Fear – Intimidating Faces

It was an ordinary Wednesday evening in my ordinary neighbourhood. I was sitting on the patio with my dear friend Carl as we shared a whiskey and worked on a film script for a client of mine. My ordinary neighbourhood may not look so ordinary to people from afar as there are walls everywhere. High walls, spiked walls, electric wires, CCTV, alarm signs, and security usually found at embassy doorsteps. This is Johannesburg.

From across the street a scream erupted so shrill and so devastating that Carl and I leapt to our feet and rushed for the electric gate at the top of my driveway. I opened the gate and we stormed out to find four men forcing the garage door open of my neighbor. She was screaming from inside the garage having just arrived home. I can still hear her screams.

Without thought (here me when I say there is no bravery involved in this), we ran at these men. We screamed and shouted at them “fuck off!” Over and over…”fuck off!” Realizing that their bounty had been foiled and that the endless security patrols would be appearing soon; they left the garage door and ran from the two crazy men chasing them. Headed to their getaway car a short distance down the road where a fifth man waited, one of the gang tripped and fell. We were too close to him. He would be caught and he sensed the wild anger in our voices. He turned and shot. That was the only shot I heard that night, but there were more to come. As soon as the first shot erupted into the night air, the other three stopped, turned and took aim. I saw him pivot. His hands raised and his sight narrowed as he aimed squarely at me. There was no sound but there was the brief and bright flash at the muzzle. As I inadvertently tumbled to the tarmac, I heard the bullet fizz past my skull. It sounds like a firecracker as it whizzes into the sky. Only faster. The bullet would later be found lodged in a car parked on the street. Another would be found in my garden. I was bloodied, but only from the course asphalt that ripped up my skin. It was only now that I understood danger was present. I took cover behind a car as the gang sped off into the dark with a screech.

The air had a smell. The pain in my legs didn’t register. My ears could not hear except for the pounding of my chest. I was alive and more alive than I had ever felt. Carl was alive too. He had found cover on the other side of the street as a bullet headed his way. There were multiple shots. I heard only one.

The police and private security firms arrived shortly thereafter. It was confusing. So many questions and weird recommendations and guns everywhere. I drank a bottle of whiskey and sat in the aliveness witnessing with detachment the flashing lights and chaos of people who had not been there but felt impacted.

It took me a few days to feel ok. I didn’t enjoy sleeping in that house. I didn’t enjoy the feeling of being unable to engage sensation in my body. I became hostile toward strangers, threatening them if they came into my space. I went to a psychologist and began processing. It took a while. But it worked. After four months of being unable to sit in public without my back firmly against a wall, I was able to go to a restaurant like a normal person. I was able to drink coffee without the need to prepare for an attack. I became less hostile.

However, a residue remained. Those men were all black. Every time I reversed my car out of the driveway in the morning, I would notice the shortness in my breath and numbness in my limbs as I saw a black man walking down the road. Probably on his way to work. Possibly trying to find work. Highly unlikely that there is nefarious motive. Yet still, there was not a day that the sight of a black man walking down the road did not scare me and turn my nervous system.

I figured I had to tackle this head-on. And so, I made my way to the seediest, grimiest, and most crime laden areas in the city. I carried an expensive camera around my shoulder and walked the streets. One rule governed my behavior – if I saw a man and felt fear coursing through me, I had to stop him and engage him. I had to tell my story and ask for his. These are the men I met and this is how I overcame a sub-conscious racism that I couldn’t shake.