Defenders of stop-and-frisk and racial profiling have made me break my public silence about the night I almost died
BY BRIAN BEUTLER
I haven’t said or written much publicly about the shooting that nearly killed me in 2008. But a recent confluence of events — Trayvon Martin’s death, the Zimmerman trial and the public pronouncements of mostly privileged, mostly white people in the aftermath of the verdict — has left me feeling like I have something to share.
Most recently, actor-activist Kal Penn, once an avowed opponent of racial stereotyping in law enforcement (based in part on his own experience getting patted down at airports), changed his views after he was held up at gunpoint in Washington, D.C. (Penn published a brief explanation late last week, and apparently reconsidered his view over the weekend.)
... What I can say with some authority — whether this is what happened to Penn or not — is that being a victim of gun violence doesn’t have to turn you into a supporter of racial profiling.
My story is more than five years old now. It took place in Washington, D.C., on a typically warm July night. I was out late on a Tuesday with a friend whom I’ll call Matt, since that’s his name. [This Matt? The one who was the victim of a racial hate crime nearby in 2011?] We’d been drinking — probably too much for a weeknight, but not too much for a 25-year-old journalist.
A half-hour after last call, on our walk home up 16th Street northbound toward Mount Pleasant where we lived at the time, we impulsively decided to grab a late night snack at a 24-hour diner we used to frequent in Adams Morgan and hung a left up Euclid Street — a dimly lit one-way street with a violent history.
The corner of Euclid and 16th Street is 1.8 miles due north of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
I’d been up and down Euclid hundreds of times over the years — midday and late at night; alone and with friends; drunk and sober; and just about every permutation thereof. Always without incident.
This time was different. About half a block up Euclid, Matt and I encountered two young men — both black, both wearing hoodies, characters culled from Richard Cohen’s sweatiest nightmares. They wanted our phones, which we were cleverly holding in front of our faces as we walked.
We declined, gently under the circumstances. I worried we might end up in a fight. Maybe one of them had a knife, or a larger group of friends around the corner. I know I would’ve surrendered my phone eventually, but not before suggesting they go hassle someone else. Maybe they’d figure we weren’t worth the trouble.
They didn’t oblige. The kid opposite Matt drew a small, shiny object from wherever he’d been concealing it and passed it to his accomplice, who was standing opposite me. A second or two lapsed — long enough for me to recognize they weren’t joking, but not long enough for me to beg — before it discharged clap clap clap; my body torqued into the air horizontally, like I’d been blindsided by a linebacker, and I fell to the ground.
The ER removed Beutler's spleen to save his live, leaving him with big medical bills. Within a year or so he was over the trauma, although one of the three bullets is still inside him. But, he's proud to say, he hasn't learned anything.
[Former Indian-American Obama aide and movie star Kal] Penn got in trouble for touting the supposed merits of New York’s stop-and-frisk policy. To the objection that the policy disproportionately targets blacks and Latinos, he responded, “And who, sadly, commits & are victims of the most crimes?”
But that’s a non sequitur. A false rationale. Take people’s fear out of the equation and the logical artifice collapses.
People's fear must be removed from the equation. Fear of crime is contemptible weakness. Just remember: What does not kill you makes you stronger.
On the other hand, it's completely reasonable for black youths to be terrified of all the roving white racists like George Zimmerman out to gun them down.
Canadians are highly overrepresented in the field of professional ice hockey, but it would be ridiculous for anyone to walk around Alberta presumptively asking strangers on the street for autographs. When you treat everyone as a suspect, you get a lot of false positives. That’s why above and beyond the obvious injustice of it, stop and frisk isn’t wise policy. Minorities might commit most of the crime in U.S. cities, and be the likeliest victims of it, and that’s a problem with a lot of causes that should be addressed in a lot of ways. But crime is pretty rare. Not rare like being a professional hockey player is rare. But rare. Most people, white or minority, don’t do it at all. ...
This may have something to do with the trillions spent fighting crime, the 800,000 cops employed, the two million in jail, the flight to the suburbs, the decline of walking, and other costs.
But still ... according to the liberal Center for American Progress): "According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime."
That's a lot.
And the conclusion:
Everyone who’s ever shot me was black and wearing a hoodie. There just aren’t any reasonable inferences to draw from that fact.
The only thing we have to fear is inference itself.
But at the same time, crime is common enough that it’s quite likely to happen to the average person at some point in time. Not that the average person will go through what Beutler went through, mercifully. But over a span of years, your odds of experiencing at least an attempted robbery or an attempted assault are pretty good.
How good? Well, that depends on the crime rate over time. In the 1980s, the Bureau of Justice Statistics tried to quantify the “lifetime likelihood of victimization,” by assuming that the American crime rate over that hypothetical lifetime averaged what it averaged from 1975 to 1984. (Those were, of course, high crime years; more on that below.) The study calculated that at those rates, 83 percent of Americans could expect to be victims of an attempted robbery, rape or assault at least once as an adult; 40 percent could expect to be injured in a robbery or assault; 72 percent of households could expect to be burglarized and 20 percent could expect to have a car stolen, and 99 percent of the population (that is, everybody) could expect to experience some kind of personal theft.
These numbers don’t suggest that crime is a regular occurrence in law-abiding lives; it is not. But they suggest that it can be a normal occurrence, in the sense of being something that you have to be prepared for, something that you can reasonably expect to have to deal with at some point, and something that will definitely affect somebody you care about even if it doesn’t touch you directly.
(As a personal aside, I would hazard that my own experience is probably fairly typical: My parents’ home was burglarized when I was a teenager, I had my nose broken in Adams Morgan in the early 2000s, our car was stolen two years ago, and then I have various one or two-degrees-of-separation connection to incidents that involved extended hospitalization or worse.)
And part of what makes the endless debates over profiling so vexed, I think, is that it’s hard to assess what constitutes a reasonable response to this reality. Is crime a low-probability danger? Well, yes in the everyday sense, but no in the sense that you could very easily be victimized at some point, which isn’t true of, say, lightning strikes and terrorist attacks and other truly low-probability threats. Clearly it isn’t a threat that should make you a shut-in; clearly it isn’t so non-threatening that urbanites should relax and leave their cars and houses unlocked overnight. But most of what counts as everyday profiling, whether by attire or attitude or age or race or by all those variables at once, falls into a much blurrier area, where the rational thing to do — cross the street to avoid a group of kids or not? keep a closer eye on customer X than customer Y in your store? call the cops to report suspicious-seeming behavior or not? — isn’t slam-dunk obvious given the variables and risks involved.