Like millions of other people, I watched the cell phone footage of a 15 year old girl getting pummeled in a Brooklyn McDonald's. It's frightening, deplorable, horrendous, and every other hyper-negative word you can think of too. But this behavior among kids isn't new. It's just filmed, and "witnessed" by adults who have the proper perspective on how horrible this behavior is instead of not-yet sensitized or desensitized teenagers who exist in the social circles where this might be common. Many, many years ago, I was once in those circles. Sort of.
I grew up in the suburbs of DC when the Nation's Capital was alternately known and feared as the "Murder Capital". My parents would have the news on the TV every morning as I got ready for school and I'd hear the murder stats from the night before. Two bodies here, another there. Several bodies if there was the unfortunate combination of being hot and a long weekend. Almost always, the victims and perpetrators were young Black boys and men, ages 15-22. There was a culture of violence that hung over the city, one that penetrated the suburbs and prep and private schools that my teenage friends and I attended.
The first time I heard Outkast's Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, I was 15, standing in Michael's* driveway with my kinda boyfriend (it was high school; it was weird) and some of their friends. Michael was the best friend of Kinda BF, who was 17, lived in a big house in the suburbs and was a senior at an all-boys private high school renowned for his athletes. Michael was Kinda BF's classmate.
I don't remember Michael's car, but it was new and shiny and he'd just purchased new speakers with enough volume to leave my ears ringing when the music stopped and enough bass to vibrate thru my body when "Player's Ball" played. The car was parked in the main driveway to his parents' house, not the other one that ran past the pool, leading to the pool house.
Graduation was approaching and Michael was throwing a party in his pool house to mark the occasion. He'd hired a very popular go-go band** to perform on the "stage", the part of the living room that wasn't sunken. I was looking forward to it.
My two girls, also friends of Michael and Kinda BF, also were going to Michael's party. I asked my mother if I could go. I pleaded my case. It was a friend of Kinda BF's, my "friend-- cause you know Black parents don't acknowledge boyfriends-- and my mother really liked him. It was a graduation party. The guy was from a "good" family, lived in a very cushy neighborhood, actually in (redacted celebrity's) old house, and went to a respected school. Pleeaaaassssse???
Mum said, "yes", then an hour before I was supposed to leave, came and told me, "I'm sorry, no. Something doesn't feel right." I pleaded. No was the final answer. I relented (like I had a choice). Then I lied, said I was going to the movies and went to the party anyway.
The pool house was a fire hazard, packed when we got there before 10. Plenty of boys, plenty of girls, bodies spilling outside to escape the heat indoors. It was sticky hot, so maybe the A/C was broke. Or maybe it was just too many damn people. The speakers sounded like the ones in Michael's car. The band was awesome.
I spotted Kinda BF and he came over and guided me and my girls to an empty table with no chairs in the corner of the room. It was near a window. Thank God.
We wanted to dance, but with all the people we could hardly move. Two of us climbed on the table, which sounds way more lecherous than it was. I did more gawking than moving. I'd never been to a party like this.
I was pretty sheltered growing up. I went to school dances, which consisted of a big gym, 100 people (my high school was really small) and mostly alternative rock music since Black folk were a minority of the school population. I'd been snuck into a college party once when I went with my god mother to visit my god sister for Homecoming. I was 14 and she guarded me like she was still my babysitter. I stayed over at a classmate's house once and we snuck out to hang with her boyfriend, a white guy in his mid-20s, who took us to his friend's dumpy apartment. There were 10 people, I was the only Black girl and everyone was high off some next ish (not weed, not coke). I sat on the floor in the corner, drank not even half a beer, and watched as someone high saw fit to give whatever they were on to the two hamsters in a cage on the floor. One hamster then attacked the other, killed him and ate his brain as everyone watched like it was The National Geographic channel.
Michael's party wasn't any of that. This was 300 Black teenagers. There were bodies each moving their own way, but all on the same beat, red cups, the smell of weed, and foggy, perspiration on the upper part of the windows because of the heat. It was like "House Party", sans the pre- coordinated dance battles.
I was watching, taking it all in, but I still can't tell you what started the brawl. The music was playing, the people were partying, and suddenly fists were flying. There were boys fighting and tussling, half bent and striking blows wherever they could land them. The music stopped, girls screamed. My best friend and I were still on the table, clutching each other and staring, backed away to the furthest edge from the action. The crowd hurriedly scattered back and into a circle in that instinctual way that humans react when folks start brawling.
In the center of the action was one guy throwing wild fists, outnumbered by the five or six boys punching and jabbing at him. He fought as hard as long as he could, then resigned to self preservation, he covered his head with his forearms and bent over. He fell over from a punch, curled into the fetal position and the opposing boys, wearing Timbs and the steel-toe boots that were in fashion at the time, stomped him out. At first he responded to the blows by flinching, tucking into himself in a tighter ball. And then he loosened and didn't respond at all to being struck.
Everyone watched and no one intervened. Why? The excuses are many. No one could believe it was happening. Everyone was scared. No one wanted to jump in to stop it and end up getting their ass beat too. Years later, I read about a 20-something woman in Queens named Kitty Genovese who was attacked in a NYC alley way, 51 years ago today. She screamed for help and tens of people heard her, but no one helped. Psychologists explained the inaction as the Bystander Effect. As explained by Psychology Today, it's "the phenomenon in which the greater the number of people present, the less likely people are to help a person in distress. When an emergency situation occurs, observers are more likely to take action if there are few or no other witnesses. Being part of a large crowd makes it so no single person has to take responsibility for an action (or inaction)." Maybe that was it.
The only reason no one taped it was because of the crude technology of the time. We all had cell phones, but it would be years before we could even just text on them. We certainly weren't more evolved.
The sound of the gunshot probably saved that boy. It rang out, and I knew to duck from the time I was leaving an off campus party with that same god sister. There was more screaming and everyone, including the boys jumping the guy on the floor, scattered. Kinda BF appeared from nowhere and snatched me off the table. I grabbed my best friend's hand as we ran out the door. We looked back and our third friend, Angel, wasn't there. I tried to stop, but Kinda BF pulled my arm and we all ran out the door, down the long driveway back to the main road, which was lit up like the crime scene it was.
At the end of the driveway, Kinda BF left us. It was safe. There were police cars everywhere. A couple of ambulances and at least one fire truck. Kids were scattered all over the place. And in the middle of it all was my mother.
Mama Belle knew I was full of sh-- when I left the house, talking about going to the movies. She'd thought of my punishment before I left. And she knew the party would end up a sh-- show, but figured I had to learn danger the hard way. But then she was standing there ironing clothes while I was standing on somebody’s table and thought, “Lawd, let me go get my child.” Black mamas be knowing. So she drove 10 minutes to the neighborhood where [redacted athlete's] old house was, and came upon all of the lights from the emergency vehicles.
She wasn't even mad at me (and I didn't get punished). She just wanted to know if I was all right, if my bestie was okay, and where was Angel* who was always with us, but wasn't standing there. We didn't know.
So we waited and worried at the end of the driveway, looking down, looking for Angel. Mama wouldn't let me and Bestie go back to the house. The police probably would have stopped us if we tried.
Fifteen minutes later, Angel comes waking down the street, not the driveway. When the fight started, she left us on the table and ran out. She was running down the driveway when the first shot went off, so she turned left and ran into the woods to hide. She saw us run down the driveway. She only came out the woods when she decided it was safe. She was rattled, but fine.
I don't remember how Angel and my bestie got home. I walked to the car behind my mother thankful and not at all embarrassed that she'd showed up to get me out of there.
Kinda BF called the next day to make sure I was okay. He'd seen my mother in the crowd, so he knew I made it home safe. He told me later the boy who got jumped had 50 stitches and broken ribs. I was thankful for that too. I thought he was left for dead. Oh, and nobody was hit by all the bullets.
*All the names are changed.
**A word about go-gos. The music isn't inherently violent, but the dancing is largely erratic. Combine good music, wild dancing, a bunch of drunk and high folks, and a culture of violence with people hyper sensitive about "respect" and it's a recipe for disaster. I've been to one actual go-go in DC in my entire life (it was after Michael's party). That night, I was searched like I was entering prison. The band's policy, incorporated into the verses, was "one fight, good night." That night, someone got shot, and the band played on. Technically, a shooting isn't a fight, and because of that interpretation of policy, I stopped going. The party was fun, but wasn't worth my life.