Excerpt from Chapter 1
It’s such a unique experience for ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the world who’ve fortunately never felt a bullet violently enter their body that when people meet someone like me, a person who’s actually been shot and lived to tell the tale, well, they kind of want to hear my personal “what‑it‑was- like- getting-shot” tale. But first, they have questions. Boy, do they have questions.
What did it feel like to have a bullet rip into your body?
Did you think you were going to die?
Did you see a white light?
Is there a heaven?
Is there a hell?
Did you call out for your mother?
Can I see the bullet that’s still lodged in your back?
Did you piss yourself?
Were you wearing clean underwear?
Yeah, I’ve heard all of the questions.
It didn’t help that even the well-meaning people in my life inadvertently reduced me from being the person they know — the burgeoning athlete, the happy‑go‑lucky guy that everyone liked to have around because his personality is so warm, bubbly, and welcoming — to “the guy you read about in the news who took a bullet to the chest.” Even my father, the ex‑Major League Baseball player Bobby Tolan, mentioned my experience to every single person we met.
“Did you meet my son, Robbie? He’s playing Minor League baseball for the Bay Area Toros. He loves sunsets, little puppies, and helping old people cross streets. And hey, did I mention that he was shot in the chest by a Bellaire police officer last year? Wanna see the bullet? Robbie, lift up your shirt and show the nice woman your gunshot wound. What was that? Oh sure, we’d love to super-size our hamburger order. Thanks for asking.”
The undeniable fact is that I became a celebrity for getting shot by the police, and I hated it. Oh, I didn’t hate the celebrity part. As a kid, I’d dreamed about being a celebrity, a sports star that little kids admired and wanted pictures of for their scrapbook, but I never wanted celebrity by painful happenstance like it happened to me. This was a cruel celebrity, where I’d turned into, at least in my hometown of Houston, Texas, a freak show. Nowhere was safe, not even the spaces where I used to feel like I belonged. I was bombarded with questions and requests as “that guy who got shot” from church members, restaurant diners, and even fellow moviegoers.
And being a private person in normal times, I naturally became paranoid, as I could hear the overly loud whispers from people around me. “Isn’t that the guy who got shot?” They’d stare, but ultimately were too afraid to come over to me and ask. I know that most people meant no harm, but it still upset me. I’m a human being. I have achievements and accolades for using my God-given talents, but it doesn’t take any talent to be shot, and I’m not proud that I’m the poster boy for being shot by the police. But regardless, Pandora’s Box had been opened, and control over how people perceived me was out of my hands because I’ve found that the public is endlessly fascinated with my story.
Maybe it’s because we see so much violence in our media that we’re captivated by the details of real-life gunshot victims but fail to recognize the long-term impact being shot has on real-life people.
Gun violence is so cartoonish to us. When Hollywood shoots someone on the big or small screen, the character taking the bullet is typically someone the scriptwriters have convinced us is bad. So after we’ve spent an hour or two watching their bad acts, we end up hoping they’ll get what’s coming to them in the form of a few slugs to the dome. After all, they wouldn’t be getting shot in the first place if they weren’t truly bad guys, right?
In my opinion, Hollywood likes making their criminal characters blacks and Latinos — the outsider others in this Land of Freedom, minorities who are by their very existence irrationally scary to good American God- fearing white people (and if you make the villain a Muslim, whoa baby, Katie bar the door, and watch how the bullets fly!).
So guess what? It turns out that you, the viewer, aren’t that upset when black or brown bad guys get shot by the white hero because you probably thought black and brown people were more likely to be guilty before you ordered your first ten-dollar bag of movie popcorn. And if it’s a heroic white cop doing the shooting and killing, well that’s even better.
“Do you feel lucky punk? Well . . . do ya?”
Remember Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan? The psychotic 1970s Dirty Harry cop character became one of the most popular movie characters of all time after saying that iconic line as he pointed his .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, at an injured black criminal’s head. What we tend to forget is that earlier in the scene, Eastwood had stood in the middle of the street, blowing away five other black bank robbers, while he never once stopped chewing on his sandwich. No time for that “You have the right to remain silent” bullshit in Callahan’s white cop fantasy law-and-order world. Just point, shoot, and sneer as the dead black bodies pile up at your feet.
And audiences cheered for Eastwood’s white policeman vigilantism.
They cheered with a sense of righteous indignation that the black bad guys had finally gotten what they deserved. No questions.
I’m pretty sure white moviegoers would say that they didn’t see the color of the criminals, just that they were criminals. That’s what Americans do: pretend they don’t see race.
“I wouldn’t care if the criminal was black, white, or purple,” the self- proclaimed nonracist would say, making sure that all of the purple people were accounted for in their anti-racist world.” (I always wondered how the purple people felt about being named in the litany of people most people have no prejudices against). “I just wanted to see the criminal get his.”
I don’t believe these people. Why? Because these weren’t just criminals, but black criminals, and that made it different. Remember that America had once declared that black folks, as a general principle, had no rights a white man was bound to respect, as Supreme Court Judge Taney said about the enslaved African Dred Scott. So what the hell rights does a black criminal have? His black life doesn’t matter, and mine doesn’t either.
And that’s a crucial concept to grasp if you want to understand my story. How me being shot isn’t just some isolated incident, some unlucky circumstance that was an honest mistake that could have happened to anyone. But some people do believe that, mainly because they assume that most white police officers are naturally good when it comes to their interactions with black people. But no, me getting shot wasn’t an honest mistake. My being shot is part of a trend that has existed as long as this country has existed. And that leads to another uncomfortable belief about this country we call America:
I think America loves shooting black people.
Yeah, it can be argued that America loves shooting people in general, a sort of #allshootingsmatter philosophy, but I’d argue that it particularly enjoys shooting black people. Always has and always will. Even when lynching black people was as common in the United States as picking up a nickel bottle of Coca-Cola at the local five and dime, white Americans regularly riddled the lynched black dead body with bullets as one final exclamation point of violence. It wasn’t enough to be dead by hanging; the black body had to be shot, because even dead, the blackness represented an existential threat. And the only power the white people had to extinguish that threat in their white supremacist psyche was to unload as much lead as possible into the dead black body. Often we’d find out later that the white people knew that the black person they’d killed had been innocent all along, and still they’d shot the body to pieces with a maniacal glee. Innocence just didn’t matter, just like black lives didn’t matter.
Not much has changed.
It was the same maniacal glee George Zimmerman tapped into when he killed seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who was minding his own business as he walked through an apartment complex to catch the second half of the NBA All-Star game with a bag of Skittles, but Trayvon would die that day at the hands of a white man who thought his black presence on earth needed his personal justification.
America would label the innocent Martin a thug, a scary black menace to white society. They’d turn him into a drug fiend because Martin had the gall to be an American teenager who’d been caught with weed in his school locker. It was as though because he’d been born with black skin, he was a criminal first, with the right to be declared innocent only if he could prove it. Even in death.
“Do you feel lucky punk? Well . . . do ya?”
It was the same glee that cheered when Mike Brown was blown away in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white cop, Officer Darren Wilson. His dead body was left to lie for hours in the middle of the street, given less dignity than that of a dead dog being retrieved by animal services. Earlier, Brown had been seen on video allegedly stealing cigars from a local liquor store, and for that, a lot of white America judged that he deserved the death penalty, even as he knelt with his hands up to peacefully surrender to the police.
“Do you feel lucky punk? Well . . . do ya?”
Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old black kid playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park, was shot and killed in less than five seconds after two cops rolled up in a squad car. The white cops would say that Rice was “menacing,” and the head of the Cleveland police union would say that Rice was a “twelve- year-old in an adult body.” Take a second to let that sink in. Instead of taking responsibility or showing remorse for the tragic death of a child, a grown adult would try to justify the killing of a twelve- year- old kid by saying that he was a big kid.
Thug. Brute. Criminal. All gleeful words used to rationalize bullets entering black bodies across the country by police officers. Dead black bodies shot by white police officers spurred the Black Lives Matter movement and protests and the ubiquitous social media hashtags that identified the steady stream of black lives cut short by police violence, but in some corners of America, their killings were enthusiastically encouraged by people who chanted, “All lives matter.” I, too, was shot as a result of the same scared white passion for violence against black bodies that Dirty Harry had when blowing away his black perps. I was shot by cops, who, according to recent psychological studies, see “young black men . . . as taller, more muscular and more threatening than comparably sized white men, a bias that may prompt more aggressive law enforcement response towards them.” All of that was going against me, except something different happened when I got shot.
And that brings me to the evening that would change my life forever, when I was shot in the chest for doing nothing but existing in this world as a young black man. To the people who would love to criminalize me for my black skin, I want to say this:
I was innocent before being shot. I was innocent while being shot. And I’m innocent as I live today. And for all the questions I’ve been asked, most people miss the ones that I ask myself every day.
What is it like to have your life destroyed in mere seconds? How do you psychologically, physically, and emotionally overcome nearly dying?
What happens when American society and the criminal justice system turns their back on you and say, “Your black life doesn’t matter”?
How do you get over the very real guilt of living through a shooting and the havoc that your continued existence has on the people who love you?
No one knows the answers to those questions except for me. And it’s been a ten-year journey into hell for me to find them.
My name is Robbie Tolan, and this is my story.