (seasoned fighter that I am), giving me a permanent dimple where previously there’d been none.

We dug around for the little blue card and contacted the police. A few days later we were informed that the county attorney had decided not to explore the matter further, citing just how much change can take place in an adolescent’s life over the course of a year. I understood the liberal thinking, but wondered if the county attorney knew that this same child was in a Federal Setting IV E/BD facility.

The cops came by the apartment anyway and gave my wife an array of mug shots to choose from. It wouldn’t be binding, they explained, but wanted her to choose anyway “for shits and giggles.” She correctly chose the kid who was my student, a kid she’d only seen a year prior on the night of the mugging.

I can’t understate the lessons I began to learn about myself and about human nature. The night of the mugging, after we ran home, my initial inclination was to get in the car and chase the kids down. The particular fantasy I was entertaining at the time, my brain flooded with adrenaline, was to open the door as I drove past and take them out with it. Sort of an update on jousting, I guess.

Once I realized who The Kid was, I had other violent revenge fantasies. These were none too complicated, but involved finding a small room in the school, locking The Kid in it, and beating the shit out of him.

But my moral compass, if trembling somewhat, hadn’t been knocked completely askew by his punches, and in the end my violent revenge fantasies remained just that. In fact, I didn’t let on that I had been his victim or knew anything about his extracurricular activities. For all I knew he robbed people all the time, and I was one of many anonymous victims (I’ve since discovered this to be true, as he’s been in and out of jail since for similar offenses).

Besides, I began to learn other lessons. For example, The Kid was kind of likeable, and I wasn’t really prepared for that. I’d be unlocking a classroom door or something, and he’d say “you dropped your pocket.” I’d look down and he’d be flashing a wry smile (it’s only now, in typing these words, that I recognize what I’m certain is the unintentional irony connecting pocket-dropping with wallet-surrendering).

If The Kid, who had visited an act of violence upon me that permanently altered my face and sense of safety, was funny and likeable, what did that mean about human nature? 

I don’t claim to be a sage, but I think I have arrived at an answer all the same: there aren’t bad people, or good people, but people who make choices, who do things. Maybe some people make better choices and do better things, on measure, than others, but are those people uniformly good? Of course not, and neither is anyone else uniformly bad.

That makes logical sense, but to really live as though you believe it can really fuck with whatever convenient categorization you’ve previously utilized.

Anyway, there was another lesson, this time about revenge, or consequences, or justice. I’m still not entirely sure. One day we were pulling up to The Kid’s house. I’m not sure if the bus driver had been irregular in her pick up times or what, but The Kid’s mom was at the door in a brightly patterned mumu, shouting something about how if The Kid missed one more day of school he’d have to go to jail.

This was to be my second bus epiphany: I realized that, no matter what had happened previously or did happen in the future, The Kid’s life sucked, plain and simple, especially when compared with mine. I tried to tell myself that this was my revenge, that here was justice, but I can’t get there. I maybe find something like peace in the ability to move past the incident, but the circumstances of The Kid’s life, then and now, continue to sadden me.

I’d like someday to understand violence. I doubt I’ll ever get there. In ten years as an educator, I’ve seen students beaten by each other and by police. I’ve had students who committed murder and students who died by gunfire. I don’t understand violence, but I do have The Kid to thank for my understanding of human nature. I hope that I can use that lesson to disrupt cycles of violence.