I use the word advisedly. Mugging is a term with a fraught and well-researched history. It occasioned one of the most well-known studies coming out of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in the late 1970s: Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. In that work, the authors trace how “mugging” took hold in 1970s Britain as a racialized label for particular forms of street crime. Although street crime was not at any point limited to black youth, “mugging” became an alibi for the policing of black communities, in ways that elided relevant structural conditions including unemployment, poverty, education inequities, and complex migration histories.
I grew up in a fairly homogenous South Bay Area suburb: homogenous because my neighborhood was relatively affluent, and because the Bay is a deeply segregated metropolitan area. Since leaving home, I have lived in four cities that are less segregated, more urban, and less affluent. I lived for four years on the Berkeley-Oakland border, before the most recent wave of tech-spillover gentrification, in a mixed area of high and low-income housing. Now I am living in Hyde Park, the neighborhood of South Chicago that also includes the illustrious University of Chicago, but which is notoriously surrounded by areas of high crime.
I like where I live, as I liked south Berkeley. I want Mrinalini, too, to grow up in a genuinely diverse environment—not just ethnically, but racially and economically. I take umbrage when people ask me if my neighborhood is safe, because what they really are suggesting is that it’s too black. I won’t countenance the question. Especially now.
We were walking our usual route home from school: past a popular commercial complex and then down four blocks to our apartment. Mrinalini—who, at almost three, insists she is a “big girl”—was nevertheless in an Ergo baby carrier strapped to my chest like a little joey.
Around my neck were her schoolbag filled with stale snacks and my leather purse.
Clearly, the purse attracted the attention of the boys who then followed us home. I could call them young men; they were teenagers, somewhere between 15 and 18. They saw the purse and my distracted head inclined toward my daughter’s as the two us chatted on our walk home. And as soon as I turned the keys in the front door of our six-unit building, they were upon us.
In the movies, the moment of encounter when an assailant sneaks up on a victim (jumps from behind a door, or appears, masked, in a window) passes quickly, and then we are on to a tranquil scene happening meanwhile. In real life, however, this is the moment that plays over and over in your mind.
I thought somebody had fallen on me, a neighbor coming in from the street. Then, a split second later, I thought it was a friend sneaking up for a surprise. Confusion. The scene speeds up: I am turning; I am face to face with someone grabbing me, grabbing what feels like my head, reaching, grasping, pulling; my child is still strapped to my chest, and all the straps of the bags are mixed up. I am inside the front door which means I am too far away from the buzzer to ring for my neighbors. I am not yet inside the second door, which means I cannot get away.
Because I resist, and because the teen has to fight me and eventually break the purse off my neck by snapping the leather strap in two (I sustain minor whiplash and sprained fingers; Mrinalini, a cut lip), this is “strong-arm robbery” and not “larceny-theft.” It is over in minutes, and then the long tedium of credit-card-cancellation and new-phone-acquisition begins.
It is no surprise, this mugging, despite the fact that my neighborhood is heavily policed.Here, we have the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD), which is one of the largest private security forces in the United States. Just three blocks from our apartment, Secret Service agents sit guard in black Chevrolet Suburbans at the intersections surrounding the private residence of Barack and Michelle Obama. There are emergency call towers on every block and guards at each corner.
Later, I will meet no less than ten different police officers from CPD and UCPD, who arrive on the scene in a split second. I am given a police report and a case number, but no promise that they will recover any of my stuff. “This is my beat,” one UCPD officer tells me, a little shamefaced.
They want to know if I can identify the muggers. In this highly segregated neighborhood, in this highly stratified city, in which some are policed and some are given a pass, they have no dearth of suspects. “They probably live in your neighborhood,” one officer says. “Will you recognize them? Can you try?”
I won’t, I say. And honestly, I can’t. And I don’t even want to try. Worse than being mugged would be internalizing suspicion and setting the example for my child that there are some bodies on the street to be wary of. I’ve already been mugged. I won’t be complicit in the policing that ensues.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.