For my friends, it’s kinda become a running joke. “Don’t get mugged.” This is how they say goodbye to me now.
Truth is, I’ve only been mugged twice in my life (not counting the incident with the Russian prostitutes in Athens – another story for another time). But both muggings were relatively violent and have had a lasting impact. Just yesterday I was walking under the foggy pine trees of the great Northwest when a 40-something jogger quietly ran up right behind me. I nearly jumped 10 feet and was ready to punch her in the face. Obviously, this is no good thing.
The first mugging happened in June, 2001, right after my 21st birthday and right after Peru’s 8.1 earthquake. I was in Arequipa, lying on my stomach and reading at a beautiful hillside park which overlooks Misti volcano. It must have been a weekend because the park was crowded with families on blankets and young couples walking slowly around the outer walkway. All of a sudden I’m being strangled and feel the sharp end of a knife. I lose my credit cards, my camerea, all of my photos of Macchu Picchu.
Second time: Caracas, Venezuela. Gone are my new MacBook, my iPod, iPod shuffle, credit cards, nifty electronic translator, etc. If you’re bored, here’s the story.
But what was most frustrating in both cases is how many people looked on in quiet curiosity while I struggled with my assailants. In Venezuela, after I realized that none of the three were armed, I was determined to not give up without making an effort to get my stuff back. At least 30 people looked on, their heads poking out of storefronts. A small crowd gathered at each end of the alleyway. At first I pleaded for their help. Then I screamed at them for not doing anything.
Finally, a gentle giant over 6’3″ quietly said to the punkass motherfucker who was strangling me, “anda, coño, dejalo,” come on bud, let him go. Even though it was clear that none of these street kids had any kind of weapon, no one was willing to get involved. I lost my faith in all humanity that night.
Same story in Peru. After the two muggers ran off with my stuff, I got up, brushed off the grass and leaves on my clothes and in my hair and felt my neck to make sure I wasn’t bleeding. The 20 or 30 people surrounding me were still looking on. I was the protagonist of their Sunday matinee. I was furious. I felt my blood pressure rising. And so, I went around to every family, every couple, and screamed at them in tear-choked Spanish for not doing anything. A few of the stern-eyed mothers said, “esa gente son de banda,” those guys are in a gang. ‘Me and mines’ – that’s what they were looking out for. They feared retribution. They feared the stigmatization of defending a gringo in front of their own gente. What can you do?
This morning while typing up the weekend GV digest, I felt a special connection with Zheng Shanbing, the 26-year-old sole defender of an older woman who was being robbed on a public bus with over 60 passengers. When Zheng came to her resuce he was beaten badly by the robbers for 7 minutes, during which none of the other 60 passengers on the bus stepped in to defend him. I know exactly how he felt – looking at his onlookers’ vacant eyes as he felt the kicks and punches of his attackers. Both groups became his enemies.
The incident – just the latest in a string in China – has provoked online anger against the frozen bus passengers. But one has to wonder, how many people actually would have stepped in?
In Uganda there is a particular type of mob justice that I think needs to be spread further. Thieves, pickpockets, and assailants are stripped nude. They’re not beaten, their appendages aren’t cut off. They just lose their clothes. Of course, there are lots of examples of this practice going too far. But basically, Kampala feels like a damn safe city. Much safer than Nairobi.
Zheng Shanbing, I am raising my second cup of coffee to you. Today you are my hero. Tomorrow you will be too. And I promise you that the next time I see some innocent person being mugged, I too will step in.