Mugged and Pepper Sprayed in Downtown Oakland

10 April 2013 | events | Tags: , ,

What I write here is true and happened to me last night (April 8th, 2013) at about 11:45pm while I was waiting for the 72M at the 20th-and-Broadway stop in Oakland, CA.

I had just gotten off the train the 19th St BART station around 11:30pm, having come from Noisebridge. It takes me an hour to get home no matter how I slice it, and at this late s, the bus lines going to my neighborhood are extremely sparse. I knew, intellectually, that downtown Oakland is not a good place to be alone and carrying computer gear. But I had used this bus stop many times without incident, so I felt safe. The lights are bright here.

I walked over to the bus stop and took a look at the wait times. 18 minutes for the 72M, one of two buses I could take at this hour. I cursed Google Maps for being inaccurate yet again (it told me there was a bus coming in 5 minutes) and sat down.

In a move that would prove to be incredibly stupid, I decided to take my iPad out of my backpack to transfer to my purse so that it would be more accessible when I got on the bus. Some notifications had cropped up, so I decided to open the iPad to take a look at them, and wound up sucked in reading some article or another.

I looked up to see a police car driving down the street right in front of me. I remembered feeling safe.

I had headphones on, though I wasn’t listening to anything. I mention this because details like this probably contribute to a perception of vulnerability.

I was checking the arrival board frequently last night, and noted that the next 72M would arrive in 5 minutes.

What happened next occurred in the span of perhaps 10 seconds.

I was leaning over looking at something on the iPad. All-at-once, I heard footsteps and felt and saw a pair of hands grab the iPad that was in my hands. I looked up to see a dark-skinned male in a dark hoodie, whose face I didn’t get a clean look at, with his hands pulling at my iPad.

Thoughts in as much of a sequence as consciousness allows:

  • Hey, what, is this guy crazy? Why is he grabbing my stuff?
  • Oh, I get it, I’m being mugged.

I kicked the dude in the chest, hard enough to knock him back, but not as hard as I would have wanted. These were my instincts; reasoning didn’t kick in until afterwards.

  • Um, what am I doing? He might want to cause me serious harm… let it go…

Immediately, an accomplice — a teenage black female — joined him on his right side and added her hands to the fray. Four hands against my two managed to wrench the iPad away, and they ran off with it towards Telegraph.

Before any cohesive thoughts cropped up at all, so perhaps in the span of half a second, a third accomplice — a heavyset black female wearing jeans and a black T-shirt — stepped directly in front of me. I got a flash of a red metallic design on her shirt as her arm raised towards me. I heard three or four “spray” sounds and then her footsteps away, presumably to join the first two.

  • What just happened?! …Why didn’t they take my purse and backpack?
  • Something in my eyes.

Then, fiery hot pain.

  • Oh wow, pepper spray. Finally happened to me.
  • Eek! Can’t open my eyes!
  • Holy crap this hurts. WOW.
  • Shit! When is the bus coming? I can’t see the board!
  • Fuck, I just have to stand around like this until the bus comes!?

The pain grew and spread. Tears emerged and sinuses swelled. I started making noises to mitigate the pain.

Something gave me the presence of mind to grab my backpack and purse. I stood up and started pacing.

  • This could be very bad. I’m a sitting duck. I’m all alone and blinded and still carrying a lot of stuff. (Why didn’t those kids take the rest of my stuff!?
  • What do people do in this situation?
  • People scream in this situation.

I screamed. I screamed in anger. I screamed in fear. I screamed for “HELP!!!!”

I’m a trained singer; I get very good volume. No doubt my scream was heard all down the block.

A few people were around, but I was alone on this part of the street. A taxi slowed down in front of me as I screamed. I glared (as much as one can glare with capsaicin in one’s eyes) and considered getting in.

A woman who had just emerged from the nearby subway station cautiously crossed the street and observed.

I was standing just off the sidewalk, screaming into the night, hyperventilating, completely unable to make eye contact.

What’s more, I couldn’t sit down. My nervous system all jacked up, I felt like I needed to keep pacing.

  • How will anybody differentiate me from just some raving lunatic? What can I do, or say?

“I need help!!!”

A bus pulled up, the 18. It slid into position at its scheduled stop, hovered for 10 seconds, and then took off.

A woman in an interesting hat covered in medals emerged and said, “did those three kids just spray you!? I saw them walk up and then run away, I wondered what on earth would make them run like that.”

Me: “They grabbed my iPad and then sprayed me at point blank!”

The woman from the subway, blonde and posh, called an emergency number. I overheard her saying, “yeah this woman was just mugged… over on, umm, I think 14th?”

Me: “20th!!!!”

“And they sprayed her with pepper spray.”

Me: “In the eyes!! At point blank!!”

At that point the 72M pulled up, right on time. All of the above had happened in 5 minutes.

Me (sardonic): “Oh, now there’s my bus.”

The driver of the 72M opened the door, looked at me. I tried to look at him back, but it didn’t work too well with a chemical impediment. He clearly wanted to do something to help, to his credit, and I was clearly considering getting on the bus. But the people around me were entreating me to stay until the police got there. So the bus drove off.

An older black man with very weak control over his articulation walked up to me, saying words I couldn’t make out. I shouted at him, “I just got mugged and maced!!”

(Dear pedants: I don’t care that pepper spray and mace are two separate things. I used them interchangeably. Go get pepper-sprayed and then see how well your brain works.)

The guy said, “I just came to help, I just… <unintelligible>…”

  • Oh, shit. I just assumed he was a crazy guy coming to join in the crazy party.

Me: “I’m sorry, I just got maced, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…” He wandered off.

  • Oh good, even when I’m injured and needing help, I’m a racist. Great.

A taxi driver came over to me with a bottle of water. He advised me to pour it over my eyes. I did, gratefully, but then wished I hadn’t. The burning sensations all reignited, and I felt more areas of my face and neck light up in hot pain.

Meanwhile, the woman helping me saw a police car drive by. She decided to give the emergency dispatch another ring to check in. They asked if she was reporting a new incident. “No, I’m just calling to check because no one has come yet. This woman was attacked and needs medical attention.”

Me: “And I can’t breathe!!” My airways were continuing to inflame and fill with mucous.

Feelings of desperation.

At T+8 minutes, a fire engine arrived on the scene carrying a handful of EMTs. They looked concerned but didn’t feel they could help much, apart from pouring saline water on my eyes, which seemed to help and soothe. However, the voluminous mucous and wild inflammation in my sinuses combined with having water poured over my breathing apparatus felt, well, torturous. I had to take it slow.

They asked if I wanted to be taken to a hospital.

Me: “You mean do I want to sit in an emergency room for 2 hours? No. I’d rather go home.”

Just then, a police car arrived. I read their nametags but only remembered officer Beltran, an impeccably groomed Latina who talked about how getting pepper sprayed was part of the OPD training. “I’d rather be punched in the face,” she emphasized. “So I know.”

Beltran took my report and wrote it down on the form. I later got the chance to read it in full. She left out the part about my kicking the guy in the chest, replacing it with “there was a struggle.”

Meanwhile, a third officer asked, “Do you have Find my Phone installed on the device?”

Me: “Yeah. I do.”

I wrote my password down for them (mental note: change password ASAP). Within a minute, the officer had a location for the iPad and they were tracking it down. Apparently they had gotten as far as 14th street (6 city blocks away).

At that point, the OPD and the Fire Dept EMTs completed a hand off so that the fire engine could leave the scene. I was in the cops’ hands now.

The police officers asked if I would be willing to come along in the car and look at the suspects they’d apprehended to see if they were the muggers who attacked me. “Yeah. Let’s do it.”

At that point I realized the pepper spray had mostly cleared my eyes, though I was still shaking and hyperventilating, and breaking into tears every 3-4 minutes. My eyelids were also inflamed, and bright light sources (like emergency lights) made me wince.

“Ever been in the back of a cop car before?” I said I hadn’t, which was true.

The woman who helped me gave me her card and said she’d be standing by, but that she was going home. She also mentioned that she had slipped some tissues into my jacket pocket. I gave her a hug and a very Canadian “so sorry, thanks so much”, and then I got into the cop car.

The officer along with Beltran, whose name I don’t remember, seemed more senior by how he interacted with the others, and he had a downright cheerful disposition about the whole thing. I figured it must be fun to be able to apprehend suspects within a few minutes of an incident. Nice and neat.

Roughly 20 minutes had elapsed since the mugging when we pulled up in front of the apprehended suspects, held there by 4 officers. They had separated the two they’d caught (out of three, just to be clear), and the senior officer said they’d found a guy in a hoodie and a female.

“Now remember, these people may or may not be the ones who mugged you. And don’t worry, they won’t be able to see you.”

I know that memory is a slippery concept, and that wanting to positively (or negatively) ID a suspect greatly influences what you “remember” about something. I tried to be objective as they got the male to stand up in front of the light.

There was a tallish, black male with a long thin nose and a mustache and beard wearing a dark grey hoodie. I didn’t remember there being facial hair. I had him turn to the side, but it didn’t help — I wasn’t sure, and I said as much. “Sorry, I can’t be sure.”

“That’s OK! Alright. Now we’re going to move up the block and have you look at the second suspect.”

I saw the female suspect struggling with the officers who were holding her. She was trying to hide her face from the light, and sported a huge nervous grin.

Her body shape gave her away immediately, but I couldn’t help but feel like her behaviors were influencing my “memory”. I never saw this person’s face, I only got a glimpse at her midsection as she maced me.

But there, quite plainly, was the red metallic design that flashed just before the burning sensations began.

“Yep! That’s the one who sprayed me in the face. I can tell by her body shape and that T-shirt.” Officer Beltran wrote this down and communicated my ID to the attendant team. The senior officer told them to take her in and let the first guy go.

  • Wow. Is that how it works. I have too much control here.

The senior officer bounded over to me.

“Well, we recovered an iPad that responded to the tracking beacon. We have it now. Did you have a wallpaper on the device that you can describe?” I described it to him. A few seconds later, there was the iPad — out of its protective case and bearing its first ever crack in the screen.

Feelings of revulsion.

  • I don’t want it back… why?

“You don’t need to hold it for evidence, or fingerprint it or anything?”

The policeman laughed. “No, this isn’t like the shows you see on TV.”

  • Um. Okay. So what is it like?

I then watched and overheard the police banter as the senior officer explained to the more junior officers that he’d probably be able to “get” the other two suspects by playing testimonies off each other. They had to let the guy go because I didn’t positively ID him, but they would pay him a visit later.

Hearing all of this, I felt less like I had any control over these kids’ fate, and more like a hapless wanderer dipping my toes into a foreign stream.

The rest is fairly mundane. I had to sign my report in about half a dozen places (they make you initial any mistakes or even weird pen marks they accidentally made), and then they drove me home.

Arrival time at home: 1 AM.

Who says there’s nothing to do in downtown Oakland.

At this point, 24 hours post-incident, I’ve spent the better part of my day washing pepper spray out of my skin and hair — this stuff is ridiculously tenacious — and taking naps. My eyes still sting.

I’m feeling traumatized but incredibly grateful that it was spray and not a bullet.

And I still have mixed feelings about getting my iPad back. That’s emotional investigation for another day.

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  • Henry

    holy fucking shit

  • Buffy Sparks

    It wasn’t stupid to take out your ipad and read while you were waiting for the bus. It was normal. That’s what they’re made for. I reject the idea that having things and using them should make you responsible for being attacked.

  • aaronco36

    ~~~~~ extensively quoting ~~~~~~~~

    Then, fiery hot pain.
    Oh wow, pepper spray. Finally happened to me.
    Eek! Can’t open my eyes!
    Holy crap this hurts. WOW.

    The pain grew and spread. Tears emerged and sinuses swelled. I started making noises to mitigate the pain.
    I glared (as much as one can glare with capsaicin in one’s eyes) and considered getting in.

    “And they sprayed her with pepper spray.”

    (Dear pedants: I don’t care that pepper spray and mace are two
    separate things. I used them interchangeably. Go get pepper-sprayed and
    then see how well your brain works.)

    A taxi driver came over to me with a bottle of water. He advised me
    to pour it over my eyes. I did, gratefully, but then wished I hadn’t.
    The burning sensations all reignited, and I felt more areas of my face
    and neck light up in hot pain.

    Me: “And I can’t breathe!!” My airways were continuing to inflame and fill with mucous.

    At T+8 minutes, a fire engine arrived on the scene carrying a handful
    of EMTs. They looked concerned but didn’t feel they could help much.
    However they poured saline water on my eyes, and that
    did help and soothe. However, the voluminous mucous and wild
    inflammation in my sinuses combined with having water poured over my
    breathing apparatus felt, well, torturous. I had to take it slow.

    FWIW, some helpful things I found on my own related to this are

    1. The active agent in pepper-spray, capsaicin, is apparently an alkaline chemical (a.k.a. a “base”) with a pH measurably higher than 7.0.

    2. Tapwater, bottled spring water, and distilled water all have a pH fairly close to the neutral pH 7.0, so they probably cannot easily counteract the higher pH “burning” resulting from the alkaline capsaicin.

    3. Commonly available and weaker acids of pH’s lower than 7.0, OTOH, are probably much better than water and even saline to counteract the higher pH “burning” resulting from the capsaicin.

    4. Such commonly available weaker acids are in foodstuffs such as vinegar and citrus fruits; acetic acid and citric acid respectively.

    5. While it’s certainly inconvenient to always carry around a bottle of vinegar or a bottle of lemon juice or an actual lemon/lime wherever one goes, there is something to be said about carrying a small & portable cannister of apple-cider vinegar in one’s backpack or satchel. AAMOF, someone at the original Berkeley Bowl on Adeline St in Berkeley even recommended to me that a little bit (1-2 tbsp) of organic apple-cider vinegar added to filtered water and/or springwater does double-duty as a nice and refreshing tonic drink!

    And well-fermented kombucha tea is also noticeably acidic, not that one would wish to constantly schlep around a bottle of kombucha for self-defense or as a diluted refreshment(!)

    Just mentioned here as an FYI…


    • nthmost

      Thanks, interesting. Yeah with regards to the saline, I think it mostly soothed due to its composition being closer to that of tears. I found that the more I cried, the better off I was.

      In retrospect, I probably should have drunk the salt water. I was mega dehydrated at the end of all that.

  • Kiki Jewell

    Thank you so much for posting this adn the reminder to be safe. I passed it to my Ingress (game) player/friends. Many of them play in DTO (downtown Oakland) starting intently on their phones, sometimes wearing headphones. I already know of one player who had his phone snatched out of his hands…

  • Kiki Jewell

    Hey Buffy thanks for that comment! I totally agree.

    I will also add that a friend of mine says, “tempt not thy brother and thy sister.” :) I like that sentiment as well.

  • AK

    I got mugged a year ago in Oakland, on Mandela Parkway, an even less central place than 20th and Broadway. I had been talking on my phone when I got off bart at West Oakland, then i put it in my pocket, got on my bike, and rode off. Someone had been watching me on the phone, and watching when I put it in my pocket. They too, got on their bike, and followed me, eventually riding up next to me, grabbing the phone out of my pocket, and pushing me into the street, giving me facial abrasions, and a very bad concussion, but luckily… VERY luckily, no brain damage. I feel for you, I feel so terribly bad about what happened to you. I understand the confusion, helplessness, and obvious pain and bewilderment about how to process that kind of attack.

    In addition, my best friend got mugged at gunpoint on night while walking home with headphones in. “Give me your iPhone”… He didn’t even have an iPhone. Luckily they didn’t shoot him, but they took everything he had.

    When I filed my police report for my incident, the police told me that phones are the #1 targeted theft item, stolen more than wallets. While I understand that it should be ‘normal’ to use these devices in public, to listen to the headphones, to even just transfer the iPad, or check the time on our cell phones… I think it is more important to understand the surroundings of downtown Oakland, at night, especially when alone. I think it is more important to understand that the reality is people ARE watching, and if you have something they want, it’s a very real possibility that they will come and take it by whatever means necessary. Crimes of opportunity like this are not planned, not thought out, but a reaction when someone sees me with that phone and immediately just decides they want it. They don’t plan to knock me off my bike, or maybe they didn’t plan to pepper spray you, but in the craziness of getting what they want, there is no rationality.

    HELL NO I don’t think it’s your responsibility for getting attacked. It’s not your fault! It’s easy to say we ‘should’ be able to use these things how and where we like, however, given the reality of the place we live, I think it’s more important to roll with erring on the safe side. It sucks! I no longer have any trace of a phone, a headphone, anything visible while out in Oakland at night. It’s victimizing to be afraid all the time… but i’m more vigilant, more aware of myself and others. Hopefully ‘safer’? I hope nothing like this ever happens to you, or I, again, or anyone else for that matter. But we all know it will continue. To find a shred of positivity in this is difficult, but hopefully it sheds light on this reality for more people. For my safety’s sake I keep the devices, wallets, headphones, out of site…. and hopefully these horrific attacks can let people know that they are REAL and looming and can most certainly happen to anyone.

    • nthmost

      Wow. Thank you for sharing all of that.

      The cops who handled me had a lot to say about quantity of robberies going up in Oakland and believed that expensive gadgets were a major driver of this trend. I believe them. I also believe that the OPD getting massively defunded has a lot to do with this as well.

      I still think it’s fascinating that they left my purse and backpack alone, although it contributes to my theory (not mentioned in my story) that these kids had done this before. Their attack was very well coordinated, from my perspective. They didn’t say a single word and they were very fast.

      Yours is the second “robbed on my bike” story I have now heard, which saddens me greatly, because I was considering riding my bike more as a remedy for having to take the bus for the “last mile” transit ride home.

      All in all, I’m majorly depressed about my ability to have a social life in the face of what I have access to, transit-wise. The 72 is basically the only bus that goes near my house after 9pm. If that’s not a safe route, I have to think about getting a car, which I don’t want…

  • Terry Floyd

    Damn! That’s so harsh. In my experience, that’s generally one of the safer areas in Oakland. Granted, I’m usually not there that late waiting for a bus, because I just take BART in and out of there, but I’m at Noisebridge and 20Mission fairly often these days, and I never feel threatened.

    I have a close friend who was mugged on 35th in Oakland outside a Taco Truck twelve years ago and ended up in a coma for 2 months and is now permanently disabled. The jerks who attacked him only got the $45 he had in his pocket, and perhaps the burrito he’d just bought, but he hasn’t been able to work in construction since that day. I guess you can say pepper spray might have been preferable to a wrench on the skull.

    So glad you’re okay and dealing with this in such a forthright and honest way. You know you have friends with cars who would gladly help with transport when needed. You’ve got my number, right? Have you used Uber, Lyft or SideCar? Apps can be your friends, too!

  • Debbi

    I had my iPhone taken out of my hand by a teenager riding by on a bike at the bus stop for the 12 at the corner of 12th and Broadway the night before in Oakland. Across the street from the just conference I just left, plenty of people around, 7pm total daylight. I had taken it out to check the bus time. It was in my hand, and then it wasn’t. I similarly started to loudly, clearly shout “stop, thief, green hoodie on the bike, stole my phone STOP HIM!” But at least a dozen people on the sidewalk just moved aside as he rode his bike thought them. There were three kids together, one about ten, the others older. I chased about three blocks before a helpful neighborhood association young man saw me and was on the phone with the police calling it in. A couple of his colleagues chased the suspects a few more blocks on foot but lost them on the bikes. They also tried find my iPhone but the thieves had turned it off already. I am very fortunate that I was not sprayed or hurt (that sucks I’m so sorry!) but not so lucky that my phone, which is essential to my livelihood and was only a few months old, was not recovered. This was clearly something they do regularly, the police were familiar with them, and they laughed as they pulled it off and people just watched. On the plus side, both the Oakland police and the neighborhood association were as helpful as they could be.

  • creekside408

    Glad you had a good outcome — you weren’t seriously hurt. Next time, baby shampoo or milk will help cut the pepper spray if you don’t have decontamination wipes. (Yes, I’ve been sprayed numerous times — I’m a pepper spray instructor.) Bad guys know that the consequences of strong-arm robbery in Oakland are minor, both legally and practically. Use caution accordingly.

    • nthmost

      I’m not sure why, but neither the EMTs nor the police had *anything* for me (not decontamination wipes, not milk, not soap) other than the saline water. And none of those things were suggested either.

      Logistically, it would have been hard to acquire milk or shampoo in the moment. Midnight in Oakland is a dead zone. That’s a large part of why it’s so crime-ridden.

      …not to mention the fact that when you’ve been attacked with pepper spray, it’s pretty hard to accomplish *anything*, much less grocery shopping.

      I ended up using Bronner’s to get it all out. Milk was suggested to me, but by the time I was in any position to clean myself up, it was 1am… in Oakland. And I could barely see.

      • creekside408

        I did not mean my comment to be critical — more to be helpful to others who may find themselves in similar straits someday. I’m glad you had a good outcome.

  • Oren Beck

    Do we have an update as to perps being “Properly Rewarded” for their act??

  • Escaped from Oakland in 1976

    Why on earth would anyone live in Oakland, Detroit, Atlanta, Newark, etc.? Get out and let the savages have them!