On Getting Attacked by a Street Gang

It all happened so fast. The time between walking past the group of teenagers, and ending up in the car of some random stranger, clutching a handkerchief to stop the blood squirting out from my split eyebrow, couldn’t have been more than 2 minutes.

When I got back to our hosts’ apartment, I went to the bathroom mirror to assess the damage. “Yup, they got me pretty good” I thought. The left side of my face was completely swollen. I had been clocked hard.

I was pissed.

I was pissed that the attack was unprovoked. I was pissed that I couldn’t outrun them. I was pissed that I didn’t get any good punches in. But more than anything, I was pissed that the teenagers were gypsies.

After spending three weeks in Roma communities investigating their culture, their hardship, and their problems, the gang had just fulfilled the worst of gypsy stereotypes. In that moment, it felt hard to sympathize for them. I remember thinking that a punch in the face was all the thanks I got for my efforts to understand their culture, and bring attention to gypsy inequality. I understood why so many Romanians are afraid of them. I also felt disappointed and let down.

Admittedly, some of my initial reactions were a bit irrational. I was caught up in the emotions of the moment. Now that I’ve had a few days to cool down, it’s dawned on me how important that encounter was for our coverage. It was a final piece in the gypsy puzzle that Morgan and I were missing — a true indicator of just how far things need to go before racial tensions in Romania are alleviated. We had seen gypsies as the victim, as poor and destitute, but we hadn’t experienced them as the perpetrator. Now we had witnessed the full spectrum of the ‘gypsy problem.’

This isn’t to say I’m generalizing one teenage gang to an entire population. In any community, there are few things more dangerous than a group of 17 year olds with few opportunities, little inspiration, and no oversight. They were out looking to have some fun, and we happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The same thing could just as easily have happened in Highland Park, Los Angeles.

But almost every ethnic Romanian we talked to had stories of similar encounters with gypsy gangs. It’s clear that the vagrancy issue is widespread, and that has huge implications for gypsy integration.

There may only be a small percentage of gypsies involved in crime and delinquency, but their actions work to inhibit the rest of the population from showing its merits. While I was able to get over the fact I was attacked, I can just as easily see how the experience could permanently sour someone’s perceptions of gypsies. After all, I came close. And with repeated exposures — as in the case of our couchsurfing host Mikhail Popescu — I can only imagine it would become more difficult.

I think part of the problem is that its often easier for us to latch on to negative experiences than positive ones. Just look at a typical television news program, which is dominated by negative stories. Usually, they’re the stories that are sensational. They grab our attention. I believe a similar phenomenon occurs with gypsy street gangs. Even though they represent a small proportion of Roma, their actions paint a distorted picture of what a proud people with a vibrant culture are like.

In an already complicated web of cultural differences, their actions add yet another barrier a divided nation has to navigate on the road to racial integration.

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14 Responses to On Getting Attacked by a Street Gang

  1. Chris, so glad that you and Morgan are ok. I can’t imagine the bag of mixed emotions you must be facing right now, especially after spending time and effort to bring to light the cultural problems of a niche by which you’re later attacked.

    From your post I take it that you’re doing good. Stay strong and don’t let the frustration get the better of you. Now you know through a first hand experience the troubles that many of the other inhabitants are facing.

    I’ll put in a good word for you guys with my muse, or as others might say, “pray”. Keep up the amazing efforts. Godspeed.

  2. Jennifer Bedford says:

    Chris you are a gifted journalist. You have a great writer’s voice. You have experienced one of those forks in the road where many just peel off and say, no thanks, I’m gunna go home and go into commercial real estate. Not you, you have now experienced your first taste of in-the-trenches journalism by way of a personal journey of epic proportions. You will live a changed and enriched life as a result of this blood-letting. And every time you touch that scar above your eye, until you’re an old man, you’ll have a story to tell. My sense, hardly knowin’ ya, is that you have years and years of story-telling ahead.

  3. Tomas says:

    This is a really great post Chris. Happy to know that you have taken this experience and put it into perspective.

    Thanks for the great story & glad you are well.


  4. Loren Nielsen says:

    Chris, I’m full of admiration for your resolve and ability to communicate your complex reaction to this tough event. xoxo

  5. pH says:

    Chris, your anger over this incident evaporates faster than mine. I feel the heat behind the latent right and left hooks forgone…the fantasies like that. Who knows whether any of what you have written with swollen hindsight will touch your attackers, their tribe, their evolution; I admire you and Morgan for trying as you did.

    What a backdrop for the team’s first field-tested introspection on the direction of the Postulate One adventure…That closing tome spills enough emotion to cause mental regurgitation while you pedal out, I bet. For me, the world has enough people who are trying hard with positive efforts not to wallow on social fairness questions about people who are their own worse enemy, as well as their host country’s. Spent time on Tibetans, for example. But Gypsies?

    Glad to know yer getting the hell out of that rat infestation.

  6. Xai says:

    Just thought I’d point out that the term “gypsy” is an ethnic slur, one that is very offensive to the Romani. Its as derogatory to them as the n-word is to AfAms. I am surprised you use it so casually and blatantly, considering how you’re supposed to be studying them.

    • Chris Chris says:

      Hi Xai,

      I use the term ‘gypsy’ because most of the readers of this blog are from the United States, and are unfamiliar with the terms Roma or Romani.

      Moreover, to claim the word “gypsy” is an ethnic slur is not always correct. Some Romanis refer to themselves as “gypsies” with pride. And while “Roma” may be politically correct, even then, not all Romanis like that term — being a label that was arbitrarily selected in the 1970′s.

      The identity issue is not black and white, as you will see on our website June 1st, when we release our coverage on the topic.


  7. I admire you my young friends, and how far you got already!
    Chris i hope you feel better quickly.

  8. Joey says:

    Chris, hope you recover well. I’m sure it was a scary experience, but stay strong. Miss you in the states buddy! Take care of yourself and make the best out of what you encounter.

  9. Kathy says:

    How horrible. I’m glad you’re doing better, and am impressed by how you’re keeping this in perspective. Issues usually aren’t black and white, and it’s the shades of grey that often challenge us. Stay strong!!

  10. Mihai Popescu says:

    So, I’m just gonna say what everyone else is thinking: are you sure you didn’t do this to yourself? Fight-Club-style? I’ve heard you reporter types are capable of things like that. Yeah, joking :)

    No, really, sorry this happened, but I guess it makes for a more immersive experience. I’m pretty sure you are now in a much better position to tell your story. Good luck and speedy healing!

    @Xai: Chris is right on this one.

  11. Kelvin says:

    Chris – So sorry you had to experience that. When we next get together let me share some LAPD unarmed combat techniques with you. Having worked LAPD Gang Supression for many years I can honestly say you guys are very brave. It’s rough out there, and although you draw the analogy of Highland Park, in LA you have a chance of someone coming to your aid. Out in the wilderness it’s a whole different story. I’d have backed you up in a heartbeat at the time. I back you up emotionally now. Be brave.
    Keep strong. Kelvin

  12. Scott says:

    Loved reading your thoughts on your altercation after having reflected some. Agree with you that it indeed provided a more full view of the issue at hand. Simply wish it could have occurred another way.

    Your comment how “few things are more dangerous than a group of 17 year olds with few opportunities, little inspiration, and no oversight. They were out looking to have some fun…” stayed with me for a bit. Part of me was bothered in the fact that I know some people would justify the teen’s behavior simply b/c of their situation and in the name of sympathy. The idea that – be it poverty or lack of passion or opportunity – that those are the primary causes of such crimes. I don’t think it’s as simple as that and an I’m glad to see you not shy away from discussing the reality of things there – the positive and negative stories.

    Keep it up!

  13. Andy says:

    At age 17, I had my ass kicked in the most humiliating way by a guy named Rabago. I fantasized for almost two decades about getting even. At age 35, I took up karate on a whim after reading a bumper sticker on a car. At age 55, I have earned a third degree black belt, have studied judo, ju jitsu, aikido, and other forms. This month I am testing for my black belt in eskrima after 6 years of religeous study.
    I have never once been in a fight yet have used the teachings of martial arts everyday.
    Thank you Rabago. You saved my life.

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