Don’t Call Them Animals

Monday evening, as televisions and computer screens showed image after image of destruction in Baltimore, my Facebook newsfeed filled up with them too. Friends and family expressed anger, fear, embarrassment, regret, sadness – all very natural responses to the events taking place in “our” city.

But along with those responses came one awful word, again and again: “Animals!” “The animals.” “Those animals.” “They are animals.”

I scrolled past post after post of people calling other people animals.

(By the way, if you’re wondering whether I’m thinking of you in particular as I write this – I’m not. I saw so many posts I can’t begin to remember who wrote what.)

There are any number of things one might call the rioters. You might call them idiots. You might call them criminals. You might call their actions shameful or opportunistic or simply wrong. Baltimore’s mayor called them thugs.

But you shouldn’t deny that they’re people.

The rioters are not animals. They are people who think and feel and sin and help and hurt. They are complicated. They are capable of great love and terrible evil. Each and every one of them is made in the image and likeness of God. Each and every one is inherently valuable.

Because they are human.

When you call people animals, you buy into the lie that human life is cheap. You judge people’s worth by their utility, by their sinfulness, by their actions in a short, defined period of time.

When you call people animals, you feed anger and mistrust and hate.

And to be honest, when you call a crowd of black people animals, you hearken to a time when society really did – culturally and legally – view blacks as less than human.

So call out the rioters for the harm they’re doing to the City of Baltimore. Say that it’s unacceptable to steal and destroy. Say that it’s mind-bogglingly foolish to cut fire hoses. Say that it’s disgusting to throw bricks and cinder blocks at people.

Say you’re angry. Say they’re wrong. Say that this whole thing is a big, embarrassing mess. Debate thuggery, police violence, gang violence, and racism.

But don’t deny anyone’s humanity. Don’t call people animals.

The term is unworthy of them – and it’s unworthy of you too.

The Best Possible Mugging

After my post yesterday on Crime and Punishment and Moving On, I thought the time was right to share with you one of my most (bizarrely) favorite party stories: The Best Possible Mugging. It’s my own tale of being a crime victim. And I have to preface it by saying that yes, I realize how fortunate I am that my only real experience of crime is as the victim of The Best Possible Mugging. I can’t presume to know how a victim of a more serious crime would feel. I can only relate my own experience and the impact it has had on my life.

So.

Around ten years ago when I was living in Washington, DC (or rather, right at its border: I could see DC from my apartment complex), I lived a ten-minute walk from the nearest Metro station. My route to and from the station every day was a straight-shot, mostly along one very busy road with well-traveled sidewalks. I made that walk countless times. And there was precisely one time in my three years of living there when I was entirely alone. That evening, as I walked home from the metro after a church choir practice (oh, the irony), I saw no cars along the road and no pedestrians along the sidewalk.

Until a young man in a big, baggy, hooded sweatshirt walked towards me.

I saw him coming, but I’d been chatting on my cell phone with a friend, so I didn’t pay too much attention to the guy until he was right in front of me. “Give me your purse,” he said, showing me something tucked into his waistband, which he clearly intended for me to believe was a gun. (I have no idea whether it really was; I only saw part of it.)

My first two, nearly simultaneous, reactions were: (1) Annoyance. I thought to myself – in a very whiny, exasperated voice – “Oh, man, I don’t want to deal with this!” (Yes, even my interior dialogue is clean.) And (2) Sadness for the man who was robbing me. “You’re so young! Don’t do this to yourself!” I thought. “Don’t mess up your life like this!”

Then my practical, confident, stubborn side (maybe it’s called “adrenaline”?) kicked in. I tend to be very good in emergency situations.

Here’s how my thought process went:

First, “He didn’t ask for my phone, so I’m not going to give it to him.” I placed the phone in my pocket, leaving it on so my friend could hear what was going on.

Second, “He didn’t ask for my backpack, so I’m not giving it to him either.” Instead I told the guy, “My purse is in my backpack; I’ll get it out for you.” I took it off, set it on the ground, and knelt down to retrieve my purse.

Third, “I don’t want to give him my purse! My glasses and make-up are in there! He doesn’t want all that stuff anyway – he’d just ditch it. I’ll see if he’ll just take my wallet.” I reached into my backpack, into the purse, for my wallet.

Fourth, “I don’t want to give him my wallet! My drivers’ license and credit cards are in there! He probably doesn’t want them anyway. I’ll see if he’ll just take my cash.” So I reached into my wallet, grabbed the cash (fortunately, about fifty bucks), took it out, and handed it to him.

“This is all the money I have; you can have all my money,” I told him. He took it and walked away.

He just walked away.

That’s why I’ve always called it “The Best Possible Mugging.” It was an armed robbery and the only thing I lost was 50 bucks in cash. (Ever since, I always carry at least $20. I know some folks don’t like to carry cash in case they’re mugged, but that’s exactly why I want to do so. I’d much rather somebody get a little money from me than my credit or bank card – or worse, not believing me and getting mad.)

Like I said, all I lost was a little money (and some peace of mind). I didn’t have to replace any items or official documents or credit cards, and the guy was none the wiser as to my name or address. More importantly, I wasn’t hurt. I doubt it gets much better than that.

(By the way, I later heard from friends that the friend-with-whom-I’d-been-on-the phone during the mugging reported to everybody that, “This guy walks up to Julie with a gun, demands her purse, and she negotiates with him!” He said that I told the robber “I won’t give you my purse, but I’ll give you my money.” I’m dubious. I stand by my interior-monologue version of the story.)

I’d been strangely calm through the whole mugging, but once the guy walked away, I started to panic a little. I wondered whether he’d come back. I worried that he’d see where I was heading and know where I lived.

“Julie! Julie!” my friend was screaming on the phone. I pulled it out of my pocket and rushed toward the gate of my apartment complex. “Get inside!” he was telling me.

As I walked through the gate, I spotted a bunch of soldiers milling around outside a bus. (This is Washington, remember. You find a military presence in lots of unexpected places. These guys were housed in my complex and were gathering by their bus to report to work at some military installation around town.) As my friend shouted, “Get inside!” over and over, I thought, “Hmm… men with big guns. I think I’ll go stand with them.”

“I was just robbed,” I told them. “Like, just now – he went that way.” The kind souls called 911 and waited with me until the police arrived.

Once the police got there, I answered questions. I watched as they brought out dogs to track the man’s scent. I went with an officer to identify someone they’d caught (not the right guy). Later I met with a police sketch artist. It was all very interesting. And surreal.

And yes, it shook me up.

I took a friend’s advice to stay home from work the next day and eat ice cream. I kept the blinds closed. I looked over my shoulder a lot. Outside, I walked quickly. I walked with others whenever I could. I was careful to be home before it got too late. And I never again traveled that metro route without wondering if I’d be mugged.

Over time, though I remained cautious in that city and my next, I began to feel safe again. Or as safe as one can feel who’s had such an experience. I’ve had others, too, that stuck with me in that awful, haunting, PTSD-esque way: September 11, the Washington sniper attacks, a hit-and-run car accident (hmm… I guess that one makes me a crime victim two times over). All of them, incidentally, occurred while I lived in the Washington area. Blasted place.

I’m still very (overly?) careful while out-and-about in public places, but fortunately I don’t carry with me any more bothersome relic of my mugging. Even more fortunately, I still find humor in the fact that I was able to dig within my matryoshka doll of a bag/purse/wallet situation to grab a wad of cash. That humor has gone a long way in getting me through what, at its heart, was a scary and unsettling event. Thank you, humor! And of course, thank you, Lord, for getting me safely through the experience. I remain so. grateful.

Yet another incongruous photo. It's not even Washington, it's Germany. But it was taken around the same time as the events in this post.

Yet another incongruous photo. It’s not even Washington, it’s Germany. But it was taken around the same time as the infamous mugging.

This is post three of the 7 Posts in 7 Days challenge at Conversion Diary. Stop there to check out the hundreds of other bloggers who are also participating.

Crime and Punishment and Moving On

A This American Life episode from a couple of weeks ago tells the story of Mike Anderson, a married, suburban St. Louis father of four. Mr. Anderson owned a contracting business and built his family’s home from the ground up. He volunteered at church and coached his son’s football team. In short, he was a responsible, productive member of society.

But he had a secret. And one morning last summer, while Mr. Anderson was home alone with his two-year-old daughter, with his wife away on a business trip, a hard knock on the door brought his secret to light.

In 1999, when Mr. Anderson was 22 years old, he and a friend held up a Burger King manager while the man was making a night deposit at a bank. Mr. Anderson says he got “caught up with the wrong crowd that night.” He had no prior convictions and a full-time job. He said the robbery wasn’t his idea and that his friend’s weapon was just a BB gun. (It was never recovered.)

Nonetheless, Mr. Anderson was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He was out on bond filing appeals when the court ultimately determined that he did indeed have to serve his sentence. Mr. Anderson waited for a warrant to be issued so the police would come take him to prison. But it never happened. They didn’t come.

Due to a clerical error, the court had been informed that Mr. Anderson was already in prison. It wasn’t until 13 years later, when the system was preparing for his release, that they discovered he’d never been there at all. So they finally came for him.

In the meantime, Mr. Anderson had gone from expecting to be picked up at any moment, to thinking maybe it would never happen, to deciding to turn his life around. He went back to school and became a master carpenter. He married and became a family man. He never had another run-in with the law.

In the words of the segment’s narrator, “Thirteen years without going to prison did exactly what you’d hope 13 years in prison will do for a person: Mike reformed, became a model citizen. Which raises the question, do we want to send him to prison? It’ll cost the state of Missouri about $20,000 a year to house and feed him. And if Mike’s no longer a danger to society, what’s the point of having him sit in a cell when he could be out working, paying taxes, and raising his kids?”

As Mr. Anderson’s story has become known in the St. Louis area, many people have come to the opinion that if he’s been rehabilitated, he shouldn’t have to serve his prison sentence. Surprisingly, perhaps, one such person is the victim of Mr. Anderson’s crime. The victim, who was deeply impacted by the crime, was initially angry when he learned that Mr. Anderson didn’t serve his sentence. But thinking more on the situation, he has come to believe that what the State is doing to Mr. Anderson isn’t right. He says, “Yeah, he screwed up when he was little, but the law dropped the ball; the law ought to drop it completely. They need to leave the man alone.”

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Sorry — I know this photo isn’t exactly pertinent to the post’s subject matter. But it’s the only behind-bars shot I’ve got. And These Walls IS about 90% mommy blog.

Mike Anderson’s story reminded me of a subject I’ve thought on for years – one on which my thoughts have most definitely evolved: What purpose do criminal sentences (namely prison terms) serve? Are they meant to be punishments, pure and simple? Are they meant to protect the public from dangerous individuals? Are they meant to rehabilitate criminals so they can be successfully returned to society?

It is my nature to view crime and punishment in very simple terms: If you commit a crime, you deserve to be punished. Period. (I’m a strong “J” on the Myers Briggs scale.) I remember thinking as a teenager, “If you do something wrong, you deserve whatever you get. Whatever you get.” I was in favor of capital punishment, three-strikes laws, building more prisons – you name it.

Over time, however, my thinking has changed… grown… become more nuanced. It’s become at once more compassionate and more practical.

The changes started with capital punishment. On that particular topic, my Catholic faith had a strong influence in changing my mind: statements from Pope John Paul II and lunch table conversations with seminarian friends ultimately convinced me to be more humble in my considerations. I went from thinking, “If you murder, you deserve to be killed,” to “It’s not so much about what murderers deserve as it is about what we choose to do with them.”

I later came to apply that thinking to the subject of crime and punishment in general. I figure that it’s never up to me to determine what someone deserves – that task is for God alone.

It is, of course, up to society to determine the best ways to keep its population safe and to prevent crimes from occurring in the future. And I think that is where our focus should be when considering crime and punishment. It’s not up to me (or people in general, and therefore the State) to dole out punishments simply for the sake of punishing. It’s up to us to be intelligent and deliberate about dealing with the fallout from crime and figuring out the best ways to prevent it from perpetuating.

Tragically, our criminal justice system does a terrible job of this. Small-time offenders leave prison with (1) fewer prospects for gainful employment than they had before establishing their criminal record and (2) experiences and contacts that better equip them for a life of crime than for anything else. No wonder recidivism rates are so high.

I think we need to be more practical about what we do with those found guilty of crimes. It’s one thing if someone has committed a crime that will earn him or her a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. (Which is, I think, what we should choose over capital punishment. For one, because taking a life is a grave, grave matter that should be avoided whenever possible. For another, because people should be given every possible opportunity to repent of their sins.) It’s quite another thing if a person’s crime will earn him or her a temporary prison sentence.

If a criminal is to be returned to society someday, then society should do everything possible to ensure that he or she re-enters it prepared to function legally. Crime should not be ex-offenders’ only real prospect for survival. They should be able to work, to earn, to contribute, to thrive. Everyone will be better off when a criminal can complete his or her sentence and then move on.

I’m not naïve; I know such a situation would be terribly hard to achieve. (And it will never be perfectly achieved.) Employers are (understandably) unwilling to hire people with criminal records. Solid communities are largely unwilling to take them in; subversive communities are all too willing. And people are imperfect. Some will continue to do wrong no matter how much assistance they are given.

But I think it’s worth trying.

Sentencing guidelines, prison conditions, hiring policies, resources for ex-offenders: they’re all areas where improvements can be made. And indeed the status quo on sentencing and prisons, at least, is in many cases currently doing more harm than good.

Just think of Mike Anderson. His business, his home, his children would not be here if he had reported to prison 13 years ago. He would not have paid taxes and contributed to the economy. He would not have been able to volunteer at that church or coach that team.

How many more empty spaces do we have today — ghosts, you might say, of those sitting in prison – spaces in our economy, our neighborhoods, our families, our communities, where people could be contributing rather than serving prison terms that harden and debilitate them?

As far as Mike Anderson is concerned, his attorney has filed a brief arguing that when the State forgot about Mr. Anderson for 13 years, it violated his right to due process or speedy punishment. If the effort fails, his only recourse is to petition Missouri’s governor for clemency. The governor has only granted clemency once. I pray that Mr. Anderson’s case prompts him to do so again.

 

This is post two of the 7 Posts in 7 Days challenge at Conversion Diary. Stop there to check out the hundreds of other bloggers who are also participating.