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Lessons From Getting Shot
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee, Michel Martin is away. Coming up, a controversial new public service announcement recreates the Trayvon Martin shooting using actual 911 tape. It has the aim of overturning "Stand Your Ground" laws. We're going to hear from the group behind that ad in just a moment. But first, we have another perspective on gun violence. Journalist Brian Beutler had long opposed aggressive police tactics like stop-and-frisk. Then five years ago, he was shot multiple times by a mugger on the streets of Washington, D.C., but that experience didn't change his opinion on racial profiling. And he explains why in an essay called "What I Learned From Getting Shot." Brian Beutler is now a senior staff writer for Salon.com and he joins us now. Welcome.
BRIAN BEUTLER: Thank you for having me.
HEADLEE: It's been five years. Why write this essay now?
BEUTLER: There was the Trayvon Martin shooting and the George Zimmerman trial, but then after the verdict there was a lot of commentary and it sort of mushed together with what was going on in New York with their policing practices - stop-and-frisk. What finally made me decide, OK, it's time for me to say something was when an actor named Kal Penn - who himself had been held up in D.C. when he was working for the Obama administration, and who himself had been a victim of racial profiling at airports because he's South Asian - came forward to support "Stand Your Ground" laws - or policies in New York.
BEUTLER: Stop-and-frisk. I decided there was an opportunity for me to write something that wasn't just about myself for the purposes of writing about myself, but that I could add something new, inject something interesting into the conversation to help get people thinking about it in a new way.
HEADLEE: You tell the story of the actual shooting in really grim detail - kind of startling detail, which I won't make you recreate the whole thing. But essentially what happened was what?
BEUTLER: A friend of mine and I were walking around late at night on a weekday. We took a turn onto a - sort of a side street that's poorly lit and had a history of gang violence on it. And it was in our neighborhood and I'd been up and down it, you know, hundreds of times without incident. But this time, we were approached by a couple of African-American teens, I think - both, you know, wearing hoodies and blue jeans. And they said they wanted our phones and we resisted a little bit, but not for too long before one of them pulled out a gun, handed it to his friend and shot me. I fell to the ground. They ran a way. But I got up and I thought that I was OK. And when I realized that it had been an actual gunshot...
HEADLEE: As opposed to rubber bullets.
BEUTLER: As opposed - yeah. I thought maybe this is a prank. If I fell down from what I thought was a gunshot, but then got right back up, it's probably not a real gun, because if it was a real gun I'd be laid out. And so we decided this couldn't have been real and we were probably in a little bit of denial, had a little bit of - a little bit too much adrenaline working against our reason. But after a few steps up the street, it was clear to me that I had been shot. I saw my shoulder bleeding. And that's when we started running 'cause we knew there was kids around with a gun, that they didn't get the phones that they said that they were after and they were willing to shoot people. So we started running. My friend called the ambulance.
HEADLEE: While you are running.
BEUTLER: While we were running. And we got a couple blocks before I realized that I wasn't just suffering from a shoulder wound. There something else wrong. I got very weak and couldn't run anymore - slumped down onto the sidewalk and just tried to stay conscious. The ambulance arrived quickly. They revived me by, you know, injecting fluid into my veins, picked up my blood pressure and got me to the hospital very quickly. The doctors told me I needed to go into surgery to have my spleen removed...
HEADLEE: ...Because it had a bullet in it.
BEUTLER: It had - yeah. It had been ruptured. I had also sustained injuries to my lung, my diaphragm, my stomach, my kidney. And when I woke up, I didn't realize how extensive the surgery they were going to do was because I thought, well, if they have to take out my spleen, that's just one organ. People get their appendixes removed all the time without needing long hospital stays or long recuperation times. But it turns out that when you have internal damage, they basically cut me open down the abdomen and the extent of the surgery led to me being sort of out of commission for health reasons for three to six months. And so after six months, I got a new job, returned to Washington, D.C. and...
HEADLEE: ...Close to the same neighborhood where you were shot?
BEUTLER: Yeah. Yeah. I live about a half a mile from where it is. I'm in that neighborhood.
HEADLEE: Are you up and down that street?
BEUTLER: Occasionally. I try not to do it at 2 in the morning on a weeknight when nobody else is around. I wouldn't recommend that anyone else do that either. But, you know, it's not the most off-the-beaten-path street. And also, the neighborhood has changed even in the five years since I've been there. So it's a little bit of a different story.
HEADLEE: You know, one of the things that changed peoples' mind after they're a victim of a crime is that feeling of helplessness, and that results in anger. Why didn't that happen to you? Did you not feel angry toward these two young people?
BEUTLER: I dealt with - dealt with - I experienced - harbored revenge fantasies for months. I didn't exactly dream - more like daydreamed - returning to the scene of the crime, you know, armed myself and willing, ready, eager even, to exact revenge on the - you know, the first person who tried to rob me again. Once I got my life back on track, once I felt healthy again, once I was working again, once I realized that I hadn't - that this event hadn't really knocked me off the track in life I wanted to be on, that's when those fantasies kind of just went away on their own. And at this point, no, I don't harbor too much anger. You know, I don't know anything about the kids who did it.
It's possible, to me, that they're in jail for some other crime. And if they were ever arrested for what they did to me, I suppose my attitude towards them would depend on what they had learned from it, what level of remorse they had, what brought them to the point of doing it themselves. And if they had none, then sure, I wouldn't be terribly sympathetic to them, but I also don't necessarily think young criminals in D.C. have a great sense of what they're doing when they're doing it. And perhaps they just didn't even realize what it meant to put three bullets in a stranger.
HEADLEE: What is your thought when you see somebody who looks at all like your attacker?
BEUTLER: I knew that what had happened to me had just been an extremely unlucky thing, and I just understood that it would be fallacious of me to treat everyone who reminded me, physically, of the people who shot me as if they were criminals, as well, and so I never did that. It's that exact logic that keeps me opposed to stop-and-frisk policies - or stop-and-frisk quotas, anyway - because, invariably, when you treat people who are walking around on the street like suspects, you're going to get a lot of false positives.
HEADLEE: Is there no part of your thinking in which you imagine whether or not stop-and-frisk could have prevented what happened to you, whether you wonder, if I'd had a weapon, I could've stood my ground, if there had been "Stand Your Ground" laws in D.C.?
BEUTLER: I thought about both of those things. I hadn't actually considered what would have happened if I had been armed, until people who heard about what happened to me reached out to me to say that they wished that I had a gun. If I had had a gun, you're talking about, potentially, two to four fatalities, as opposed to, you know, me being hospitalized for 10 days. As far as stop-and-frisk goes, I take a position against stop-and-frisk, despite the fact that I know that if those kids had been interceded by a police officer 5, 10 minutes before...
HEADLEE: If they'd been stopped, and if they'd been frisked...
BEUTLER: ...For just one...
HEADLEE: ...They would have found a gun.
BEUTLER: And remember, these kids, before the altercation, were doing exactly what I was doing, which was walking around at night. So if they had been stopped and frisked, it would have been for no apparent reason, except for being African-American, out late at night, in a neighborhood with crime, and the officers would have found a gun and taken them away and I would have walked up the street without incident, most likely.
And despite the fact that stop-and-frisk will, one in a thousand times, maybe stop a crime from happening, that just means that 999 other times, somebody gets humiliated on the street for either doing nothing wrong or having a small amount of narcotics on them or something where really nobody innocent was going to be victimized. I think that when people lose track of it after having been victimized in this sort of way, they can lose sight of how little sense it makes to start deploying law-enforcement resources that way, treating people as suspects just because they fit a stereotype of a criminal, like the kids who shot me did.
HEADLEE: Brian Beutler is a senior staff writer at Salon.com. You can find his essay, "What I Learned From Getting Shot," at the Salon.com website. He joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much.
BEUTLER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.