at knife point

i’ve resisted blogging for a long time.  caught in a modesty and self importance loop that was a bit debilitating, i would think from time to time, oh that would make a great blog post, but some silly little voice inside of me kept stopping me.

but a couple of nights ago i was sitting in a coffee shop in denver, a friendly, locally run shop that makes itself a hub for the communities i tend to gravitate towards.  it was a night time coffee hit and internet fix before going out to search for tattoo parlors.  my friend lesley and i were the only people sitting in the shop and the owner was behind the cash register.  it was sweet, i was sitting singing along to the music and chatting some support to a sister of mine back in virginia.  when the tall man in the black hoodie ran into the place and jumped on the counter, i thought he must be a friend of the owner’s playing some silly joke.  but then he jumped down, behind the counter and brandished a knife.  i was immobilized by shock.  this is not the sort of thing that happens in real life, right?

before i could blink, he was demanding all the money from the cash register.  the owner did everything he wanted without even a word of resistance, and still the man with the knife punched him in the head repeatedly.  once he’d gotten all the money from the register–scornfully slapping away the change–he demanded to be taken to the safe.  the owner explained that he didn’t have a safe, but the man didn’t believe him.  the owner started to lead him to the back of the shop, promising to give him everything he had in the place.  still, the man hit him to the ground then kicked him a couple of times in the kidneys.  when they disappeared, my friend lesley went outside to call the police.  resisting the urge to run after her, i staid stock still, needing to be a witness, needing to be there when the two men emerged, needing to know that the owner was going to be alright.  feeling powerless, i sat and waited.

they didn’t keep me long.  soon the man with the knife was gone and the cops were there.  lesley and i tried to process what had just happened and as the cops stood around waiting to take action, we both realized we had a similar response.  we were angry at ourselves for not acting, for not stopping the man when he was beating the owner.  and we were angry that the man with the knife had been violent.  we told ourselves we could have sympathized with whatever had led this man to the point of armed robbery if he’d just come in, made his demands and gone.  we could understand the assault on capitalism, on ownership, on privilege, but the violence was totally unnecessary.  not at any point did the coffee shop owner resist his demands.  and we were angry that the man with the knife was black.  in fact, when the 911 operator asked lesley for the man’s ethnic identity, she mumbled “fuck” before being prompted to answer the question.

i’m still having a hard time processing all of the different analyses present in the three minute scene.  and sitting with my inaction.  convinced that there is something integral to the way i interact with the world waiting to be formed in the response to the experience, i’m anxious to open up the discussion.  what can we do as a community to address all of the tangled issues tied up in a violent armed robbery?  what are the alternatives to calling the police that we can create for ourselves?   all thoughts and responses are welcome!


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Paxus Calta
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 02:55:51

    What happens when we make these characterisations? When the 911 operator asks for ethnic identity. When i say it sounds like a meth head. Does it mean all meth heads are violence inducing criminals? Certainly not, and some of of them do.

    There is of course a silver lining to this ugly event, which is it kicked you out of your complacency and pushed you into your revolutionary obligation to put a poetic framing on your fascinating life.


  2. marta
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 20:08:25

    juicy, sara. i’m so happy you’ve written and put this out there. so much to look at, and i’m not ready in this moment but am celebrating your blog and smiling that you chose the same “theme” as me on mine! 🙂 i will write you soon. this have been rich lately and no time on the computer until today. i love you. so much empathy for that moment when the police asked for the ethnicity.


  3. Michelle
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 04:51:57

    Sara, I’m glad to see you are alive and getting well. Emily and I were just wondering about you the other day. I will play devil’s advocate here though and say that identifying features is very important in stopping crime. You simply can’t expect that question to not be asked. And until the reality of those characterizations is addressed…economic status and education being forerunners in the conversation…the unfortunate generalizations will continue. Taking the law into our own hands is like saying “guns for every man, woman and child.” You can go into poor, high crime communities and educate on life alternatives, but you can’t force someone to take that path. And when someone makes a poor life decision, ie armed robbery, we can’t excuse the behavior by saying “oh, well we failed them as a society.” Individuals succeed despite generalizations and societal barriers every day. Don’t take those successes away.


  4. Sara Tansey
    Jan 28, 2011 @ 05:50:06

    i get that individuals succeed and i dont want to strip away what that means. but the paradigm of success vs failure, to me, ignores the ways in which some are born for success and others for failure. and like i said in the post, i can sympathize with the attack on capital, on what the funky coffee shop represents to someone who’s contemplating armed robbery. and the point where he crossed the line was when he stepped into violence. that’s when i wish i wasn’t so powerless.

    and what i imagine when i asked about what we can do to create alternatives to cops is not necessarily “taking the law” into our own hands. i’m not clear what it looks like, and it’s something i’d love to have more discussion on. to me it’s a neighborhood watch meets a mediator, something non violent, something that addresses the analyses i’m eager to have. there’s more, and i’m a bit fried.

    i love you michelle! we should catch up more. and marta, marta, lets talk soon.


  5. Lorena
    Jan 28, 2011 @ 23:20:42

    That feeling of powerlessness is awful, being frozen. I think it’s an instinct. Some other animals also still when they sense violence. If it ever happens again do you think you would try to help? I’m sorry for everyone involved having to go through that, even the perpetrator. It hurts all.


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