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A letter to the man who jabbed my son in Baltimore

Op-ed: A father tries to understand why a white Baltimore man lashed out at his brown child.

Dear Neighbor,

Please forgive me for this odd way of getting in touch. I don't know who you are, and I don't think we've met. But I've been thinking about you all morning, wishing that we had the chance to talk face to face. I'm still troubled by what you did on the Monday night before Thanksgiving, around the corner from where I live in Baltimore. I can't make sense of why you jabbed my 8-year-old boy.

I have a daughter too. She's close to 4, and she's learning how to ride a bike. I was walking beside her as she was pedaling along 37th Street that evening, around 6 p.m. She was really excited, it was the first time she'd ever pedaled on a bicycle outside the house. I was trying to help her steer, teaching her how to use the brakes. My son was tagging along a bit further down the street. His grandfather was also nearby. They saw you, but I didn't.

I have to admit, my son was already a little upset. He was hoping to play Pokemon Go while we walked, but I didn't give him my phone. That might have been why he was hanging back a bit as we were walking. I thought this was why he had tears in his eyes when he caught up with us. But then it turns out you hurt him while walking past.

Maybe you remember what my son looks like — he was wearing a blue jacket and a yellow hoodie. He has black hair and brown skin. He told us that he heard you come up behind him. He told us that you looked at each other under the streetlight. He told us that he stepped aside to let you pass. He told us that you stepped over right behind him, instead of walking past when he'd given you the chance.

He told us that you had some kind of sharp, metallic stick in your hand. He told us that you jabbed it into his back with the words "Get out of my way, you boy!" He told us that he wasn't in your way when you did this to him. Then you disappeared into the darkness.

I know hardly anything about you. The details I have come from an 8-year-old child. Black sweatshirt, black pants, black hat, white skin. He said that there was a white circle on your shirt with some words on it. He couldn't remember the words. I'm trying to imagine what they might have said. I'm wondering whether they carry some kind of explanation for what you did.

Believe me, I'm trying my utmost not to assume anything. There have been so many awful eruptions of hate and racial violence in this country over the last couple weeks. I really don't want to leap to that conclusion. But here's what I just can't figure out. You wanted him out of your way. He got out of your way. Why, then, did you step behind him just to jab him? My child kept reenacting this with a pair of Lego pieces that night. Why were you so angry? What did you see, when you looked at him under the streetlight? I can't shake these questions.

I know we are recent arrivals in the Hampden area, a historically white, mill town neighborhood. But my son was born here, a few miles up the road at GBMC. I remember how my voice cracked when I set the baby carrier on our front porch for the first time, told him with a sense of awe, "You're home." He and his sister have grown up wandering up and down these city streets, chasing after squirrels, throwing rocks in the stream, stopping at the Charmery in Hampden for an ice cream cone even on nights as cold as that Monday's. We are not in your way. We are from here as much as you are. And we are grateful to share this city with people of so many kinds.

My son was wearing a lot of layers that night. He complained about his back hurting for a couple of hours, but he wasn't hurt so badly. I can forgive you for what you did. I reminded him, over dinner that night, that all of us strike out wildly when we're upset. Brooding over something or other, we kick rocks down the street in anger, even if those rocks have done nothing to deserve those blows. I told my son it might have been something like that. I think he understood.

Baltimore is changing quickly, like so many other places in this country. There's a lot that I'm also worried about. But I'm trying my best to be hopeful about where we're headed, for the sake of my children, if for nothing else. My son told me that you looked about my age. Maybe you have kids too. Maybe our kids have even played together on the school playground on 37th.

We may not have met yet, but I still hope we have the chance to talk sometime, under less dark and threatening circumstances. We may have more in common than you think.

Anand Pandian teaches anthropology at Johns Hopkins University; his email is pandian@jhu.edu.

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