Mistaken Identity

 Love your program. This is one of the few stories in my uneventful life maybe worth retelling; it's all true...


       This is a story about how mistaken identity and prejudice can lead to bad decisions and unfortunate consequences.


       In the fall of 1968 I was a sophomore at a small, Christian college in the Midwest. Three semesters, in those days, had transformed me from a nattily dressed, stuck up high school student into a New Left searcher, civil rights advocate, SDS member and wannabe hippie. I didn’t realize that all those aspirations didn’t really add up, or that attaining some sort of negated some of the others. But I was younger then…


My conservative, middle class college didn’t offer many role models for a white boy aspiring to social justice and hippiedom, and few minorities of any kind to support. But there was one guy who was both. Clarence Triplett, a year ahead of me, was one of maybe a dozen African-Americans in a student body of about 900. He went around, always quietly, sporting a beard and an early moderate Afro, wearing a poncho and a bell on a lanyard around his neck. I didn’t talk much with Clarence, but I admired his stance. So I grew a beard, made a poncho from a blanket, and procured a bronze bell from a head shop in Chicago’s Old Town. Clarence was the real deal, and I wanted to be a reasonable facsimile. If imitation is the sincerest from of flattery, I was kneeling at Clarence’s feet.


One autumn day me and my room mate, Mike, were walking down the tranquil main street of our college’s suburban home town. Mike was short-haired and conventionally dressed, but I was by then long haired, well-bearded, cloaked in my poncho, and wearing the bell, tinkling with every step. From across the street, on the steps of the library, two fellows, whom I quickly stereotyped as “townies,” shouted cat calls: “Nice bell you got there, asshole;“ or some such.


Having yet to reconcile my peaceful hippie with my inner smart ass, I replied that if they liked my bell so much, they could come on over and get it. Mike and I turned and kept walking.


Moments later we alerted to foot steps pounding the pavement behind us. Our taunters had taken me up, run across the street and were closing at warp speed. Mike stopped, while I kept walking. But I soon stopped and turned to see that one of the pair had halted near my friend, while the other continued in headlong pursuit of me. I braced to meet the oncoming assault.


I was no fighter; maybe it would have gone better for my attacker if I was. I didn’t do fighting but I’d been a state champion high school swimmer and at around 200 pounds, was more an immovable object than my assailant had supposed. He launched himself at me, and probably to his surprise as well as my own, I remained standing, clasping him to my breast. Not knowing how to fight properly, I threw him through the plate glass window of a jewelry store.


       My assailant’s shocked friend ran to his aid and me and Mike hightailed it back to our dorm. All was quiet for a few hours until the grapevine brought news that Clarence, the harmless and blameless black hippie, had recently been taken from the dorm in handcuffs by the police, accused of what I had done.


       Realizing the mistake and possible consequences for Clarence, I turned myself in to the Resident Advisor, who called the Dean, who soberly pronounced this an incident “with possible racial overtones.” I was taken to the police station whereupon Clarence was released. The college quickly posted bond for me, which was easier, apparently, than posting bond for Clarence, who was probably presumed guilty for being black.


       As it turned out, the fellows attacking me believed they were jumping Clarence. Even the cheek to cheek encounter with the guy I heaved through the window did not register with him that I was not the black hippie Clarence, and so it was the easily identified and singular Clarence who got hauled in. After my confession, me and my assailant were charged with “fighting” and given a court date. The cops told me it took 214 stitches to sew the other guy up.


       At the trial my hair was cut, the beard was gone and I was wearing a Brooks Brothers’ suit instead of a dirty blanket. The other defendant appeared in jeans and a sweat shirt. Though I felt myself to be the innocent party, my counter-party’s 214 stitches and my own evident sartorial and class advantages inclined me to what I hoped was merciful understatement when queried by the judge: “Okay; tell me what you say happened.”


       “Your honor, my room mate and I were walking down one side of the street when we were accosted by the other defendant here and his friend from the opposite side. I said something back and we kept walking. Just after that I realized that the defendant and his friend had crossed the street and were coming for us. I stopped, and when I did, the defendant attacked me. In the struggle, I guess he fell through the window.”


       The judge nodded gravely, turned to the other chap and asked “Is that what happened? Did you attack him?”


       His reply was more dramatic than my testimony. He said: “Well, sir, it was more like I jumped on him.”


Which convicted him and exonerated me. But I could not help but feel that, though obviously not blameless, he was in some sense a victim. Because the prejudice and narrow mindedness that spurred him to attack Clarence also so blinded him that he could not see, even when literally face to face with me, that his actual victim was not his intended victim. Because in court, by my being better dressed, presumptively better educated and more privileged than him, he was more guilty than me, even though it was me who threw him through the window, and he was the guy who got 214 stitches and had to pay for the window plus a $275 fine. Which in 1968 was real money. It seemed kind of like the guy who set out to punish Clarence for being a black hippie was punished by the judge for being a poor white, and I walked.


On the other hand, if the guy had actually got a piece of Clarence like he meant to, rather than the multiple lacerations he got from me, he’d probably have thought he’d done himself proud. In which case he got what he deserved.




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