My friend Ashley and I were on our way to pick up a family for Monday night dinner when we saw a bunch of teenagers and adults at the next corner, gathered around two kids fighting over a bicycle. As we drove closer, I realized that the shirtless, crying boy clinging to the handlebars was D-man, a skinny 14-year old we’ve known since he was nine, and that the other kid, calmly sitting on the bike and shaking his head, was actually a grown man. In full good neighbor mode, I rolled up and called out, “Yo, D-man, are you OK?”
“He’s taking my bike, Bart!” D-man sobbed back. “I didn’t do nothing, but he’s trying to take my bike!”
Before I could say anything, the young man on the bike cursed him. “You know y’all stole my cousin’s bike, bitch, so I’ma take this one from you,” he said, yanking hard on the handlebars. “Now let…it…go!”
D-man got shaken off, but he chased the bike thief across the street and grabbed on again, wailing over and over, “Pleeease man, don’t take my bike!” Ashley and I followed in the van, but this time I called out to the young man. “Hey come on, give the kid his bike back. You know that’s not right.” I was hoping the scrutiny of two respectable, upright adults might intimidate him into just walking away, but he just sneered at me and shouted, “Stay out of this, man…this ain’t none of yo’ business anyway!”
I hesitated. All around me were hard-looking street corner guys, some laughing at the spectacle, others encouraging a fight. Two of D-man’s young friends were there, too, quietly straddling the fine line between not ditching your buddy and getting your own ass whipped. In a way, I quickly realized, I was straddling that same line, along with poor Ashley, whose only mistake that night was offering to come along for the ride.
Just then, out of nowhere another man appeared, much bigger than the first, his angry face covered with tattoos. “Let it go, bitch!” he shouted, as he walked up behind D-man and brutally cold-cocked him in the side of the head. The boy dropped to the street and lay there, completely motionless. The two men took his bike and disappeared down the street, as D-man’s friends screamed after them, threatening all kinds of violent retribution like a pair of miniature gangsters. I grabbed my cell phone and dialed 911, but before anyone answered Ashley called my name from where she was kneeling beside D-man. “This kid’s really hurt,” she said, “We’ve got to get him out of here.”
As the two of us were lifting D-man off the pavement and into the van, one of the street corner guys moved closer and called out to him. “Hey, little man!” he laughed mockingly, “You better toughen yo’self up, yo.”
Suddenly, I was the angry one. I turned to glare at the guy. “Shut up,” I practically spit at him, contempt dripping from my voice. “He’s just a kid. He doesn’t need to ‘toughen up.’ That guy who hit him was a grown man.” The young drug dealer’s smile disappeared and he looked back at me with dead eyes. “Who you talkin’ to, man? You don’t know me.” I knew I needed to back down, but by that point I’d had more than my fill of ghetto machismo. “You don’t know me either!” I shot back, though I kept moving back towards the driver’s side of the van. He didn’t try to stop me, but he shook his head. “Man, you better watch yo’self. People ‘round here be using guns…” I just drove away.
A few seconds later, Ashley saw a police cruiser turn the corner. We honked and yelled, but the cop kept looking straight ahead as he drove by. We tried to chase him down, but we lost him. I have nothing more to say about that.
In the van, D-man was groggy. When I asked who stole his bike, he told me the guy’s name was Shannon, but when I asked who hit him, he hesitated. “Did I get hit?” He was nauseous, too. I dropped Ashley at dinner and headed straight to the hospital.
On the way, I called D-man’s mom, who immediately reminded me that she’d moved their family out of our neighborhood just a few months before because she’d had enough “ghetto drama.” By the time she met us in the emergency room, however, she already knew the names of the thief, the hitter, the relative who stole the first bike, and the friend who had already retrieved his gun and gone out looking for revenge. To me, she seemed more concerned about street justice than about her son’s concussion, but maybe that was just her way of managing the shock. In any case, I prayed for them, hugged D-man, and left.
On my way back to the neighborhood, I asked the usual questions: Was I stupid to try to intervene? What else could I have done? Did that kid really almost die for a bicycle? Did I almost die for nothing? Would I be safer or better if I carried a gun? What is wrong with these people? What is wrong with me for thinking of them as “these people”?
I finally arrived at dinner just as the other adults were clearing the dishes and getting ready to play games with the kids. Ashley was anxious for an update, of course, so I told her what had happened at the hospital. Then we joined the game, ate our desserts, and went home for the night.
The next day, I didn’t buy a gun. Instead, I went back to that corner, looking for the guy I’d talked back to, hoping he’d let me talk first this time.
Bart Campolo is minister at Walnut Hills Fellowship in Cincinnati Ohio. Read this post and others at his blog.