Recalling a moment where I opted for empathy instead of retribution and how better society would be if we all did the same.
There was a boy I had been in a bad feud with since the 6th grade. He endlessly antagonized me during classes and he became my number one enemy. He was a boy from a rough neighborhood and had been moved into my part of town with his grandmother to escape violence. His tough exterior was how he got the respect he desired and I often undermined him by ignoring or insulting him back.
During the last week of the 8th grade, we had an exchange in slurs that turned into near blows and he challenged me to a fight after school. I was known for consensually sparring, so I accepted and purposely humiliated him during our fight. I pinned him down and forced him to tap out—all while I taunted him. I had hoped that would squash our issues but he didn't get his revenge until months later.
One day as I was walking home, two of my enemy’s friends rode up to me with their skateboard and bike. I thought it was wiser to turn my back to them, but they hit me on the back of my head and a punch at my ear from behind. Then I saw my enemy run towards me from across the street and he kicked me with his full momentum. I had tumbled to the ground and blocked my head as all three of them kept punching me in a circle.
When I moved my arms to guard my face from blows, I was hit in the back of my head by a hard object. I freaked out and jumped to my feet, towering over all three of them and I reflexively horse kicked my enemy—who was behind me—to the ground.
He rose to his feet, pulled out a gun and pointed it straight at me.
I remember that the other two dudes stopped attacking me. My ears were either muffled by blood or my emotional shock had muted most sounds, but the only thing I could hear was a woman frantically screaming. Thinking he was going to shoot, I felt pity for my mother. I had been to the funerals of boys who died prematurely and I remembered the hysterically crying mothers the most.
I remember he had an angry, yet bewildered expression on his face—as if he was shocked by what he was doing. After what must’ve been a few seconds, he put the gun away, stumbled back and ran around the corner with his friends.
With just my bruised face, a cut on my scalp and a few scratches, I got off easy but I was traumatized by getting jumped like that nevertheless. In the following days, my emotions evolved into anger and I was hastily trying to assemble a crew to jump my enemy back and get a gun. But I was talked down from this by my wise friends who kept telling me I had too much to lose if I went down that path.
My next emotion became anxiety. I never thought to report what happened to the police, but my enemy’s accomplices profusely apologized the following week; they insisted they had gotten out of hand. My enemy didn’t attend the same high school but I couldn’t wait for the day I would run into him again and get my revenge. My friends continued to discourage me from seeking him out, but I was quite sure when I incidentally ran into him that I would tear him apart.
But I wouldn’t get to see him again until nearly 9 years later.
I made a trip to the store and only one clerk was checking everyone out. As I got closer to checkout, I noticed the clerk was a young man who seemed very familiar to me. I stared at him for a minute until I realized: it’s him! It’s my enemy! He eyed me as he looked over the line, then held eye contact with me and realized who I was. He turned back to the customer and continued his duties, but every time he opened the cash drawer or grabbed a receipt, he would stare cautiously at me.
This is the moment I’ve been waiting for, I thought. But when presented with the opportunity of a decade, I couldn’t bring myself to attack him. He was just sitting there like any other clerk with a polite demeanor and a pop song in the background.
“Hey man, it’s been a long time,” he remarked.
“Yeah, since you jumped me,” I told him.
He forced out an uncomfortable laugh then muttered: “Yeah.” He asked for my contact info and an opportunity to meet up for lunch. I was a tad surprised but I accepted the offer just to give him a chance to explain himself. I knew we weren’t going to fight. As an adult with responsibilities, throwing hands for no clear reason isn’t as appealing as it was as a teenager. I met him a few days later during his lunchtime.
“So, about that time we beat up on you,” he said. “Aye man, I’m sorry.”
“No problem,” I told him.
“I wasn’t going to shoot you and it was fucked up. Straight up. I get it if you’re mad. We should’ve never done that. I don’t even know I was thinking. I was mad and stupid.”
“I get it,” I said. Then I blurted out something else. “I was stupid, too.”
I partially said that to ward off his fear of repercussion, but also some guilt about how I equally antagonized him as young teens. We started talking about each other’s lives and he told me about how he’s just hustling right now, but he’s going to be an entrepreneur; he was going to enroll in college soon. When the conversation drifted back to our battles in school, he revealed to me that as a kid he was largely alone at home and didn’t have the guidance he needed at the time. That he fixed himself up after a traumatic experience.
I obviously was impressed by a lot of what he had done. The odds of just “pulling yourself up” out of poverty is almost impossible, particularly if it’s done by your own willpower and not the guidance of parents. This hot headed boy I had hated for years seemed to have evolved into this hardworking, striving man who beat the odds.
Nobody is born on this planet knowing what’s wrong inherently, especially when there are so many boys just like us in similar situations that turned fatal. Here was a young man who didn’t have much of his family living with him, and didn’t have a community that could pick up the slack. A young man who didn’t have anyone in school to resolve his own trauma despite being surrounded by violence, daily.
This is not an individual behavioral problem; this is a systemic problem. Meaning it takes something other than shaming and incarcerating to solve. There are many young men experiencing the same thing we did, so what does taking vengeance on one guy solve? Once you realize it’s nothing, the next question becomes: what systemic changes can we make to ensure there are fewer boys like us? Because he’s a victim, too.
Part of the problem is our culture loves vengeance and it’s everywhere. We have a legal system that doesn’t rehabilitate offenders but just piles on lengthy sentencing times. Convictions that make rehabilitation harder through housing and employment prohibition. Every other billboard has a lawyer promising legal retribution for any and every problem. Our media is filled with “holding people accountable” by humiliating people on TV. Our news immortalizes people who commit even low level crimes at their worst moments in printed mugshots. Half the country wants to mow people down for any and all slights; social media is obsessed with mobbing and tearing down people for offenses, no matter how irrelevant or powerless they are.
But this vengeance culture exists because in the absence of a good problem resolution system, people act on their impulses rather than what resolves the conflict. This has only gotten worse because children can’t ever make a mistake or harm someone without it being immortalized forever on the Internet, where it can be used by future employers, the police or social media’s vengeance merchants.
I’m really proud of my enemy because of how we solved this beef. But it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been surrounded by friends and mentors with a high level of maturity and experience to reject the weapon, to disperse the mob, to leave the cops out and focus on my own healing. A healing that was so successful, I didn’t even feel any hate for my enemy when I met him again.
That’s why today, my enemy is gone and now I have a friend.
Restorative justice may not work for everyone—it’s certainly the harder path over vengeance—but part of conflict resolution is recognizing that we’ve all hurt people. If you think you haven’t harmed someone, you are either extremely inattentive or nobody cares about you to have been harmed in the first place. Use some self-reflection from when you harmed someone and think—often uncomfortably—about what you needed to hear in order to be corrected. Not what you needed to hear to merely apologize, but what you needed to hear in order to stop the harm you were causing.
I’m not too unlike my friend here, for I too caused harm to people that even to this day, I feel terrible guilt about. But I was spared a punitive revenge and had great peers that got me to change my behavior, which inspired me to do the same onto people who harmed me. It also helps to have attended a restorative justice high school program where Bill Ayers’ brother was a prominent mentor along with other social justice activists, but not everyone is so lucky as I was.
This isn’t an argument against using police ever or even social media mobbing in some circumstances. It’s an argument for understanding power. When dealing with powerful people, it was only the mass mobilizing of social media that took down serial predators where the legal system failed, and I would obviously call the police if someone I knew was murdered. But mobbing and the state is not the answer to every conflict you have, especially if the perpetrator lacks systemic or retributive power.
The only regret I have is that my friend did not have a community to stop him from preventing further harm before it got really bad. But those two boys are gone and in their place are two men, not in jail or in a grave, but following their life’s path.
In future articles of this substack I will discuss restorative justice, both at a micro and macro level, along with the shortcomings of the current system and general topics on violence.