A White Boy Walks into the Police Station

Updated: Jun 18

Content Warning: This blog post describes the morning of October 25, 2019, when I was assaulted on a subway platform in Philadelphia while heading into work, and complicated feelings about going to the police with the crime. The incident regarding Amy Cooper calling the cops on Christian Cooper in Central Park is also mentioned.

I remember that morning started off like any other in the fall of 2019. It was a little warm for the end of October, but it was just chilly enough in Philadelphia that I would need a light jacket over my short-sleeved uniform — my Wheaton track-style jacket would do the trick. I was heading into work at the Science History Institute Conference Center, as a glorified table busser. I was sort of the switch hitter on the SHI Conference Center staff, some days I went in at 6am for the opening shift, some days I went in at 11am for the closing shift.

There are times I wonder if my story would be any different if I had been scheduled to open that day.

I remember waiting for the train that morning at the 40th street platform, eastbound to Frankford. After crossing the subway turnstiles, I normally would go right and stand in eyeline of the GoPuff ad that had an open pint of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream reading “delivery when you want some late-night spooning” — which was my daily reminder that sex, indeed, sells. But for some reason that morning, I wanted to change things up — I went left instead and waited in front of a different sign, probably some personal injury lawyer billboard. Those signs were everywhere in the SEPTA system.

There are times I wonder if my story would be any different if I had went ahead and stood in front of the GoPuff sign like I did every day.

I remember I was lost in texting the guy I was seeing at the time about Walnut Street Theatre’s upcoming production of Shrek while I waited for the train to arrive. I had headphones in my ears listening to the Waitress soundtrack (as I tend to do when going to a service industry gig — force of habit), my iPhone 6s tucked into my pocket and I truly didn’t have a care in the world. I’d taken the Market-Frankford Line almost daily for 14 months at that point and I recall never once feeling unsafe or helpless traveling on the subway at any hour of the day or night.

There he was, standing next to me. He was maybe thirty years old and there was a teenage boy with him — can’t say I really got a good look at either of them. I was looking down at my phone. Occasionally, when I lived in the city, I would tweet (what I thought were) harmless, tongue-in-cheek observations about my urban adventures with the tag on the end “A Philadelphia memoir”, things like “I wonder how much heroin has been done in this bathroom stall: A Philadelphia memoir” or “Why is the floor on this subway car sticky: A Philadelphia memoir”. That morning I did make one observation about the man next to me, one that briefly graced my Twitter feed. I tweeted “This man standing next to me on the subway is smoking a joint and he DGAF: A Philadelphia memoir”.

Do I think he saw the tweet? No. But it was happening in front of me: this guy was passing the joint back and forth with the teenage boy and they were laughing and seemed like they were having a good time. Seemed like he was pushing his breath right out on me. I had my headphones in, so I wasn’t paying full attention to what went on around me, but I did recognize the smell of weed and I was about to head into work — and I certainly didn’t want to smell like that. So I walked to the other end of the subway car.

There are times I wonder if my story would be any different if I had been OK with smelling a little like weed at work that day.

I got off the train from the other end of the car at 2nd Street. This was sometime between 10:45 and 10:55 am on a Friday morning, broad daylight in Old City Philadelphia — one of the “safest” (read: most gentrified, whitest) times and places for a guy who looks like me to be. My headphones were still in my ears and I had just switched from the Waitress soundtrack to Dear Evan Hansen starting from the top, at “Does Anybody Have a Map?”. SHOVE. I was jostled. OK, no big deal, I thought in that split second, I’m just in someone’s way. This is a city, that kind of thing happens. I picked up my pace and kept trying to walk until — SHOVE.

Next thing I knew, I was on the ground, begging them stop. The man and the boy had followed me out of the car and went for my knees first, then my jaw. I was pushed down onto the platform as they had their way with my body. They didn’t want my wallet. They didn’t want my phone. I still don’t know fully why they did it. It was two against one, I didn’t stand a chance. My keys fell out of my pocket. I mustered up just enough strength to break free to grab my Dallas Mavericks lanyard and make a sprint for it. This is one of the times I’m glad I had all that practice on my Wheaton College dorm floor during our birthday rituals (which were banned after my sophomore year due to new hazing regulations).

It was a fairly busy morning on the 2nd Street platform, so I’m virtually certain other people saw the assault as it was happening, but I couldn’t tell you anything at all about what else was going on on that platform. All I had in mind was just running far away, as fast as I could. In the moment it didn’t bother me that my headphones had been smashed. Or that my iPhone case was ruined. Or the only key to my car was now lost forever. All I felt was violated and terrified. I wanted my mom. I wanted my guy. I wanted to be in a world where I could be as carefree as I was not ten minutes earlier.

I didn’t end up staying at work that day. My supervisor, without question, let me go home. So I did. Next thing I knew I was sitting on my bed, bawling my eyes out, wondering how in the world I had let that happen to me. But then came the question — do I go to the police?

After spending every moment thinking about this from Friday afternoon and weighing perspectives from voices I valued, I did end up going to the police on Tuesday. I feel my concerns about going to the police were validated when, after recounting my story above to the Officer, the first question out of his mouth — pretty matter-of-factly — was, “and these men, they were Black?”

I hadn’t said a thing about race as I had given my account of the assault (and above, you will notice in this blog post, I‘ve not said a thing about the race of my assailants). Why should it have mattered whether the man who assaulted me and the teenage boy were Black? Prior to this encounter with the police as the victim of a crime, I had believed on an intellectual level that systemic racism exists with plenty of examples in news by that point (Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice.) but I really hadn’t expected it to be so upfront when it was my turn.

My chief concern with going to the police had been if the answer to the question, “will reporting this crime end in the death of the man and/or boy who assaulted me?” was yes — or worse, if the answer to the question, “will reporting this crime end in the death of a Black person who had nothing to do with the incident?” was yes. I really and truly want now and wanted then to be part of dismantling the systemic racist circle of death, rather than perpetuating it, so I felt so mixed about giving the cops license to chase down the people who attacked me.

Honestly? I still don’t really know if I should’ve gone to the cops, if that was a wise decision or not. I don’t know anything about what came of my case, if any arrest was made or if I’d just given a police officer in Old City Philly license to murder an unarmed Black man. I had ultimately decided to report the crime to the cops when I’d heard from four different Black men in West Philly that I should report the crime. My Triple A driver who towed my car to the Honda center so I could get a new key made for my Civic said, “A crime’s a crime. That’s what the cops are for.” I still didn’t feel great about going to the police, but nobody had given me a better idea.

I think about how Amy Cooper weaponized the fact that a Black stranger was speaking to her — she knew full well what she was doing. While not following the rules of Central Park herself, she understood that calling the cops on Christian Cooper could be a death sentence for him as a Black man. And as the Internet did digging on Amy Cooper, she wasn’t a flaming racist or president of Manhattan’s local chapter of the KKK — she was a upper-middle class white left-of-center person like me, a donor to Pete Buttigieg for crying out loud. It’s not unheard of for someone with similar sensibilities as me to use systemic white privilege to their gain and know whose side the cops will take. I didn’t want any part of that... and yet. I still went to the cops. I didn’t know what else I could do.

Physically, I ended up being fine. Miraculously, I was only limping for a few days and I could make full use of my jaw to chew again about a week later. The Market-Frankford line was a necessity in my life in Center City, so I had to suck it up and get back on the subway day in and day out. What had scarred me on a longer-term basis was my heart racing, involuntary, when I would smell weed on the subway or see someone matching the description of the man who assaulted me. And why? I hated myself for it, but it was involuntary. Racism isn’t rational. Racism makes no sense at all when you break down what it means — I like to think no one would *choose* to be racist. But even though I consider myself to not *choose* racism, I can’t deny it exists in me. I’m white and I’ve benefited from systemic racism for a quarter century.

While I didn’t move out of the city for another few months, what had happened that day was a driving factor in my decision to move away. While I could list any number of other reasons I don’t consider myself a “city person”, the attack certainly reframed my experience of living in the city. It didn’t matter that of the 574 days I lived in Philadelphia, I wasn’t assaulted on 573 of them — these feelings aren’t rational.

I don’t have a nice little bow to tie this incident up for you. It would be pretty disingenuous for me to do so — especially if I were trying to make a point about how to solve racism. So let me leave you with this: I recommend white people sit all the way down on conversations regarding racism. We need to continually listen to Black voices, especially when we’re thinking about addressing the top-of-line issues with policing in this country. I’m not the person to ask what the answers are regarding racism and police — the cops were nice to me.

Black Lives Matter.

© 2019. 2020 ByPeterFenton.com. all rights reserved.
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