I fought Jimmy Nuñez when I was in the sixth grade. He was in the eighth. I was already tall. I may have even had half an inch on him, but I was clumsy. He was a much better fighter than I was.
It's been almost 20 years since I thought of that fight. Then, last month, my sister posted a video about NYPD Stop and Frisks on my Facebook wall. It included statistics stating that over 1,900 stop and frisks take place in New York City every day, and that over 90 percent of those violated are classified as Black or Latino. 90 percent of those incidents result in nothing more but oppressive harassment, yielding no hidden weapons or arrests. It was pretty infuriating stuff. It reminded me of the occupation in Israel and apartheid South Africa. It reminded me of slavery and the holocaust. It also reminded me of Jimmy Nuñez.
I fought Jimmy because I stood up to Eddie. I'm not sure what grade Eddie was in, but he was a bully. A big, fat bully. The kid was gross and he would waddle around the hallways bullying people. He would bully teachers. Just a mean-spirited kid. I can't remember how it started or what it was about, but one day we were in the hallway between classes and next thing I knew Eddie and I were yelling at each other and a group of kids had gathered around us and I was ready to throw down—right then and there. I wasn't scared of Eddie. Maybe I questioned whether my blows would carry enough impact to hurt him despite his layers of protective fat, but I wasn't scared. I knew he couldn't hurt me either. Just as I was really puffing my chest out, about to make Eddie look like a punk without laying a finger on him, Jimmy Nuñez showed up from out of nowhere and pointed at me.
"You and me," he said. "We're fighting after school."
The decree had been laid. So many people had heard it that to decline was simply out of the question. I would be branded a punk forever if I didn't show. Eddie was a fat nuisance, but Jimmy was serious. I didn't know him, but I knew of him. He was a no-nonsense kid. A tough kid. All the girls liked him. He knew how to fight. I wasn't scared of Eddie, but I was scared of Jimmy.
This wasn't my first fight. As far back as I can remember my father has ingrained in me his version of the golden rule: "If someone hits you, hit them back. Don't ever let anyone put their hands on you." Those might have been the first words he said to me when I was born. Back then, m father was a boxer, and when he wasn't boxing, he was a bouncer. Not taking any shit was a big part of his identity.
It never meant quite as much to me. I'll admit it, I'd get scared. I remember Tyrik Gale teasing me unmercifully for weeks at Lost Battalion Day Camp in Rego Park. It was the worst feeling I'd ever felt. He was so much bigger than me. I swear, even at age 10, this kid was built like a 30-year-old middleweight. I never said anything back to Tyrik Gale. I was afraid if I did he'd sock me. He never put his hands on me, but the shame of not sticking up for myself stayed with me for years.
For weeks I was weakened by the same intolerable shame when Rodrigo snatched my brand new Lakers cap right off my head. He held it away from me for five minutes.
"What are you gonna do?" I wasn't going to do anything but ask for it back. He said it again: "What are you gonna do?" After a while he got bored and just gave the hat back. Rodrigo broke the physical plane by snatching my hat, but he hadn't hit me, and he hadn't put his hands on me, so technically I wasn't called upon to obey my pop's self-defense order.
I'd only fight if someone hit me, and even then I'd only continue to fight if my opponent wanted to keep going. My concern, more than anything, was to satisfy my obligation to pop. It earned me a unique reputation and kept me in an odd limbo somewhere between the punks and the tough kids. "Say whatever you want to Angel," kids would say, "but if you put your hands on him be prepared to put him down."
I never took a good beating, though. Not until the day I fought Jimmy Nuñez.
In the two or three periods between the hallway incident and the end of school, word of our coming fight spread like wildfire. By the time the final school bell rang, Jimmy and I were the main event. No fewer that 100 kids paraded down Grand Avenue to a distance deemed far enough from the school that we wouldn't get in trouble for fighting. I was surrounded by my boys. Jimmy was surrounded by his. We were all surrounded by the gallery.
The butterflies in my stomach were more like eagles. I think Chris Caputo was doing his best Teddy Atlas impersonation, trying to give me some strategic advice, but I could barely even hear him. The whole thing felt kind of surreal.
In the two or three periods between the hallway incident and the end of school, word of our coming fight spread like wildfire. By the time the final school bell rang, Jimmy and I were the main event.
"This is far enough!" Jimmy didn't feel like walking anymore. We were just beyond the funeral home. My boys stepped behind me into the gallery surrounding Jimmy and I, leaving us in the middle. Just me and him. At that moment, a thought occurred to me: "Maybe I can take this kid."
I didn't let the moment of confidence go to waste. I sprung at Jimmy wild, without any semblance of technique. I noticed right away he was a lot more composed than I was. His moves were calculated. He dodged my first charge, then my second; my flailing arms did little more than graze him. We were right back were we started. Embarrassed and out of sorts, my intent turned from landing good punches to landing any punches at all. The fight was as good as lost.
With time, I calmed down and started doing a better job. My prior fighting experience, though clearly not as expansive as Jimmy's, began to serve me. My father had given me some training on how to move, so I had decent instincts—but once Jimmy took advantage of my early impatience he never relinquished the upper hand. He got low. He was better with his elbows. I remember, at one point, delivering blows to the side of his head from such an awkward angle that he actually smiled at the crowd to convey how little they were hurting him. I was halfway into a headlock at that point. Then, suddenly, the headlock was firmly in place and my head was being rammed, repeatedly, into the side of a car. The crowd let out loud "ohhhhs" and "ooooohs" with every hit, but truthfully it looked a lot worse than it felt. I hit the deck first but had the presence of mind to bring Jimmy with me to keep from getting stomped out. We each struggled to be the first one up, but made it to our feet at about the same time. Then, we stopped.
Neither of us advanced. We took a moment to gather ourselves. I'd certainly had enough, and I hoped Jimmy had, too. The crowd, bloodthirsty, began chanting "Round two! Round two!" I looked over at Jimmy. He looked over at me. Our hands were down. One of the dudes in his crew walked right up to me. "Wassup, man, you down for round two?" I didn't want to say yes. I couldn't say no. I just shrugged. As clear winner, the decision was really up to Jimmy. Was he in the mood to kick my ass some more? He began heading towards the shirt and backpack he'd taken off before the fight started. It was over.
It wasn't until I got home that I got a clear idea of the damage. Both of my eyes were darkened, and would turn completely black overnight. I had a fat lip, multiple knots on my head and my entire face was swollen. Jimmy had a split lip and a puffy right side of the face. He may have even lost some blood through his nose, or maybe I'm just imagining that to make this story sound a bit better. Either way, the victor was clear.
I didn't feel as bad as when I was bullied by Tarik or Rodrigo.
I didn't feel bad at all. I felt great.
The adrenaline from the fight stayed with me for the rest of the day. Judging from the treatment I got from my boys, you'd think I knocked Jimmy clean into next week. To top it all off, the next day Gissenia actually came up and started talking to me in the lunchroom, back eyes and all. I'd never even said a word to Gissenia because she was just so, so fine, and that day she came up to me.
I wasn't an early enough bloomer to capitalize on Gissenia's newfound interest, but I learned that day that it's better to lose a fight than to be a coward.
I started coming into my own after that, and it wasn't only about getting more daps in the hallway or having more girls' lipstick on my cheek. From that point on, standing up for myself actually kept me from having to deal with bullies. It earned me respect. In college, I fought my biggest opponent ever. As a scrawny freshman, I stood up to a Philly dude in his mid-30s who relished coming onto Penn's campus and punking all of pampered Ivy Leaguers. He was about my height, but this dude's muscles had muscles. I knew how to to defend myself by then, but he was so much stronger that he wrestled me to the ground and choked me within an inch of consciousness before letting go. He could have killed me. He didn't because he respected me, and knew I wouldn't allow myself to be bullied no matter what price I had to pay.
Later on, we became friends. The same guy who had beaten me, admired me—for the same reason people love movies like 300, about entire societies that would rather perish than be pushed around. For the same reason Native Americans are revered for opting to be wiped out rather than be enslaved. For the same reason that Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and John F. Kennedy are regarded as heroes and not fools for being willing to die rather than stand for injustice. People, even bullies, love courage.
What people despise is fear and insecurity, and more often than not it's because it reminds them of their own weaknesses. Bullies don't bully people because they don't like them. They bully people because they don't like themselves. You can't talk a bully out of not bullying. You can't ask politely. You can't try to appeal to their sense of morality and convince them that you're deserving of better treatment. Protests and petitions aren't going to do anything to improve their sense of worth. That goes for bullies so insecure they'll attack a complete stranger to gain acceptance into a gang, to the bullies so insecure that a promotion in rank means more to them than human beings' civil rights. Whether you're a sixth grader at I.S. 73, or a man or a woman going about your business on the streets of New York City, there's only one way to stop a bully: by refusing to let them put their hands on you without your permission, and demanding your respect.
When I walk around New York City getting stares from police officers who think they can put their hands on me whenever they want, I feel ashamed. I've never been stopped and frisked, and I never will be. I'm loyal to my father's lesson that fighting is to be avoided unless someone seeks to physically impose themselves on me. I'm cool stopping. I'm cool showing ID. I'm even cool emptying my pockets, no matter what's in them. But should the day come that an officer, or a civilian, or a soldier, or any human being on this planet, attempt to put their hands on me without my permission, I will resist to the furthest extent my living body will allow. I will not live in fear and submission. Such a life seems to me to be not worth living at all. A law-abiding citizen who does not have the right to determine who may or may not touch them cannot be called "free." And freedom, my nation has taught me, is one of our most sacred ideals.
I'm less disappointed in self-loathing police officers who terrorize communities to meet illegal quotas than I am with people who continue to do nothing but complain. These people continue to pretend that there is promise in asking for respect rather than showing through their actions that they will stand for nothing less. These are people who submit because they're afraid of taking a beating.
No beating that I can ever take, whether it is physical, legal or financial, can compare to the shame of being a coward.
I learned that a long time ago from Jimmy Nuñez. Thanks, Jimmy.