Otto Warmbier Didn’t Ask For Anything

Otto Warmbier Didn’t Ask For Anything

I still remember the last time I got into a fight; it was Friday, June 14, 1996.  I was living in New Orleans at the time.  My team, the Seattle SuperSonics had just defeated the record-setting Bulls in game 5 of the NBA finals. I grew up west of the Mississippi, and north of the […]

I still remember the last time I got into a fight; it was Friday, June 14, 1996.  I was living in New Orleans at the time.  My team, the Seattle SuperSonics had just defeated the record-setting Bulls in game 5 of the NBA finals.

I grew up west of the Mississippi, and north of the Mason-Dixon line, and so, I didn’t fully grasp the racial politics of the Crescent City; I had never visited before moving there, and had no family there, either.  My high school was one of those all-white suburban schools where everybody goes to college.

No one told me white people are not supposed to go to Pennyland late at night.

It’s been a while, so, assuming it’s still there, Pennyland is a video arcade.  You know, back when they used to put video games in big boxes, and you had to stand up in front of it to play after putting your quarter in.  The game I used to play there was NBA Jam, and I’d played it on that machine fairly consistently, so I had quite a record going.  Now that evening, there were these two guys who’d been standing there watching me play, trying to shark me on the next game, but I was already on my last quarter so I didn’t have anything to wager.

Then my game went into overtime, but of course I had nothing left.  I asked one of the guys if I could borrow a quarter.  He said OK, and went off to get some change.  While I waited, his friend put his quarter in the machine.  Now I just assumed he’d heard me asking to borrow a quarter to play my overtime, and so I hit continue.  What followed was the weirdest interaction.

“You stole my quarter!” he whined.

I tried to explain.  I did.  But it didn’t seem to matter what I said; he was upset I’d stolen his quarter, and that was that.  I still remember his face; dark skin with an afro, and he had a gold tooth with the capital letter A in it.  Big guy, too, my height, and I’m 6’3”.

Next thing I knew, my glasses were shattered as his fist met my face.  Then he failed away, I failed away (I think).  I can still hear the pounding on the side of my head every time his fist connected.  I tried to grab him, and tackle him to the floor, but he pulled away and threw some more punches.  He kept his distance pretty well, and wouldn’t allow me to get close, so I kicked him.  Then he picked up a chair and made to throw it at me, but I kicked that away and gave him another side kick.  Knocked him back a little.

Then I got attacked from the side; some random stranger started pounding on me out of nowhere.  Then another.  I lost count; at least four or five people had joined in to gang up on me.  I thought I was going to die; I started to wonder if someone was going to pull out a gun or something.  It was all I could do to duck down and protect my head while someone tried to pull my arms out of the way.  And still, they kept at it.

Then, just as suddenly as it began, everyone left.  I watched as A-Tooth picked up my Sonics hat on his way out the door.

And everyone, and I mean everyone, had exactly the same thing to say to me.

“Why on Earth would you be in Pennyland late at night?”

Because I was privileged, that’s why.

I honestly didn’t grasp how deep the anger black people in New Orleans had against whites ran.  Don’t get me wrong; I’d seen Eyes on the Prize, Roots, and every other thing I was supposed to see.  It’s one thing to be told it, but another thing entirely to experience it firsthand.  Like I said, I didn’t grow up in that, and no one ever told me white people weren’t allowed at Pennyland.

And as I read the comments, the vitriol against Otto Warmbier for going to North Korea, I can’t help but remember A-Tooth.  I wonder if he still has my Sonics hat.

It’s so easy to read the news, to hear the testimony of people who escaped with their lives, to see the reports of the attitudes North Korean leadership hold against the United States.  It’s easy to sit back and judge some American who got into trouble over there and say “obviously, he should have known better.”

And I just don’t know.  Maybe it’s not always that obvious.


Michael Patrick Lewis is a teacher, and bestselling author of Preferred Rewards.&nbsp, And if you think Otto’s fate had anything to do with a poster, you probably think I got beat-up over a quarter.

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