Just to be clear — it was not a hate crime. Nevertheless, the deed was truly hateful.
On Tuesday, January 23, 2018 at approximately 2:30 pm, I was the victim of an armed robbery and carjacking in my school parking lot. That day, like most high school seniors, my mind was on how to pull up some grades for my mid-year report card and which college acceptances (or rejections) I could anticipate come April 1st. I was in a hurry. I was running late to pick up my two younger sisters from their schools, which of course would annoy my parents. My own classes ended at noon due to midterm examinations; I stayed after to talk to teachers. I was alone in the parking lot that afternoon. I never saw the attack coming.
My school campus is situated on a hill; the parking lot is located at the bottom of that hill towards the back. The steps to the student parking lot straddle the school gym and football field. As I passed the gym, I heard coach whistles and the squeak of countless basketball shoes. The doors to the gym were mostly closed; the football field was empty.
Two men, who looked to be in their early twenties, were standing around the corner from the gym. I walked passed them without thinking twice — I always felt safe at my school even though I understood it was located in a “tough” part of Baltimore. They were not students, because I recognize most of the students at my school, having been there for the past three and a half years. I assumed these guys were waiting for someone and so I ignored them. As I descended the last set of steps into the parking lot, I sensed that something might be wrong. By then, it was too late.
My parents’ light blue 2010 Honda Odyssey minivan which I drive to school each day was parked at the far end of the empty student parking lot. Both men ran behind me as I approached the van. I turned and faced them.
“Give me your phone” the first guy said. He was about 5’9’’ tall.
The second guy stood behind him with his hand fully inside the front of his pants. “I have a gun,” he assured me. He was slightly taller, maybe 6’1’’. I did not really believe he had a gun, but I was not going to test my theory.
My initial reaction was not fear. It was more like, “Seriously? This has to be the stupidest thing ever.” I kept my incredulity to myself and handed the first guy my Blu Vivo 8 phone.
He promptly took my phone, asked for my wallet and grabbed my car keys, which I was holding in my hand. He then slapped me hard across the face. My glasses flew off after cutting my cheek and nose. My yarmulke fell to the floor was well. I handed him my wallet. He went through it methodically and threw each credit card he did not fancy onto the pavement. He took my bank card, my mom’s Target card and two $5 bills.
“Do you have any more cash?” he asked me.
“No, I don’t carry cash.” I told him.
He then asked me to bend down and pick up the credit cards. At that point, I took off my jacket and laptop case (which they curiously did not ask for), ignored him and ran back towards the gym. I briefly looked over my shoulder and saw them drive off in the van.
“Really?” I thought. “You are going to steal the van? All the nice cars are in the faculty parking lot.”
The coach in the gym called 9-1-1 for me. I used her phone to call my mom. It took her some time to process my panicked remarks, but she left work immediately and drove to school. I then called my dad. He would pick up my sisters and come to my school. The coach walked me back to the parking lot to get the remainder of my things. When we entered the school, my principal, school police and Baltimore City police were already waiting.
Needless to say, my parents were relieved to see me when they arrived at my school. “A kapparah on the car,” my mom said. “As long as you are ok, things can be replaced — you can’t.” Spoken like a true Jewish mother. My youngest sister was very emotional when she saw me and hugged me tightly. Then she immediately turned to my mother and optimistically asked, “Is Avrohom Yehuda going to be on TV tonight?” I actually spent most of the evening and well into the night being interviewed by police officers, both at my school and then at the Baltimore Police Department Citywide Robbery Unit, where I gave a recorded statement. I had never seen the inside of a police station before. It felt like being on an episode of “The Wire” which of course is set in my hometown.
I stayed home from school the next day with my principal’s blessings. I had several doctor’s visits throughout the week to make sure I did not have a concussion. I was put on “brain rest” for a few days which meant I could not read books or look at the computer screen. This made studying for midterms impossible, but all my teachers gave me extensions.
When I did return to school, I was somewhat of a minor celebrity. I was officially the first (and hopefully last) Baltimore City College High Student to have been carjacked. I was peppered with following questions by curious and concerned students and faculty:
“Did they attack you because you are Jewish?”
“What was the nationality of the men who attacked you?”
“Are you going to see a counselor?”
“How did you know to run away and not bend down or go with them?”
I firmly believe I was not attacked because I was Jewish, even though I am a visibly Jewish teenager with my black yarmulke and tzitzit; I was attacked because I was alone. The nationality of the people who attacked me is irrelevant; to quote one of my favorite Bollywood movies, My Name is Khan: “There are only two kinds of people in this world. Good people who do good deeds. And bad people who do bad deeds. That’s the only difference in human beings.”
Despite everyone suggesting I may develop post-traumatic stress disorder, I have yet to see a counselor; I think I am fine, really. Finally, thanks to Sanford Strong’s book “Strong on Defense: Survival Rules to Protect You and Your Family from Crime” which my parents made me and my teen sister read, I knew I had to resist at all costs. The book was written by a 20-year police veteran and expert in survival techniques with the San Diego Police Department and is designed to help readers develop a survival mindset and the ability to response immediately in the case of a criminal encounter. Aside from resisting, I knew better than to enter the van with my assailants. According to the book, I was currently in crime scene #1. The chances of surviving crime scene #1 are actually quite high because those areas are more public and likely to have someone intervene. Allowing my attackers to move to a more isolated or controlled area would become crime scene #2. All options and chances of survival for a victim disappear in crime scene #2 because the victim is out of sight and totally at the mercy of people who are merciless.
Exactly one week after my attack, we had good news. The police had arrested both men and recovered the van. My parents never expected to recover the van, despite everyone telling them that, “cars like bodies don’t just disappear.” The detective and police came to my house and I identified both of my attackers from photos. Apparently, police line-ups are no longer done despite what we see on TV. My attackers were 17 and 19 years old. They were actually caught driving the van very near to my school and robbing from other people. One of them was armed. “They should go to jail for being so dumb,” I thought when I heard about the circumstances of their arrest.
Since the beginning of high school, I have wanted to do criminal defense work as a public defender. My mother who is an attorney (though she does not do criminal law) wryly taunted me when we were at the police station, “So, do you still want to do criminal defense work?” After pondering my latest experience, I concluded that I still do want to defend the rights of the accused. This is especially true since Jews throughout history have faced unfair trials. Alfred Dreyfus, Leo Frank and Menachem Beilis were never truly accorded the benefits of the 6th Amendment.
I am to appear in the District Court for Baltimore City on March 2 to testify against one of my attackers. I am not sure how I will react when I see him. Will I feel anger, compassion or indifference? I know my assailants are about my age. However, they did not have the same opportunities I had growing up. At the same time people make choices and these two made really bad choices. Interestingly enough, March 2 is Shushan Purim. Purim is a celebration of things getting turned upside down— v’nahafoch hu. I am happy that an event which could have ended tragically for me and my family turned out well. As for my attackers, I believe people are ultimately redeemable. Maybe after they have paid their dues, these two men will be able to turn their lives around.