On Tuesday, March 12, 2013, during the course of six-and-a-half hours, I was transformed three times. The first metamorphosis occurred the moment I stepped out onto the road at 7:30 that morning. My attire was not unusual for a cool, rainy morning on the far end of winter: all in black with turtle neck pulled up, cap on and hood over the top.
Post mortem: The man, his umbrella, and his reflection of events on Oly’s eastside
I’m not a native Washingtonian but I am an avid pedestrian, so I tend to dress warmer and dryer than most. And when rain seems likely, I carry an umbrella. Not some 15-inch compact, mind you, but sleek, black and almost a meter long. When opened the canopy presents a large, squared octagon, rather than the typical pinwheel circle, suspended on fiberglass composite.
I love this umbrella. I bought it for twenty bucks and it’s lasted for almost four years. That’s a personal record, by far. I’ve even given it a name: “Cloud Chaser.” My favorite trick involves balancing it on the very tip of my finger, while opened, in the rain. I hold it up high and dance with the downward wind. Cloud Chaser spins and reels as if drunk in the pleasure of being a conduit between Heaven and Earth. Other times, when the chemtrails have yet to take full effect, I raise it like a staff against the gathering clouds, rebuking them sharply.
At 7:30 am on March 12, when I left home, Cloud Chaser was tucked into its case and under my arm. As I walked down Quince Street a teen drove past. Upon her seeing me, I was immediately changed into a silhouette, a two-dimensional caricature against a predefined form. Today, I realize how often this occurs. We could not have “types” of people without profiles to quickly alert us to their presence. Certainly, the media spends millions reinforcing myths about body types. Consumers and investors spend billions seeing to it that they do. We are trained to judge each other and ourselves as quickly as possible based almost exclusively on appearance. Our silent acceptance of this status quo is the means by which we forfeit our humanity and are transmuted into paper dolls.
Each of us has a catalog in our mind, by which we can choose to compare our index of profiles against the one being presented to us by an unknown person. This is the basis of prejudice. We don’t mind prejudice when people are predisposed to like us. Unfortunately, we also carry our ideas of what a “violent” person looks like. The young girl who drove past me had her’s. Tall. Sometimes White. Sometimes Black. Male. Dressed in black. The image is so ubiquitous. In the brief opportunity she had to decide what she saw, the profile matched and my second transformation began.
Magically, my hood, cap and turtleneck became a ski mask. Cloud Chaser, my beloved umbrella, turned into the most unspeakably hideous instrument of death: an assault rifle. This didn’t happen out of malice. It happened out of necessity. Some voice in the life of this young lady compels her to believe she must be ever watchful for violent people. This belief engenders fear, bypassing critical thought and creating a psychological need for immediate response when the profile of a violent person is encountered.
The judgment of this girl does not offend me. She did nothing worse than most people are capable of while under their own prejudicial delusions. Just read the comments that have been posted surrounding the articles written about this incident. The violence I see there is unbridled and unashamed. Is there even such a thing as a person who isn’t violent? I wonder.
Meanwhile, by the time I arrived on the West Side near Capital Medical Center, all Hell had broken loose in my neighborhood. As it happened, busloads of children were en route to Roosevelt Elementary and Reeves Middle School, both within walking distance of my house. Given the recent horrors at Sandy Hook, swift and dramatic measures were taken. Neighbors who normally shuttle carloads of kids to school received frantic texts from other parents about the lockdowns, leaving them unsure of what to do. Some parents claim they were told an armed man had broken into Roosevelt the night before. No such break-in occurred. Outside the security of the schools, families were disoriented and afraid. This has been called a “successful training exercise.” Training for what? Are we more prepared today to face the real issues of violence in our community?
I am not an anarchist, as some have suggested. I see the value of government and of law enforcement agencies. My concern is that if we continue to allow the police to be our only answer to violence, we will lose the fight. The use of force may prevent an act of violence but does little to address the underlying motives. And as law enforcement responses escalate, the fear that keeps us from claiming our streets will only grow stronger.
Reconciliation, the peaceful union of formerly divided parties, serves as perhaps the most potent weapon against violence. Many perpetrators of violent crime act out of a false identity that isolates them from the rest of society. Sadly, we tend to reciprocate. I suspect that we incarcerate criminals and the insane (and the elderly and homeless) not so much from a sense of duty to Justice as by a desire to put the brokenness and pain in these people’s lives out of our view. Could this willing ignorance of real violence explain the American preoccupation with grotesquely violent, often abusive entertainment? As I searched my own soul, a penitent “yes” responded.
So began my third metamorphosis. The events of March 12, 2013 have given me considerable cause for reflection. For instance, I can’t deny that I dress in a paramilitary style, precisely because of my uneasiness with the veil of terror that blinds us to all but self-preservation. It’s how I deal with the isolation that is part of the tension between who I am and who I am expected to be.
Although I haven’t decided to dress much differently, I do see how I can be clearer about my intentions and friendlier in my disposition. It may not be as much fun as total autonomy but it is much safer (especially for me).
As a Christian, I believe that only radical, compassionate love can drive fear from the throne of my heart, where violence begins. If I am willing to allow my thoughts, opinions and motives to be examined, I can see how even an open threat could be an invitation to peace.
Michael Di Marzo is 42, works in a bed and breakfast, and has lived in Oly for almost ten years. “Having loved my living experience in the Northeast Neighborhood, I will be moving back downtown at the end of the month.”