A photo of the author

Did my black life matter?: When I was roughed up in front of my house, I was surprised by who helped -- and who didn't

In my gentrified neighborhood, a minor scrape escalated, putting me in danger. Why didn't my black neighbors help?


Chuck Nwoke
December 6, 2015 4:30AM (UTC)

I was 16 when I had my first run-in with police. I was behind the wheel of my ’85 Mitsubishi Mirage hatchback with my close friend, and crush, Marisa, on the highway on our way back from the beach when a police vehicle sped up behind me, then pulled up next to me, passed me, jumped in front of me, slowed down, sped up, then got behind me again, fired up its lights and pulled me over. Following too closely to another vehicle was the charge. Marisa and I were dumbfounded. Racist asshole, we lamented. I wouldn’t be free of such traffic violations until I sold my car and moved to New York.

In New York, I would have a few minor run-ins with police, but none like my most recent. I was in front of my Flatbush, Brooklyn apartment waiting for parking. A space opened up behind me, and I hit the gas in reverse. The floor rug got caught between the pedals and, unable to stop, I scraped the door of a car that stood idling at a fire hydrant.

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I couldn’t believe what had just happened. Totally to blame, I apologized profusely, over and over again. The woman behind the wheel was in disbelief, which I more than understood. I told her I lived across the street, asked if she was OK, and assured her that I had insurance. I apologized several more times, each apology more sincere than the last.

The woman was Caribbean, and she had Pennsylvania plates, a North Carolina driver's license and, when we exchanged phone numbers, a Florida area code. I could tell that she didn’t want to involve insurance, so to move things along, I proposed we handle the matter off the books, leave insurance out of it, if that was what she preferred. She perked up, said she had a friend who was a mechanic down the street. I said OK — it was Sunday and dusky so I thought we’d be in touch and deal with our cars later.

No. By down the street, she meant a few houses away, in an abandoned lot, next to a house that had suspiciously burned down months before, where the neighborhood pariah hung out, smoking weed, getting drunk, playing cards and hooting at girls — among other things. I was friendly with most of the guys from the lot and thought nothing of it. They were no different than the guys I knew as a kid growing up in Houston’s notorious 3rd Ward in the early '80s.

The woman returned from the lot, walking ahead of a man I assumed was there to help. Instead, the man was hostile, berating and belittling her before irritably telling her to tell me how much she wanted me to pay for the damage. He stormed off, as if she’d wasted his time.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

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Near tears, she said, “My boyfriend.”

Together, she and I agreed on a cost — cash that would put me in the red, but whatever. With that she would take her car to a body shop, and if the cost was more, she would provide me with the receipt and I would pay the difference.

I returned from the ATM with cash, but within the short time I was gone, everything had changed. Her “boyfriend,” who’d previously blown her off, was now engaged. He said the price we agreed on wouldn’t cut it and asked for more than double. “At least!”

I didn’t take him seriously — I couldn’t, it was a scrape — and continued trying to deal with the woman, but the boyfriend shut her out completely, and told me I had to talk to him. “Pay up,” he demanded.

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I said no, and he and I went back and forth.

I refused to budge from the agreed-upon price. “If this is a problem then let’s exchange insurance or call the police to file a report,” I said.

Incensed, his eyes widened. He got in my face, just short of touching me, and threatened me: either I pay what he wanted or he would go “get something” for me. He was intimidating as hell, psychotic seeming, but I didn’t back down.

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“Go get whatever it is you got,” I said, hiding my nerves. “I’m not giving you that much money.”

How things escalated so fast, I had no idea, but against his girlfriend’s pleas not to do anything crazy, he marched off toward the lot.

“What’s he going to get?” I asked, worried.

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“I don’t know,” she moaned, both hands clutching the wheel, her head down, upset over what was happening. I wanted to tell her to leave.

Her boyfriend returned with two guys, one a young, big guy I recognized from the lot but didn’t know. The other guy was wearing a jacket in the middle of a weeklong heat wave.

“Let me hear you talk that police bullshit now,” the man barked, his enforcers behind him. “This is my block!”

I told him and his crew that this was my block too, and I pointed across the street to my building, but he didn’t care. “Give me your money,” he demanded.

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It’s a harsh reality that in low-income neighborhoods like mine, a majority of the violent crimes committed are perpetrated against people of color by people of color. Still, it was a statistic I thought had nothing to do with me, since I was older, fully employed and a family man who wasn’t involved in any social situations that left me prone to street violence — unlike when I was younger and my older brother and I were forced to fight tag-team-style when jumped by our neighborhood bullies for not being joiners.

So I couldn’t believe it when I found myself surrounded, on my street, by three men, shouting at me to give them money. Neighbors — women and children included — who’d blessed my golden-haired kids gawked from their porches. Pedestrians slowed down to rubberneck and then, anticipating the worst, went about their business so as not to be witnesses or innocent bystanders. Even the odd-job dude in my building, who, aside from “watching the block,” washed cars — mine included — and painted houses on our street for drinking money, pretended to not know me and stood by, only yards away, watching the entire incident unfold through his bloodshot eyes.

The apathy of so many black people infuriated me more than the possibility of my being beat up or killed.

I stood my ground for all to see on my street, as the three men knocked me around like Will Smith in the opening of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-air." “Give us the money and this won’t end up so bad,” one said. “You got kids to worry about,” said another, after noticing the car seats in my car. “Let’s show this nigga,” the leader suggested, gripping my wrists as the others held both my arms and attempted to drag me somewhere out of sight, triggering my most primal response: fight or flight.

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I was scrappy enough to fight them off and get away. I didn’t care that they took my phone and my car insurance; I hurried home, the same way I ran home as a kid to get my brother to come outside and help me deal with boys who were on my tail. Or — after my parents split and my brother went to live with my father, and my mother, baby sister and I fled to the suburbs for better schools — the way I skateboarded at top speed to the Cruz brothers' house for help after being chased by rednecks in our neighborhood for being the only black person there.

I blew into my apartment outraged. Instead of my brother, I found my wife, reading bedtime stories to our kids. We called the police, and within minutes an army of police swarmed my street from both directions. Mostly gentrifiers inhabited the front section of our building, and I knew some of them had to have called. Plus, it was Labor Day weekend, which included the West Indian Day Parade, and anyone who knew anything about central Brooklyn knew Flatbush was hot and tense. Already two were dead.

I agreed to go to the police precinct to give a statement and look at mug shots. The images of all those young black men, their faces emotionless, eyes hopeless, slouching because their hands were bound by cuffs, broke my heart. I saw guys I knew from the empty lot but not the ones who’d assaulted me. Then again, I was mostly looking away, because, according to the white police officers, the crime committed against me was serious and someone would go to jail. I’d be seen as a “chump” if I let them get away with the crime, one white officer told me. “We can’t do anything without you,” he added. My black life mattered.

*

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My life mattered more to them that it did to the police in Nigeria, where my family is from, which is my measurement for good and bad. Last time I was there, police surrounded my cousin and me, pointed their automatic rifles inches from our faces. All because we refused to pay them the bribe they ordered us to pay when they stopped us at their makeshift checkpoint for no reason other than to collect a bribe. Because I was American, rather than throw me in jail and abuse me, they confiscated my passport until I agreed to pay them.

It’s an African diaspora tale I’m constantly asked to write about when dealing with white agents, publishers and film producers. “That is so fascinating,” they’d say, after rejecting the type of stories I preferred to write. “People want to know about that.”

The way the NYPD handled my ordeal reminded me of why I loved cops as a kid, considered them crime fighters equal to any comic book superhero. They were why I cherished a photo of my father in his police uniform, taken in swinging '60s Nigeria before the civil war broke out and he was conscripted to take up arms to fight for independence.

“More Africa,” I hear white literary gatekeepers salivate. “More, more!”

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But I don’t want to talk about that. I’m not in Nigeria. I’m here in the USA, in New York, where I finally had to concede that issues of race are just as bad as they are in Texas, or anywhere else.

Here in New York, after years of stellar job performance and talk of a raise, I was unexpectedly thrown into a Kafka novel, accused, by what I will call a new administration, of being “threatening” and “intimidating.” I was put on probation.

“Channel your inner smile … as a man of color, be more attuned to your tone … This job is your livelihood,” the administration clearly pointed out to me, knowing that I had another child on the way.

Feeling I had no other immediate option, I defied the voice that my mother had instilled and nurtured in me and toned down my blackness. I did as my colleagues of color, wary of the powers that be, advised me to do and laid low.

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In a follow-up meeting with the administration months later, I was honest, vulnerable. I brought up the racism that I’d experienced growing up in the South and the bad feeling I got at work, being made out to be the “scary black guy.” I did my best to articulate a strong feeling I got from people, one I could only describe as an air of “Who is he to tell people what to do?” It was an air black people understood all too well. But the administration was quick to invalidate how I felt, saying that I was delusional to think such a thing, alleging that I didn’t want to own up to my behavior, and that this wasn’t the Deep South where I had to answer, "Yes massa!”

Then, as if on cue, Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner lit up the social — and sociopathic — mediasphere. And just like that, as randomly as my life had been turned upside down, I was left alone. Where once I was the only man of color in a supervisory position, a new era of diversity was ushered in, changing the look of my workplace. Practically overnight, my black life mattered.

*

The day after I was jumped, on Labor Day, hours before the West Indian Day Parade was set to kick off, I packed our car for a day at the beach with family and friends. I didn’t want our friends knowing about what had happened to me the night before. White, thoughtful and liberal-minded, they would have been beside themselves with anger and demanded justice. “That’s not right,” they would have said, but they thought a lot of things weren’t right and did things about it. They changed laws, created jobs, chose diets and dictated etiquette. Their expectation that people adhere to the laws of the road created by them, within their infrastructure, was a level of entitlement that I don’t possess, and that most black Americans I know don’t possess. If there was black entitlement, it didn’t come without an old white guy positioned as middle man.

Because I’m a third-world boy at heart, surrounded by people with first-world problems that I can’t really comprehend all the time. Justice in the town my family is from in Nigeria doesn’t come from the police. It comes from the Bakassi Boys, a group of machete-wielding vigilantes who troll the streets and villages of Abia State for those who’ve committed crimes as egregious as, say, robbery. Their style of law enforcement is that they find the perpetrator, who is always a man, they judge him with a witness on hand and condemn him to death by cutting open his gut, letting him bleed out, and then they set the body on fire. The corpse is dropped off in a public place and left to rot under the hot African sun, as pedestrians cover their noses and go about their business. When I was in Nigeria last, I saw a corpse sit for a week in a major shopping area. The smell sticks with me till this day and it’s why I haven’t been back. I hate to admit it, but sometimes during arguments with my wife — who’s white — that I just want to end, I wish that she could smell that smell. I fantasize that after that we would forgive and go back to our most loving place.

The complex nuances of my multicultural world are why I decided not to press charges on the guys who jumped me. It turns out that while I was at the precinct, I’d called my wife to give her an update, and she said she’d been trying to contact me. One of the perpetrators had delivered my phone back to our apartment. According to my wife, he was genuinely apologetic, claiming the entire incident was a mistake, and that he didn’t know we lived across the street from him. “Man to man,” he told my wife, he was deeply sorry. He would apologize to me in person soon after. While I didn’t agree with any of what had happened, I felt I had to honor his mea culpa. He apologized and returned what had been taken from me, which, aside from going back in time, was all that I could ask for — I got resolution. I’d leave it to someone else to redirect the rest of the path the young man was on. My brother’s keeper.

Entering my building after loading the car, I held the front door open for a neighbor — a white woman — who was on her way out. She thanked me and, halfway through the door, stopped and asked if I was all right. She had a knowing look. Her apartment was located in the front of the building and her windows faced the street.

“I’m all right, thank you,” I said.

She was out of the building, with her head buried in her phone, avoiding eye contact with the people on our street.

I was on my way upstairs when I ran into the odd-job dude, who’d stood by and watched me get jumped. He carried himself as if he was invisible — either by choice or circumstance — and that wasn’t an easy existence. But he had gotten deep under my skin. I despised him as much as I felt sorry for him. I wanted to hit him and I wanted to embrace him. I wanted him to suffer and I wanted to help him.

Unable to resist, I asked if he was taking care of the block. Missing my sarcasm, he growled, “Yeah, man.”

As I ascended the stairs and he headed back to nowhere, he asked from below, “Say, what happened with you and them fellas last night?”

“You tell me,” I replied.

“They get your phone?” he asked.

Angered, I stumbled down a rabbit hole. A friend of mine had lost her baby after seven months. A Ghanaian man I was friendly with in my building, who’d been granted custody of his three kids after the mother was deemed unfit, lost one from a separate relationship after she was killed by a car that was speeding down her dead-end street while she was playing. The image of the toddler washed up, face down, on the Turkish beach, dead after his family fled persecution in Syria. Then I thought about my son, how he was born upstairs in our bedroom. If the block belonged to anyone, it belonged to him. I thought about the hug my 4-year-old daughter gave me after she saw "Sesame Street Live." The most talkative person I know, she was confounded for words and buried her head in my shoulder, claiming she was too confused with excitement to speak. My heart began to bloom again.

“Does that matter?” I asked and continued up the stairs.

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Chuck Nwoke

Chuck Nwoke explores identity, the human condition and the absurd in his writing. He has been published by the Broome Street Review, Akashic Books and Litro. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his family and their shoes, and is currently trying to find a home for his novel. Follow him on Twitter @chucknwoke.

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