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Piercing the bubble of calm

Last week, I got mugged.

Or, quasi-mugged.

My urge to imbibe thwarted by Baltimore's proscription of Sunday liquor store sales, I'd ended up in the back of Charles Village Pub with a book and a Dale's Pale Ale. After a couple hours of reading and rumination, I paid my tab. Walking the three blocks back from the bar and talking on the phone, I had just entered the alley abutting my apartment when a gun-wielding figure appeared from behind.

"Give me your phone! Give me your phone!"

My gait slowed, and I turned around. "This is all I've got, man." Just a flip phone. Not the smart phone he coveted. I'd provided the information with a placidity that comes after four drinks. That, and I'd envisioned such an encounter since moving to Baltimore last August, steeling myself for that inevitable night when an armed guy would enjoin me to hand over my cash.

But this would-be mugger desired a pricey phone, and all I had was a scratched Samsung — one that lacked even a back cover. Only a few seconds had lapsed and, saved by obsolete technology, the confrontation had already de-escalated. Disappointment replaced demands. "I don't want that!" he said, dejected to the point of comedy.

"You want my book?" I offered, mostly in jest.

But he did not want Robert Michels' Political Parties. His loss.

"What's your major?"

"Nonfiction writing."

By then we were strolling down the alley side by side. He asked me if he'd scared me; I truthfully answered in the negative. He showed off his gun, which, despite appearing to be a genuine handgun, could only shoot BB's. I joked that it probably spooked lots of students. He used it for target practice, he said, the weapon's red laser spanning the width of the dimly lit alley.

A few seconds of silence. Where was my place? he inquired. Now two-thirds of the way up the alley, I motioned in the direction of my basement apartment. "At the end here."

"Alright man, be safe," my erstwhile mugger said, and we parted ways.

After a few steps his body pivoted and, by way of belated introduction, he said over his shoulder: "DeAndre."

"Shawn."

I didn't report the abortive mugging, much to the consternation of one of my best friends. No one was harmed, and it was just a property crime. No need to get the police involved.

Mine, however, was the latest in a wave of robberies in North Baltimore. The uptick has startled many because it's punctured the bubble encompassing Hopkins and adjacent neighborhoods, a carapace within which calm usually prevails, homicides are rare and crime is minimal. A few weeks ago, a Johns Hopkins University security officer warned me that insouciant students with smart phones were being targeted. On Move-In Day late last month, a couple guys, armed and bandannaed, mugged four undergraduates across the street from the campus library. Floodlights now illuminate the entire stretch, and the already omnipresent university security guards seem even more ubiquitous.

The show of force is unsurprising. For the university's administration, when social ills that plague the rest of the city seep through the impregnable wall they've attempted to erect, it represents nothing less than an existential threat. The institution's very existence, at this point, is implicitly predicated on the notion that one can sustain a rarefied citadel amid widespread destitution. Elites have bet — accurately, thus far — that the benefits Hopkins undoubtedly confers on the city will placate naysayers who object to the inequality the college tends to compound.

As for the City Council, it voted unanimously this month to prohibit automated kiosks that dispense cash for used cell phones. Smitten with wealthy developers, Baltimore has also been doling out millions in subsidies for business projects that, if history is any guide, will just aid the economically advantaged. The city has been less willing to appropriate — or lobby the federal government to appropriate — the massive public investment needed to attack its afflictions: Double-digit unemployment. Nearly a quarter of residents mired in poverty. Thousands on any given night without a home.

For most mugging victims, the memory of being held up is more likely to induce terror and anxiety than, as in my case, laughter. Even if they walk away unscathed, it's usually a traumatic experience. And I certainly don't wish physical harm on anyone. But let's keep this all in perspective: Privileged students being divested of their iPhones doesn't even appear on the list of injustices in Baltimore.

Unconscionable levels of poverty and inequality — that's what we should be worried about.

Shawn Gude is a Johns Hopkins graduate student and an assistant editor at Jacobin magazine. His email is shawn.gude@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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