Last weekend, my housemate and I were mugged at gunpoint while walking home from Dupont Circle. The entire incident lasted under a minute, as I was forced to the floor, handed over my phone and was patted down.
And yet, when a reporter asked whether I was surprised that this happened in Georgetown, I immediately answered: “Not at all.” It was so clear to me that we live in the most privileged neighborhood within a city that has historically been, and continues to be, harshly unequal. While we aren’t often confronted by this stark reality west of Rock Creek Park, the economic inequality is very real.
Year after year, Washington, D.C., is ranked among the most unequal cities in the country, with the wealthiest 5 percent earning an estimated 54 times more than the poorest 20 percent. According to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, just under 20 percent of D.C. residents live below the poverty line.
What has been most startling to me, even more so than the incident itself, have been the reactions I’ve gotten. I kept hearing “thugs,” “criminals” and “bad people.” While I understand why one might jump to that conclusion, I don’t think this is fair.
Not once did I consider our attackers to be “bad people.” I trust that they weren’t trying to hurt me. In fact, if they knew me, I bet they’d think I was okay. They wanted my stuff, not me. While I don’t know what exactly they needed the money for, I do know that I’ve never once had to think about going out on a Saturday night to mug people. I had never before seen a gun, let alone known where to get one. The fact that these two kids, who appeared younger than I, have even had to entertain these questions suggests their universes are light years away from mine.
I come from a solidly middle-class family, and, with relatives in Mexico City, certainly don’t consider myself entirely shielded from poverty. And yet I’d venture to guess that our attackers have had to experience things I’ve never dreamed of. When I struggled in school, I had parents who willingly sat down with me and helped me work through it. When I have a problem, I have countless people who I can turn to for solid advice.
When I walk around at 2 a.m., nobody looks at me suspiciously, and police don’t ask me any questions. I wonder if our attackers could say the same.
Who am I to stand from my perch of privilege, surrounded by million-dollar homes and paying for a $60,000 education, to condemn these young men as “thugs?” It’s precisely this kind of “otherization” that fuels the problem.
Young people who willingly or unwillingly go down this road have been dealt a bad hand. While speaking with a D.C. police officer after the incident, he explained that he too had come from difficult circumstances, and yet had made the decision not to get involved in crime. This is a very fair point — we all make decisions. Yet I’ve never had to decide whether or not to steal from people. We’re all capable of good and bad, but it’s a whole lot easier for me to choose good than it may be for them to.
If we ever want opportunistic crime to end, we should look at ourselves first. Simply amplifying police presence will not solve the issue. Police protect us by keeping those “bad people” out of our neighborhood, and I’m grateful for it. And yet, I realize it’s self-serving and doesn’t actually fix anything.
When we play along with a system that fuels this kind of desperation, we can’t be surprised when we’re touched by it. Maybe these two kids are caught, and this recent crime wave dies down, but it will return because the demand is still there, and the supply is still here. We have a lot, and plenty of opportunities to make even more. They have very little, and few opportunities to make ends meet.
The millennial generation is taking over the reins of the world, and thus we are presented with a wonderful opportunity to right some of the wrongs of the past. As young people, we need to devote real energy to solving what are collective challenges. Until we do so, we should get comfortable with sporadic muggings and break-ins. I can hardly blame them. The cards are all in our hands, and we’re not playing them.
Oliver Friedfeld is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.